Our "Quiet Crisis" in Science and Technology

Question: You have said that there is a "quiet crisis" as \r\nAmerica is falling behind in science and technology. Why?

Shirley Ann Jackson: Over the last 20 years or more, the \r\nactual growth in technology- and science-linked jobs has been about 4.2 \r\npercent per year.  The actual availability of U.S.-born workers in those\r\n fields has grown at about 1.5 percent per year.  And then when you look\r\n at jobs in new areas, in the nanotechnology arena for instance, people \r\nsay one of the greatest challenges they have is finding a well-qualified\r\n workforce—and that’s at a baseline level; we’re not talking necessarily\r\n people with Masters' and PhDs.  At the higher educational levels, we \r\nreally are not attracting as many young people as we should, \r\nparticularly to not only get first degrees in these fields, but to move \r\non and get graduate degrees. 

Now fortunately for us, we’ve been\r\n able to attract really exquisite talent from abroad and so that’s been \r\nkind of the secret sauce that we’ve always been able to attract talent \r\nfrom abroad.  But you know what?  Other countries, now, they’re \r\nemulating our model.  They are creating massive research infrastructure,\r\n building up their universities.  Creating new enterprises with a lot of\r\n government support.  And they are beginning to attract many of these \r\neducated people in the sciences and engineering back home.  But there’s a\r\n global race for talent, so they’re also being attracted to places that \r\nmay not be back home; but they’re not necessarily countries that are \r\nwhere we would think. And so that means they aren’t necessarily staying \r\nhere. 

So yes, I think there is still a quiet crisis because \r\nit’s a subtle point.  It’s quiet because we sort of don’t know what the \r\nsituation is until its upon us; partly because people quietly retire, \r\nthere are trends that occur, but we don’t see the real underlying trend \r\nfor years.  But also, it takes a long time to create a high-functioning \r\ntheoretical physicist or nuclear engineer.  And so it’s a time factor \r\nthat makes us not see it.

In addition, a lot of the technologies \r\nthat we take for granted and where a lot of the cool things come from; \r\nwhether we’re talking iPods or iPads or Kindles or X-Boxes, really are \r\nbuilt on technologies that were developed 20 and 30 and 40 years ago, \r\nand discoveries that were made that long ago. 

\r\nSo it’s quiet.  It comes and creeps in on us, but it’s a crisis because \r\nit turns out that scientists and engineers only comprise about five \r\npercent of the workforce.  And so by the time we come to grips with the \r\nsituation, the fact that it takes so long to really educate a person; to\r\n really be well-grounded in these arenas, it’s a crisis, because we \r\ncan’t fix it fast at that point.

Have President Obama's policies done anything to improve \r\nthis?

Shirley Ann Jackson: The Obama Administration has a very \r\nstrong commitment to science and engineering; to supporting basic \r\nresearch; to appreciating the role of science and technology and helping\r\n to solve some of our greatest challenges; whether we’re talking energy \r\nsecurity or climate change.  If you witness who the Secretary of Energy \r\nis and the kinds of things he’s been trying to propagate; if you look at\r\n who the new Director of the NIH is, the National Institutes of Health, \r\nand you look at the kind of things that he has done in his career and \r\nwhat he’s trying to do at NIH, there’s a re-centering on the fundamental\r\n role of science and engineering.  But there’s also a lot more support \r\nfor basic research, but more importantly, there’s the leadership from \r\nthe top because the President himself speaks about the importance of \r\nthis.  And in fact, challenges scientists and engineers as well to take \r\nmore of an active role in reaching out and educating and exciting the \r\nyoung people then helping people to understand it.  And he’s doing this \r\nagainst a backdrop, as you know, of a very difficult economic and \r\nbudgetary situation.  But the scientific community is very much more \r\nhopeful, I would say.

In the wake of the recession, how does science education \r\nneed to change?

