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    Politics And US Innovation: It Has To Be About The Future, Not Just The Present
    By Michael White | October 19th 2008 04:24 PM | 14 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
    About Michael

    Welcome to Adaptive Complexity, where I write about genomics, systems biology, evolution, and the connection between science and literature,

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    The US Presidential candidates on fostering science and technology innovation:

    For decades, the United States dominated the technological revolution sweeping the globe. The nation’s science and engineering skills produced vast gains in productivity and wealth, powered its military and made it the de facto world leader.

    Today, the dominance is eroding. In 2002, the nation’s high-technology balance of trade went south, and it never came back. By 2007, the annual gap between high-tech exports and imports had grown to $53 billion. The gap this year is expected to be the largest ever — approaching $60 billion.

    Both presidential candidates, in their careers and in their campaigns, have made detailed arguments for how the nation should deal with technology rivals, sharpen its competitive edge and improve what experts call its "ecology of innovation."

    This doesn't get much play in most election coverage, but both US history and a glance at other developed nations make it clear that a government's science and technology policies have a big impact on the health of a nation's S&T competitiveness. Some factors that have made the US outstanding are great universities that provide excellent education and do world-class research with merit-based federal funding, as well as a culture of entrepreneurial innovation that produces outstanding technology companies.

    As the world gets more competitive, we need to continue to support S&T at all stages - not just the entrepreneurs who turn science into technology, but also the students who aspire to be scientists and engineers, and the academic labs that produce the basic research driving hot areas like biotechnology.

    Some have criticized the call for more scientists and engineers. John Tierney makes a good point when he notes that right now, U.S. employers have a large foreign labor pool of S&T trained workers:

    The only “shortage” is of American-born scientists and engineers. But with so many talented foreigners competing for positions here in schools and laboratories, it’s entirely rational for American students to head into fields where their skills are in more demand — and harder to replace with foreign labor.

    But that's today, and the signs indicate that the labor pool is changing. The long and irrational process to obtain a visa has made it harder since 9-11 for foreign science PhDs (even ones from places like Canada) to take the jobs that American companies would like to offer them. This frustration, as Tierney notes, could be alleviated by streamlining the visa process and increasing the number of available visas for technically trained foreign workers. But we've now spent nearly eight years discouraging these people from staying, at the very moment when Europe, India, and China are working very hard to attract their US-trained expatriates back home with better funding and better institutions. On top of this, US federal science funding, which pays for much the work these foreign students do while they're being trained, has been declining. The US funding climate is still quite good compared with the rest of the world, but it won't stay that way if we stick with our current trends.

    The bottom line is that other nations are now competing more effectively than ever for the supply of foreign workers that have staffed US tech companies and universities, and by the time today's elementary school children are choosing their college majors, the US may very well desperately need more American-born science and math students.

    It's no secret why few American-born students choose science as a career option:

    Consider the economic fates of two bright college graduates, Jane and Jill, both 22. Jane excels at a top law school, and after graduation three years later, is wooed and hired by a top law firm at the going rate–$125,000 a year, with a year-end bonus of $25,000 to $50,000.

    Jill heads down the long trail to a PhD in physics, and after six Spartan years on graduate stipends rising to $20,000 a year, finally gets her degree. Tenure-track jobs appropriate to her rigorous training are scarce, but, more fortunate than her other classmates, she lands a good postdoc appointment–at $35,000 year, without health insurance or professional independence. Three years later, when attorney Jane is raking in $150,000 a year, plus bonuses, Jill is nail-biting over another postdoc appointment, with an unusually ample postdoc recompense of $45,000 per annum. Medicine and business management similarly trump science in earning power.

    Somehow this situation is going to have to change if we still want to be competitive 10 or 15 years down the line. As Tierney points out, some will take care of itself - when the supply of tech workers gets too low, companies will start offering PhD grads hefty signing bonuses. The National Institutes of Health has also instituted some reforms that should be continued, such as restructuring funding allocation to raise postdoc pay and benefits and keep postdoc training to less than five years.

    So in terms of the US election, it's heartening to see that both candidates recognize the need to nurture our S&T industry, but so far, Senator Obama proposals indicate that he takes a more comprehensive view of fostering innovation by going beyond R&D tax cuts, and focusing on education and basic research as well. Part of this no doubt reflects his choice of advisors, which include former NIH director Harold Varmus, who is pushing to keep basic research funding as an important element of Obama's S&T policy proposals.

    Should Senator McCain become president, he'd benefit from bringing actual scientists into his policy-making circle. This would achieve two goals: McCain would get better advice on an important element of our S&T community, and it would show that McCain recognizes that this issue is about evidence-based decision making, and not about ideology or partisanship.

