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?
\r\n

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.

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

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.

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

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\n
\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

America's most innovative companies are having an increasingly hard time finding qualified staffers who were born in the U.S.

Artificial intelligence yields new antibiotic

A deep-learning model identifies a powerful new drug that can kill some antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
Surprising Science

Using a machine-learning algorithm, MIT researchers have identified a powerful new antibiotic compound. In laboratory tests, the drug killed many of the world's most problematic disease-causing bacteria, including some strains that are resistant to all known antibiotics. It also cleared infections in two different mouse models.

Keep reading
Surprising Science

The idea that Alzheimer's is a form of diabetic disease has been gaining currency in medical circles for almost ten years. The accumulated evidence is now so strong that many specialists are now comfortable referring to Alzheimer's as type 3 diabetes.

Keep reading

How to deflect an asteroid

MIT engineers devise a decision map to identify the best mission type to deflect an incoming asteroid.

Nick Owuor (astro.nic.visuals) on Unsplash
Surprising Science

On April 13, 2029, an icy chunk of space rock, wider than the Eiffel Tower is tall, will streak by Earth at 30 kilometers per second, grazing the planet's sphere of geostationary satellites.

Keep reading