Shirley Ann Jackson:  Well, there’s a level at which one \r\ncould argue that all industries to be at the leading edge and for us to \r\nbe globally competitive and rebuild our manufacturing and our export \r\nbase have and need a root in the latest breakthroughs in science and \r\nengineering and, having said that, let me go back to the commentary \r\nabout the U.S. auto industry and whether we should write it off. 
\r\nYou know, there’s kind of a story that people probably don’t think about\r\n so much and that is 20 or more years ago, the U.S. was very worried \r\nabout losing its lead and edge in advanced chip... microprocessor design\r\n and manufacturing, at that point, to Japan.  And so with the government\r\n support, a consortium of what are really some fairly large companies, \r\ncame together to lay out a technology road map as to what the industry \r\nneeded to do and where the government could support what the industry \r\nneeded to do to stay ahead of the curve, to sort of catch up as it were,\r\n and then stay ahead of the curve.  And that roadmap essentially has \r\nbeen followed and that’s why we have the great Intels and the other \r\nmajor chip design and manufacturing enterprises still in this country \r\nand where a lot of the manufacturing, not all of it, but a lot of it \r\nstill goes on here.  So I wouldn’t quite write the auto industry off, \r\nalthough there are a lot of structural issues and changes that need to \r\noccur. 

\r\nBut having said that, if one wants to think about the workforce of the \r\nfuture and what kinds of characteristics people need to have: people \r\nhave to be a lot more intellectually agile than they are because things \r\nchange so fast, and markets really are global and innovation is \r\neverywhere, and people, even if they work for one company, are going to \r\nfind that they’re going to be working with counterparts around the globe\r\n and that they’re going to need to at least understand and appreciate \r\nhow to at least ride the wave of new and evolving technologies to \r\noptimize what they do in their own business processes and their own \r\nenterprises, even if those enterprises are not "high tech," so to \r\nspeak.  But at the same time, as I always argue, we need more scientists\r\n than engineers because the way to really be globally pre-eminent is to \r\nbe innovative and stay ahead of the innovation curve.  We still are the \r\nmost innovative country in the world, but where we’ve been lagging is \r\ncontinuing to invest and move ahead in those areas that have kept us \r\nahead from the focus on fundamental research; having the kind of \r\ninfrastructure one needs to help new entrepreneurial start-up companies \r\ncross the various valleys of death; create the kind of workforce that is\r\n minimally scientifically literate and out of which, we hope, will come \r\nmore scientists and engineers.

Recorded May 12, 2010
Interviewed by David Hirschman

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Politics & Current Affairs

Political division is nothing new. Throughout American history there have been numerous flare ups in which the political arena was more than just tense but incideniary. In a letter addressed to William Hamilton in 1800, Thomas Jefferson once lamented about how an emotional fervor had swept over the populace in regards to a certain political issue at the time. It disturbed him greatly to see how these political issues seemed to seep into every area of life and even affect people's interpersonal relationships. At one point in the letter he states:

"I never considered a difference of opinion in politics, in religion, in philosophy, as cause for withdrawing from a friend."

Today, we Americans find ourselves in a similar situation, with our political environment even more splintered due to a number of factors. The advent of mass digital media, siloed identity-driven political groups, and a societal lack of understanding of basic discursive fundamentals all contribute to the problem.

Civil discourse has fallen to an all time low.

The question that the American populace needs to ask itself now is: how do we fix it?

Discursive fundamentals need to be taught to preserve free expression

In a 2017 Free Speech and Tolerance Survey by Cato, it was found that 71% of Americans believe that political correctness had silenced important discussions necessary to our society. Many have pointed to draconian university policies regarding political correctness as a contributing factor to this phenomenon.

It's a great irony that, colleges, once true bastions of free-speech, counterculture and progressiveness, have now devolved into reactionary tribal politics.

Many years ago, one could count on the fact that universities would be the first places where you could espouse and debate any controversial idea without consequence. The decline of staple subjects that deal with the wisdom of the ancients, historical reference points, and civic discourse could be to blame for this exaggerated partisanship boiling on campuses.

Young people seeking an education are given a disservice when fed biased ideology, even if such ideology is presented with the best of intentions. Politics are but one small sliver for society and the human condition at large. Universities would do well to instead teach the principles of healthy discourse and engagement across the ideological spectrum.

The fundamentals of logic, debate and the rich artistic heritage of western civilization need to be the central focus of an education. They help to create a well-rounded citizen that can deal with controversial political issues.

It has been found that in the abstract, college students generally support and endorse the first amendment, but there's a catch when it comes to actually practicing it. This was explored in a Gallup survey titled: Free Expression on Campus: What college students think about First amendment issues.

In their findings the authors state:

"The vast majority say free speech is important to democracy and favor an open learning environment that promotes the airing of a wide variety of ideas. However, the actions of some students in recent years — from milder actions such as claiming to be threatened by messages written in chalk promoting Trump's candidacy to the most extreme acts of engaging in violence to stop attempted speeches — raise issues of just how committed college students are to
upholding First Amendment ideals.