    Since we're on the topic of politics, having lived in non-swing states much of my life, I'm enjoying the fact that I now live in a state that presidential candidates pay attention to:

    You get to hang out with 100,000 people under one of America's most spectacular national monuments.


    Comments

    Hank
    Jill heads down the long trail to a PhD in physics, and after six Spartan years on graduate stipends rising to $20,000 a year, finally gets her degree. Tenure-track jobs appropriate to her rigorous training are scarce, but, more fortunate than her other classmates, she lands a good postdoc appointment–at $35,000 year, without health insurance or professional independence. Three years later, when attorney Jane is raking in $150,000 a year, plus bonuses, Jill is nail-biting over another postdoc appointment, with an unusually ample postdoc recompense of $45,000 per annum. Medicine and business management similarly trump science in earning power.
    The distinction is that law firms (and private medicine) have little to do with reliance on government funding and academia. That is an argument for having less government funding in science. Prior to WW2 there was much less government funding for science, yet we did the best science in the world.

    We've created the stigma that the private sector will not fund basic research or that people who work in the private sector are for sale or less altruistic than people who work in academia.    Obviously, people who work in academia have a certain credibility because they do it despite the low pay, so they (you) care about society, but if post-doc salaries suddenly went way up, you would have people doing it just for the money - like the private sector.

    adaptivecomplexity
    I don't see how reliance on government funding has much to do with the scenario - the differences have to do with how training occurs and the labor supply. To become a lawyer, you go to law school for 3 years, paying for it yourself, on the expectation that when you get out you'll more than make up for the tuition. In fact medicine is a great parallel - you go through 4 years of poverty as a med student (paying your own tuition), and then the equivalent of a postdoc - residency, where you're also paid poorly, but when you get out, you're paid well in the private sector. Science training takes longer usually, because you really need more time to learn how to plan and carry out independent research projects. In the case of science, as Tierney points out, the demand for PhD graduates isn't so high, so when they get out, nobody is offering them huge bonuses. Nobody is stopping private firms from doing basic research - if they wanted to compete with the government, all they have to do is offer slightly higher salaries than academic postdoc fellowships (or maybe just a 401K plan!), and they would attract plenty of qualified basic researchers. Professors today generally don't look down on grad students who are not interested in academic jobs, and there is even less of a bias among grad students themselves. In fact, a lot of grad students today do go into the private sector, especially in biotech, but the salaries aren't that high because biotech companies don't have to offer huge salaries to attract highly qualified people. I suppose less government funding could fix that by reducing the number of PhD's in the labor pool, but just cutting federal research funding (which already works very well) in the hope that the private sector will have the incentive to pick up the slack is not the way to go. Government funding was still one of the major sources of funding before WWII, it's just that the whole scale of the scientific community grew tremendously after WWII. The number of scientists before WWII, especially in the US, was really small compared to what came later. It's not clear that the private sector would sustain the kind of large, successful basic research community that we have today. What incentive would they have to do so? Applies research is great - it gets you intellectual property and something you can sell. Basic research produces something that takes a long time and may benefit your competitor more than it does you.
    Mike
    Dang Michael....your bias is showing. Once again the concern is raised when a new Prez is optioned that one who favors lesser Govt. might affect an Industry that counts on Govt support. Quite the quandary don't you think? Who's the cutie your corrupting in the pic? Only 14 more days to worry...

