Scientists & Engineers Are Born, Encouraged, Selected & Educated: Throwing Money At Existing Ones Does Not Create New Ones

by Jack Lifton on April 27, 2009

in News Analysis

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It takes twelve to twenty years to find, select, encourage, test, and educate scientists, engineers, and medical professionals. By contrast it takes just a few minutes to select from a crowd, those who will run for public office. Yet the future of innovation in America depends on this second class of selected individuals. It is always just luck that gets us progress with this politicized selection system for education. America can not depend on luck.

A recent headline in the New York Times announced “Shortage of Doctors an Obstacle to Obama Goals.”

Glen Reynolds, editor of the popular blog, comments on the story, in part, thusly:

“When Obama says “We’re not producing enough primary care physicians,” he’s making a mistake. We don’t produce doctors. They’re not widgets. People choose to become doctors — or something else — based on their analysis of what will produce the best life. Medicine has gotten less pleasant, and less financially rewarding, really, over the past several decades as it’s become more bureaucratized and subject to the whims of third-party payors. So will Obama’s plan fix that? Seems doubtful. Will he recognize that you don’t produce doctors the way you produce, say, cars? That’s doubtful, too.”

Another recent news article stated that it is Obama’s goal to dedicate 3% of GDP to “Science”. That would mean, based on 2008 GDP, something on the order of $400 billion dollars. Lest anyone get excited, I would say that the R&D budgets of the Department of Defense and the Department of Health & Human Services probably already account for 1/2 of this sum, and if we add the part of the Education and various national laboratory budgets, this figure may be in fact what is already spent.

The amount doesn’t really matter if there is no logical plan prioritizing the spending!

You cannot do much to create innovative science and technology. You can only try to produce the greatest number of scientists and engineers and give them places to work and broad goals to achieve.

In order to do even this, you need to have the best merit- and results-based education system possible, rather than teachers tenured no matter what their skill levels and without regard for their results.

Short-sighted politicians are what got us into thinking that we can buy innovation and scientific breakthroughs.

The greatest impetus to American and human creativity in the sciences and engineering was World War II, and the Cold War that followed it. The US government made it easy, economically, for millions of former soldiers and sailors to go to college and this produced a flood of engineers and scientists and doctors, whose goal was to help their country’s economy and security grow. If they also made a lot of money money besides, that was just icing on the cake.

Today the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake or to help keep our country safe and prosperous is considered to be a “suckers” game. It’s all supposed to be about money and self-gratification.

I was born in 1940; I wanted to be a scientist because I was excited by the pursuit of knowledge. When the Russians launched Sputnik my career path was set. I was going to help make sure that the US regained its lead in the space race. When John F. Kennedy announced that the national goal was to put a man on the moon by the end of the decade (of the 1960s) and to bring him back safely, I knew America could do that, and I did my part.

So, what today is the goal of Obama’s America? Is it to advance knowledge? No. Is it to make America secure and prosperous? I don’t believe that. I think Obama’s vision is the exact opposite of John Kennedy’s; it is now to be “ask not what you can do for your country but what your country can do for you.”

With that goal there will be little innovation. The America that split and then controlled the atom, invented and developed electronics and the computer, and put a man on the moon seems fated to sleepwalk, while more vigourous societies continue the quest for knowledge and better their health and lives through innovation.

Equality of opportunity will now give way to equality of mediocrity rather than progress.

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