Most college students do not condone more aggressive actions to squelch speech, like violence and shouting down speakers, although there are some who do. However, students do support many policies or actions that place limits on speech, including free speech zones, speech codes and campus prohibitions on hate speech, suggesting that their commitment to free speech has limits. As one example, barely a majority think handing out literature on controversial issues is "always acceptable."

With this in mind, the problems seen on college campuses are also being seen on a whole through other pockets of society and regular everyday civic discourse. Look no further than the dreaded and cliche prospect of political discussion at Thanksgiving dinner.

Talking politics at Thanksgiving dinner

As a result of this increased tribalization of views, it's becoming increasingly more difficult to engage in polite conversation with people possessing opposing viewpoints. The authors of a recent Hidden Tribes study broke down the political "tribes" in which many find themselves in:

  • Progressive Activists: younger, highly engaged, secular, cosmopolitan, angry.
  • Traditional Liberals: older, retired, open to compromise, rational, cautious.
  • Passive Liberals: unhappy, insecure, distrustful, disillusioned.
  • Politically Disengaged: young, low income, distrustful, detached, patriotic, conspiratorial
  • Moderates: engaged, civic-minded, middle-of-the-road, pessimistic, Protestant.
  • Traditional Conservatives: religious, middle class, patriotic, moralistic.
  • Devoted Conservatives: white, retired, highly engaged, uncompromising,

Understanding these different viewpoints and the hidden tribes we may belong to will be essential in having conversations with those we disagree with. This might just come to a head when it's Thanksgiving and you have a mix of many different personalities, ages, and viewpoints.

It's interesting to note the authors found that:

"Tribe membership shows strong reliability in predicting views across different political topics."

You'll find that depending on what group you identify with, that nearly 100 percent of the time you'll believe in the same way the rest of your group constituents do.

Here are some statistics on differing viewpoints according to political party:

  • 51% of staunch liberals say it's "morally acceptable" to punch Nazis.
  • 53% of Republicans favor stripping U.S. citizenship from people who burn the American flag.
  • 51% of Democrats support a law that requires Americans use transgender people's preferred gender pronouns.
  • 65% of Republicans say NFL players should be fired if they refuse to stand for the anthem.
  • 58% of Democrats say employers should punish employees for offensive Facebook posts.
  • 47% of Republicans favor bans on building new mosques.

Understanding the fact that tribal membership indicates what you believe, can help you return to the fundamentals for proper political engagement

Here are some guidelines for civic discourse that might come in handy:

  • Avoid logical fallacies. Essentially at the core, a logical fallacy is anything that detracts from the debate and seeks to attack the person rather than the idea and stray from the topic at hand.
  • Practice inclusion and listen to who you're speaking to.
  • Have the idea that there is nothing out of bounds for inquiry or conversation once you get down to an even stronger or new perspective of whatever you were discussing.
  • Keep in mind the maxim of : Do not listen with the intent to reply. But with the intent to understand.
  • We're not trying to proselytize nor shout others down with our rhetoric, but come to understand one another again.
  • If we're tied too closely to some in-group we no longer become an individual but a clone of someone else's ideology.

Civic discourse in the divisive age

Debate and civic discourse is inherently messy. Add into the mix an ignorance of history, rabid politicization and debased political discourse, you can see that it will be very difficult in mending this discursive staple of a functional civilization.

There is still hope that this great divide can be mended, because it has to be. The Hidden Tribes authors at one point state:

"In the era of social media and partisan news outlets, America's differences have become
dangerously tribal, fueled by a culture of outrage and taking offense. For the combatants,
the other side can no longer be tolerated, and no price is too high to defeat them.
These tensions are poisoning personal relationships, consuming our politics and
putting our democracy in peril.

Once a country has become tribalized, debates about contested issues from
immigration and trade to economic management, climate change and national security,
become shaped by larger tribal identities. Policy debate gives way to tribal conflicts.
Polarization and tribalism are self-reinforcing and will likely continue to accelerate.
The work of rebuilding our fragmented society needs to start now. It extends from
re-connecting people across the lines of division in local communities all the way to
building a renewed sense of national identity: a bigger story of us."

We need to start teaching people how to approach subjects from less of an emotional or baseless educational bias or identity, especially in the event that the subject matter could be construed to be controversial or uncomfortable.

This will be the beginning of a new era of understanding, inclusion and the defeat of regressive philosophies that threaten the core of our nation and civilization.