    Per

    Hank
    You should have asked about the cool shirt he is wearing in his avatar photo! And of course he has a bias. He's in academia. If he cared about money he wouldn't be in academia. P.S. There's a 40% chance his daughter won't be a Democrat. That should make you happier. But using 'corrupted' in reference to a guy's kid will get you shot where I come from. You should feel lucky he is a Democrat.
    rholley
    Hank, Could you please explain your P.S., including where you come from? Nu înţeleg, being stuck over this side of the Pond.
    Robert H. Olley / Quondam Physics Department / University of Reading / England
    adaptivecomplexity
    You noticed the shirt!! I don't deny that I'm biased - what good would it be if nobody had an opinion around here? But, thanks to you Hank, we have a great forum here for discussing these issues - rather than being politically one-sided, or completely politically sanitized, we can have fun arguing.
    Mike
    Hank
    Heck yeah, I noticed. I was going to hire models to show off our excellent SB clothing goodness but I just found one!
    adaptivecomplexity
    One who favors lesser Govt. might affect an Industry that counts on Govt support.
    One of the reasons our basic science research is here is so damn good is the federal support that expanded after WWII. The National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation function extremely well in support of top notch science. We have a good thing - one of the best systems in the world, why break it? (I'm not implying that Bush has broken it; he hasn't - but the idea that the government should pull out of science funding is a suggestion to break it.) I honestly don't believe that cutting government funding and just waiting or hoping for the private sector to pick up the slack is a realistic way to fund basic science. The private sector does some very, very good S&T stuff, but the kind of basic research done in labs like the one I work in is not one of them. There is no incentive for a corporation to spend money on the kind of project I'm working on, yet the project I'm working on is likely to pay off in the long run. Again, that's not to say that all academic science would be out of place in a corporate lab, but much of it would be. So, because of this, I am concerned that, according to the profiles in Science and Nature, John McCain has failed to recruit advisers with a first-hand understanding of academic science. John McCain is not ideologically opposed to basic research (his bear DNA comments notwithstanding), but he is setting himself of for bad advice, which may damage the well-functioning research system our country has established. BTW, that's my daughter I'm hopelessly corrupting, both politically and with my risqué t-shirt! :)
    Mike
    rholley
    Please, which is the state that presidential candidates pay attention to? I followed the McClatchy link, but the answer is not, to me, at all obvious, though I did find some very interesting stories on McClatchy.
    Robert H. Olley / Quondam Physics Department / University of Reading / England
    adaptivecomplexity
    Sorry, I was being too obscure, forgetting that the references aren't always obvious to people not familiar with the area - the McClatchy article talks about the big, 100,000 person rally in St. Louis in Missouri. The tallest man-made US monument, the St. Louis gateway arch, is in the background of one of the pictures. Missouri always ends up being a swing state, and thus gets a lot of campaign attention. Yesterday our state had visits from John McCain, Bill Clinton, Dick Cheney, and former Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee. It's fun to be in the middle of it all.
    Mike
    ...well...I stand corrected. Of course Hank is correct I "should" have noticed the preppy decorum but I suspect that you had removed the sweater tied around your neck just moments before the picture was taken. Believe it or not I think you guys are brilliant and when you take a minute and sit back in your chairs you can even be humorous. So a tip of the cap to you and Hank, that being said. I will remind you Michael that the Political "hacks" that rise to power are put there by the people, and the vast majority of "the people" are conservative, God fearing folks just like me. So...when it comes time to publish or comment on your findings or your pathways to discovery I think it in your best interest that you not "alienate" the largest "actual" supporters of your endeavor who like me love the Sciences and respect those who make it their lifes work. Now as for your daughter...she is very cute so there is no doubt that she must have inherited her "mothers" genes... carry on... ;0

    adaptivecomplexity
    she is very cute so there is no doubt that she must have inherited her "mothers" genes
    I agree 100%!

    But I don't quite agree on this:

    he vast majority of "the people" are conservative, God fearing folks just like me.
    It's true most Americans believe in God, but most polls put self-described conservatives at about one third of the US population.

    That said, I wasn't saying here that cultivating our science infrastructure is really a liberal/conservative issue. My point about McCain was that when formulating S&T policy proposals, he would have benefited from the advice of actual science leaders in addition to the group of advisers he had. Of course not all science policy decision should be dictated by scientists, but there are some excellent leaders in the scientific community who know science policy well, and should be involved in decision making.
    Mike
    Come on Michael...if you trust in polls then you are lazy. Polls are the easiest process to "skew" that there is in Public observation. If I wanted to take a poll that confirms "my" sentiments it is easily done by standing at the steps of rural churches and ask the kind of questions the "left" would ask. How do you think my poll would fair? If you trust polls Michael, a recent Newsweek poll reported that 91% of Americans believe there is a God...it's fair to say that represents a lot more than just "most" don't you think? Even if only a third of that number is Conservative that would still qualify as a significant number of people to either encourage or offend. What remains is the Atheists or the Ag's which is a number so small as to make one wonder why we have to tolerate such blatant disregard to what "most" believe. If the numbers have it then why do we struggle? McCain is no conservative, hell I don't know what that guy is. But I heartily agree that funding for the Sciences is a good and merited thing, but I will reiterate a simple fact that should you as a Scientist publish a finding and then un deservedly give credit to an unproven theory what do you think will happen outside of the Scientific circle? So...reporting a great discovery?...wonderful, being neutral about it's source?...acceptable

    adaptivecomplexity
    There are good polls and bad polls - it's not impossible to design a good poll, and political scientists do it often, although you typically don't find those polls in Newsweek.
    Mike