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The Perils of Scientific Illiteracy

“Apple employs 700,000 factory workers in China because we can’t find the 30,000 engineers in the U.S. that we need on site at our plants,” Apple CEO Steve Jobs told President Obama. “If you could educate those engineers, we could move more manufacturing jobs here.” Jobs made the point that American competitiveness was being hollowed out by immigration policies that educate a growing number of foreign engineers at the best U.S. universities then immediately send them home.

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Key Takeaways

  • Scientific literacy is the foundation of America’s competitiveness.
  • CEOs of both tech and non-tech companies have a vested interest in advancing it within their enterprises and communities.
  • CEOs have a role to play in creating incentives to encourage U.S. students to pursue science, engineering and math careers in the corporate world.
  • CEOs of companies big and small can support academic partnerships, internships, mentorships and ways to inject more scientific talent into the worker pipeline. One of the longest running industry-education partnerships, the Xerox Science Consultant Program, partners Xerox scientists and engineers with elementary school teachers.

Early in 2010, Steve Jobs, the visionary founder and former CEO of Apple, arranged a small dinner between President Obama and six or seven Silicon Valley CEOs who could explain the innovation challenges facing America. “Apple employs 700,000 factory workers in China because we can’t find the 30,000 engineers in the U.S. that we need on site at our plants,” Jobs told the President, according to the recent authorized biography by Walter Isaacson. “If you could educate those engineers, we could move more manufacturing jobs here.”

Jobs was so concerned about the disintegration of U.S. competitiveness that in the last year of his life, he worked with other CEOs to encourage investment in technical education that actually stays in the U.S. He made the point that American competitiveness was being hollowed out by immigration policies that educate a growing number of foreign engineers at the best U.S. universities then immediately send them home. Jobs suggested that any foreign student who earns a science or engineering degree in the U.S. should have a green card stapled to his or her diploma.

CEOs across the country are alarmed at the dearth of scientific and technical talent in the U.S. Apple may be able to relocate R&D facilities to Singapore, Finland or wherever the technically proficient workers reside, but most companies have little recourse but to recruit locally. At a time when even automobile assembly jobs require advanced technical and analytical skills, some CEOs are worried that the pipeline of skilled workers will be inadequate to meet the demands of a complex, global work environment. Others are concerned that scientific illiteracy will result in workers making avoidable mistakes.

Scientific Illiteracy

Top executives are not immune from scientific illiteracy. In his new book, Thinking Fast, and Slow, Daniel Kahneman, winner of the 2004 Nobel Prize for economics, recalls visiting the chief investment officer of a large financial firm who had just invested tens of millions of dollars in Ford Motor Company stock. When asked why, the executive replied that he had a very good experience with Fords. “He made it very clear that he trusted his gut feeling and was satisfied with his decision,” Kahneman writes, adding that he found it remarkable that the executive had apparently not considered the one question—is Ford stock currently underpriced?—that a rational decision-maker in his position would deem relevant.

The executive in this case was guided by what scientists term the “affect heuristic,” in which judgments and decisions are guided directly by feelings. That’s just one of the many perils of scientific illiteracy. Other pitfalls include the inability to assess risk by falling into the traps of framing (executives are more likely to take risks if told that the success rate is 90 percent, rather than the failure rate is 10 percent) and loss aversion (most people would rather choose to receive a sure $40 than have a 50 percent chance of making $100; scientific literacy insists the bet is a winner.) Evidence abounds that corporate decision-making, from investments to acquisitions to hiring, is replete with such insufficient recourse to scientific literacy (see below, “What is Scientific Literacy?”).

Where We Stand

The U.S. spends more than $100 billion every year to support a massive infrastructure for science. In years past, the results were stunningly effective. Americans developed a vaccine for polio, put a man on the moon, decoded the genome and created the Internet. And yet the U.S. is also home to a strain of anti-intellectualism that is suspicious of scientists, rejects discomforting evidence and is hostile to scientific principles that conflict with deeply-held doctrines. The global leadership in science education that the U.S. built after Sputnik has been eroded to the point that America is lagging on many indicators:

  • R&D: In 2010, for the first time, the federal contribution to R&D fell below 1 percent of GDP, which is a commonly accepted minimum goal for economically developed countries, according to the National Science Board. North America’s share of global R&D activity fell from 40 percent to 35 percent between 1996 and 2007 while the Asia-Pacific region’s share rose from 24 percent to 31 percent.
  • Patent filings: In 2009, the U.S. ranked second (behind Japan) in patent filings. By 2015, China is expected to lead the world in patent filings, according to Thompson Reuters.
  • Scientific Literacy: In a 2009 national survey by the California Academy of Sciences only 47 percent of American adults were able give an approximation of how much of the Earth’s surface is covered with water, and 50 percent thought that early humans co-existed with dinosaurs.
  • High School Science and Math Scores: Out of 34 countries, U.S. high school students ranked 17th in science and 25th in math in 2009, according to the Program for International Student Assessment, although some researchers reject a link to the quantity or quality of American scientists.
  • Self-esteem: The sole measure in which the average American high school student leads the world.
An Ample Shortage

Many CEOs agree with the charge that the U.S. is not producing enough science, technology, engineering and math (“STEM”) graduates to maintain U.S. competitiveness. Yet, most academics say there is no such shortage. What do the facts say? Here’s where a modest grounding in scientific literacy comes in handy because the facts are in disagreement.

