One argument for putting a halt to government spending billions of dollars doing Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) 'outreach' is that, like all government programs, they become self-serving and never, ever stop.

After $5 billion of taxpayer-funded STEM outreach in the last decade, there is a real glut of Ph.D.s - America produces 6X as many Ph.D.s as there are jobs in academia, so income for post-doctoral jobs has plummeted. Some labs can even advertise for no-pay positions and still require that respondents already have one post-doctoral position completed - that is extraordinary. Obviously far too many Ph.D.s competing for a finite pool of government money is bad for young researchers (1) so why don't they go into the corporate world instead?  

The reasons why so many want to work at a college are complex but two of the big ones are money and job security - career academia stopped being a low-paid occupation years ago - and the perception that being reliant on government funding meant more independence than being reliant on corporate money. Competition has meant that some people can't break in and the concern is that some of those barriers may be artificial rather than merit-based, because they don't exactly match the overall population.

Bayer recently revealed results of its 15th survey of STEM fields to try and determine why people are going into STEM fields (or not) - and they affirm what most people know; a whole lot of students start off college in STEM fields and a whole lot less finish. STEM fields are hard, so universities are probably doing students a favor by weeding out people in the first two years. Is a "rigorous introductory instructional" approach a bad thing? Perhaps, but it isn't like STEM gets easier farther down the line and it's better if students learn they are wasting their time early, rather than spending years (and a lot of money) on courses they suddenly won't need after they change majors.

When things are tough for all, if you make it, you know you earned it.(2)

The answers of 413 STEM department chairs (87% male, 88% white) from 200 institutions were designed to determine how to increase representation for women and certain minorities and finds respondents saying all the right things we expect academia to say. The problem is that the canned platitudes about representation don't reveal anything meaningful, they just add evidence to the charge by former tenured academics that faculty and tenure jobs are not given based on sex or color, as some claim, and not on quality, as people holding the jobs claim, but rather that they are "hand-selected for mediocrity and obsequiousness", as former tenured professor Zachary Ernst phrased it. None of the respondents were going to call themselves out as part of the problem, they instead responded in milquetoast fashion about the issue and laid the blame on the institution that pays them, responding they they needed to be given a 'STEM diversity plan' or 'more academic support' or that 'university leadership must act'.

Well, they are university leadership. Find any corporation in America and tell a CEO that the vice-presidents gave those answers about a problem the company was facing and every single one of them would be fired on the spot; fix the problem, don't throw it back on some boss upstairs to create some policy to tell you what to do when you already know the right thing to do. 

I did a 30 minute panel on STEM diversity last week, on the Al Jazeera America television network. I made the point that when it comes to minorities in STEM jobs in Silicon Valley, there is negative unemployment. Because it's true, and it's what BAYER says also; they have a hard time finding qualified people at all, much less women and minorities. Two of the other panelists vigorously shook their heads when I said that, though neither of them had ever worked in Silicon Valley much less run a department or company there. My point was that companies won't artificially fix diversity by hiring unqualified people because of their skin color - that would be the exact definition of discrimination - instead they will challenge academia to graduate more qualified people.

Women in gaming have turned stereotypes on their head, to hilarious effect. That can't happen if they are oppressed. You don't see women in Arabia doing joke videos about not being allowed to drive cars. ABSOLUTELY NOT SAFE FOR WORK DUE TO LANGUAGE.

No one is tearing down the walls for you, all companies can do is make sure you don't have a wall that everyone else does not have. Science remains hard. So is academia the problem? That's been claimed plenty and I have argued with liberals that overwhelmingly liberal academia is not engaging in discrimination. If they are, schools obviously need more conservatives in their ranks, because we know conservatives don't care about people, they care about results - so the best people would be filling tenure jobs rather than people who will hire clones of themselves.

Some of the Bayer survey results are a little wonky. They say, for example, that 36% of survey respondents believe females are underrepresented but then report that 42% of STEM degrees will be female. Look, 42% is not too shabby. Women get more PhDs than men, that is the whole argument women have made for why they should have better representation at the highest levels.  And I have yet to see lamentations about diversity when it comes to education and social science fields, which have less than 30% men. Variation in employment demographics is not a problem, as long as it's choice. Mechanical engineering pays women more fairly than every other job in America, including fields over-represented by women like environmentalism do, yet women still don't like engineering. When you ask women if they care about money, they don't, compared to men.

Stereotypes as an excuse not to enter STEM seem to be dying off, that is some good news. Only 13% of respondents cited the stereotype of STEM being a male field as an obstacle for women and only 3% cited stereotypes as being on obstacle for Hispanics, blacks and native Americans. There are other obstacles, they note that Hispanics, blacks and native Americans arrive more less qualified overall, and wash out of STEM programs, while women are qualified but some of them wash out anyway. STEM outreach won't fix either of those.

Hispanics, blacks and native Americans will only be 16% of STEM degrees though they are 26% of America. Yet unless we know it is bias, there isn't much STEM outreach spending can do to fix that. Making more public relations companies rich by giving them another billion dollars in taxpayer money to make STEM sound cool won't work. STEM fields are still going to be both hard and uncool to a lot of people.

What's often the problem with surveys is that they ask elites about what they should do to fix a problem instead of asking students what they want. As I have written many times, taking a woman inclined to be a doctor and convincing her to be in STEM is not a great idea. If she wants to help people rather than be in a lab or behind a desk, she gets a degree in biology and goes off to medical school instead. Society still benefits, we don't have to criticize her for not being a computer scientist.

Rather than having the NSF and 11 other government departments hand out more STEM outreach money to the people these surveys insist are the problem - academics at schools - I made suggestions during my Al Jazeera America appearance for improving STEM diversity:

1) Instead of recruiting people into STEM directly with lovely stories about some person like them who went into STEM, show how fields like computer science and engineering help people. We have created an entire Zombie army of citizens bumping into lampposts because they are looking at their phones. And young people are first in line to buy those. Basically, if we must waste money on STEM outreach, at least be smart about it and stop waiting for an academic who understands grant politics to apply for a grant, and open up funding beyond schools. Technology is letting people play Angry Birds. Highlight that.

2) Money talks. Our current government-driven STEM outreach is geared toward making more people dependent on government grants. Meanwhile, young scientifically inclined students see people in their late 30s and early 40s making less money than someone 23 years old and with a bachelor's degree.  That's a turn-off.

Here's a free idea. Instead of glorifying academia using tax dollars, recruit more people into STEM with this simple ditty that worked when I was in college:

(sung to the tune of the Mickey Mouse theme)

M-I-T, P-H-D, M-O-N-E-Y.

You're welcome.


(1) Some are tackling the exact wrong problem - they think unionizing graduate students and post-docs is the answer. As anyone in government that has been crippled by a union, such as the teacher's unions in California, can tell you, unions care about seniority, so post-docs jobs would be slightly better pay, but they would also stop being a meritocracy, and post-docs will sit at home for two years while they wait for their names to come up on the list at 'union' labs.

(2) A few weeks ago, a group of smart women on Twitter declared that they had "ripples of doubt" about their ability to blog at Scientific American (no, seriously, they had doubts they were qualified to be blogging) because the blogging recruiter tried to hit on a few of them. Anyone who really wants to find a flaw in quotas and mandates for STEM just needs to look at such "am-I-just-cute?" hand-wringing to see how policies that choose people for reasons other than merit can go off the rails quite rapidly in academia.