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The Un-Quick Fix

Oct 24, 2008
The fiscal meltdown was a manifestation of a tendency that has increasingly infected American society, probably since the “Me Decade” of the 1970s—a growing inability to defer gratification. The masters of the universe who cooked their books during the 00’s did so in order to artificially boost their stock prices in the short run so they could claim huge performance-based bonuses. They invented impenetrable financial instruments they could quickly lay off in a deadly game of musical chairs, a Ponzi scheme they knew they were playing in a rush to claim nine-figure salaries. Their unwillingness to manage their companies with concern for anyone’s welfare—stockholders, customers, workers, or the company itself—in their mad dash for personal profit resulted in a cataclysm that has shaken the global economic system to its foundations.

Today, this unwillingness to defer gratification for the value of long-term goals is manifesting itself in one particularly unfortunate way, as noted by the Progressive Policy Institute (PPI) in their report, Short-Changing Our Future: America’s Penny-Wise, Pound-Foolish Approach to Supporting Tomorrow’s Scientists.

By now, our nation’s pitiful performance in educating a new generation of mathematicians and scientists is old news.1 We need more scientists with advanced degrees dedicating themselves to basic research; however, we are graduating fewer of them, and they are going over to industry, often with only a master’s degree, where they can make a good deal more money. Our technological future depends on basic scientific research, the kind that brought us fiber optics, the transistor, and the laser. Emerging high-tech sectors such as nanotechnology, biotechnology, and clean energy depend on basic research carried out by scientists with advanced degrees in settings that are financially secure. None of these conditions prevails today in America, largely because of our cultural affinity for the quickest route to the short-term payoff.

By the same token, dedicated postdoctoral academic researchers are paid so much less even than graduates with a master’s degree who choose to go into industry that one cannot blame the university “brain drain” entirely on the pursuit of the quick buck. The PPI’s report makes clear the urgent need we have to bolster our support of education at the high end, as we need to bolster it from preschool through college.

We cannot afford to continue luring our best and brightest to MBA degrees with starting salaries of $92,000 plus, while paying the pittance of $50,000 to postdoctoral research scientists in their mid-30s. If there is no one figuring out the ins and outs of the next generation of high technology products, all the MBAs in the world won’t be able to sell them.
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1 Science and Math Education Needs an Overhaul, Say Candidates During Final Debate, by Sarah Lai Stirland, from Wired, October 15, 2008 (Accessed October 19, 2008)
tags: Education | Science | Business

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