If there were a shortage of STEM graduates, Economics 101 would predict that STEM salaries would be on the rise. And that’s exactly the case. For example, from 1998 to 2009, the inflation- adjusted salaries for industry-employed Ph.D. chemists went up 12 percent, according to the American Chemistry Council. “For an economist, rising salaries is the very definition of a shortage,” says Anthony P. Carnevale, director of the Center on Education and the Workforce at Georgetown University.

At the same time, the number of science graduates produced by U.S. universities has steadily increased every year since 2000, the National Science Foundation estimates. The U.S. produced 68,735 Bachelor’s level engineers in 2009, plus an additional 33,755 at the Master’s level. In fact, three times as many Americans earn degrees in science and engineering each year as can find work in those fields, according to Science & Engineering Indicators 2010, a publication of the National Science Board. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that 29,000 electrical engineers were out of work in the second quarter of 2009, an unemployment rate of 8.6 percent, virtually identical to national unemployment overall. “There is, in fact, no scientist shortage,” declares Harvard economics professor Richard Freeman, an authority on the scientific work force.

However, American companies are moving R&D facilities overseas in a quest to hire scientists they say they can’t hire domestically. So if American universities are, in fact, producing STEM graduates, what’s happening to them?

One issue is that incentives have shifted in such a way that STEM-trained graduates are being diverted into non-STEM occupations. Out of every 100 students with a Bachelor’s degree, only 19 graduate with a STEM degree. Of those 19, only half are working in STEM occupations 10 years after graduation, reports Nicole Smith, senior economist at the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce. “At the end of the day, the perceived shortages are due to the movement/diversion of STEM talent into non-STEM occupations.”

Diversions in the Pipeline

Too many of America’s world-class engineers follow the money, opting to use their skills in building hedge fund portfolios on Wall Street, rather than building bridges on Main Street. Some STEM graduates eschew the corporate track altogether, favoring the entrepreneurial route. (See “STEM Diversion”.)

Corporate America also contributes to the distortion of incentives. Businesses typically thrust a management track on STEM superstars, depriving the company of the very technical expertise of which it claims a shortage. When scientists go into management, they tend to leave science behind.

If the goal is to inspire America’s ablest students to become scientists, says sociologist Harold Salzman of the Heldrich Center for Workforce Development at Rutgers University, the nation must undertake reforms—but not of curriculum or the schools. Instead, national policy must reconstruct a career path that will once again promise people at the beginning of their careers a reasonable hope that spending 10 or more years preparing to be scientists will provide a satisfactory career. “Labor markets are demand-driven, not supply-driven,” Salzman says. “When there’s demonstrated demand and that demand is clearly signaled by rising salaries, the labor market responds.”

Experts also reject the conclusion that the lackluster showing of American students in international comparisons threatens the supply of potential scientists. That’s because scientists tend to come not from the ranks of average students but the very top scorers. “In this regard, American students compete well with the best international students,” says Michael Teitelbaum, a national authority on science training and a demographer with the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. “The best empirical evidence is that U.S. students in the top deciles are among the best in the world,” he says, adding that the national average is depressed by the low performance of the bottom deciles.

Scientific education will be an afterthought until innovation in education is rewarded as abundantly as it is rewarded in other fields, says Daniel Zajfman, the president of The Weizmann Institute of Science, one of the world’s leading multidisciplinary research institutions. “Nobody has ever become rich providing scientific education, the way they have by developing software or imaging technology.” Zajfman is not a supporter of mass privatization of education, but is making a statement about incentives. The best investment with the least risk for any society, he insists, is the human brain.

“Only 47 percent of Americans adults were able to give an approximation of how much of the Earth’s surface is covered with water, and 50 percent thought that early humans coexisted with dinosaurs.”

The human brain, even among the most developed of the species, sometimes betrays us. In the final months before his death, Steve Jobs responded to the cancer that would ultimately claim his life by veering between a rigorous evidence-based, scientific approach—he had his DNA sequenced and, eventually, a liver transplant—and a series of alternate therapies—herbal remedies, a fruit juice diet and meditation. No one may ever know if Jobs’ fascination with alternative treatments or his decision to delay surgery by nine months hastened his death. Walter Isaacson called Jobs’ determination to stay ahead of his cancer, “magical thinking.” Individuals are entitled to make survival decisions by whatever conjecture they prefer. Societies may not have that luxury.

What is Scientific Literacy?

Scientific literacy, according to the National Science Foundation, calls for the knowledge and understanding of scientific concepts and processes required to optimize economic productivity, inform personal decision-making, and participate in civic decision-making. Scientific literacy is less about knowing scientific facts than being able to ask, find or determine answers to questions derived from curiosity about everyday experiences.

A person who is scientifically literate has the ability to describe, explain and predict natural phenomena. Scientific literacy entails being able to read with understanding articles about science in the popular press and to engage in social conversation about the validity of the conclusions. A literate citizen should be able to evaluate the quality of scientific information on the basis of its source, have the capacity to pose and evaluate arguments based on evidence and to apply conclusions from such arguments.

What Engineering Gap?

An oft-quoted claim is that China and India produce more engineers than the U.S. The raw statistics support the claim. A study conducted by Duke University’s Pratt School of Engineering found that in 2008 the U.S. graduated 222,000 engineers compared to 660,000 in China. However, the numbers are misleading as to quality. The skills of a majority of Chinese “engineers” are often likened to that of “technicians” in the U.S. A 2008 McKinsey study finds that only 10 percent of China’s engineering graduates are considered employable in global firms, compared to more than 80 percent of U.S. engineering graduates. Therefore, adjusting for quality, China is actually graduating fewer internationally qualified engineers than the U.S., says Harold Salzman of Rutgers University.

International Science Students

The reality today is that America’s university labs and high-tech industries are increasingly staffed by foreign-born technical and scientific students on temporary visas. The growing number of international students is making it harder for American students to get into American graduate schools. Three percent more international students received offers of admission for the 2010-11 academic year than in the previous year; for the same period, 1 percent fewer U.S. students were admitted, according to the Council of Graduate Schools.

Businesses Step Up to the Challenge

Businesses large and small want to be part of the solution. Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Facebook, famously donated $100 million to improve schools in Newark, N.J. Other companies are targeting education and training science, technology and technical trade skills.

Prosetta Antiviral: A San Francisco-based company with about 50 employees, Prosetta Antiviral participates in Bridge to Biotech, a City College of San Francisco internship program that helps students without a science background gain laboratory certification. “Our experience has been amazing,” says co-CEO Vishwanath R. Lingappa, a former professor who initially volunteered to participate as form of corporate social responsibility. But he was soon delighted by the effectiveness of the program. “About a fifth of our full-time employees, including two team leaders, are now former Bridge to Biotech students.” This is particularly impressive outcome because none of the students had bachelor’s degrees in anything, much less in science. “When they come to us, the students have a basic foundation on how to do research and that’s an incredible value for us to add to,” Lingappa notes.

IBM: Through its Academic Initiative—an academic/corporate partnership to supplement core science curricula—IBM is helping students around the world prepare for the jobs of future providing no-charge access to technology and expertise in the classroom to help students develop the skills they need for 21st Century jobs. “IBM’s goal is to help develop future leaders who understand how information technology can be applied to society’s toughest challenges in areas like health care, transportation, urban development and energy,” says Bernard S. Meyerson, vice president for innovation and leader of the IBM’s Global University Relations Function. The model of the expert has changed, Meyerson says. “IBM is looking for a specific type of expert. We used to look for great depth. We still need great depth, but we also need great breadth to conduct complex business analytics in parallel environments. There’s a definite shortage of people who combine both assets.” The important thing is to look forward, not backward. “The key issue is to examine how the skills that are being produced today map against the needs of the future.”

“IBM has an uncanny ability to forecast into the future and envision a shortage of talent with the interdisciplinary skills they will need,” says Fordham Professor R.P. Raghupathi, adding that Big Blue donated the latest business analytics software for classroom use. “Students can now get hands-on experience with the actual tools to create the dashboards and models that will allow executives to dip into the vast quantities of data that their companies control,” he says. “The tools are available, the software is available, and now the curriculum is developing to meet the demands for students with functional skills in marketing, media, and business to use the tools.”

Grainger: A $7.2 billion maintenance, repair and operating products company serving manufacturers, hospitals, and hotels, Grainger works with the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC) to encourage and train the next generation of skilled trades people. “Our vision is to create an environment that elevates awareness about the need training and advancement of these technical jobs and skilled trades a priority,” says CEO Jim Ryan. “Too often, people still think of these jobs as dirty and menial, when in fact they require advanced problem-solving and analytical skills.”

Grainger supports individual students by giving them the resources and tools they need to successfully enter the workforce. Through the Grainger Tools for Tomorrow scholarship program, the company has provided more than 350 scholarships to students at almost 100 community colleges across the country. In addition, as an incentive to complete their studies, Grainger awards students a toolkit customized for their skilled trades when they graduate. “We view investing in students as a path to investing in the future vitality of both industry and our local communities,” Ryan says.

STEM Diversion

Only 8 percent of students who enter college and obtain a BA end up with a science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) degree and are working in a STEM occupation after 10 years.

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Source: Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce

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