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Does the USA really “need more scientists and engineers”?

Later I’ll write up my recollections of the Gel conference, but first I wanted to dash off a little rant based on something I heard. One of the presenters, Dan Dubno, brought forth the canard about how America is falling behind in math and science education, and that we’re not turning out as many scientists and engineers, with the implication that countries such as China and India are going to surpass us and eat our lunch.


Not hogwash about the data. I’m sure the data is true. I’m sure we have fewer people interested in science and math.

So what?

The global market we’re entering into is one that increasingly values soft skills, and the kinds of understanding borne of education in the social sciences and humanities. This isn’t to devalue science and math — they’re critical — but there’s a lot to suggest that they won’t be the defining disciplines of the 21st century (the way they were of the 20th century).

As we’re realizing, “innovation” now doesn’t mean the niftiest new technology. Innovation is about identifying unmet needs and satisfying those. That identification increasingly comes from folks with backgrounds in the humanities and social sciences. (Very minor data point: my company, Adaptive Path, was started by people only with backgrounds in the humanities and social sciences; none of us even had a design degree.)

Success in the global market will be one of understanding and empathy, will be due to an ability to appreciate trends, to synthesize information from a variety of sources, etc.

Again, I don’t mean to undervalue science and math; they’re crucial. And you know what? Folks will continue to study those, and that’s great.

But I don’t get why folks are so up in arms about us “falling behind.” That’s 1950’s thinking.


  1. I’m sure this post was made in haste, or I am missing some specific point you are making.

    Science is a vastly important “way of thinking” as Carl Sagan puts it.

    He would probably roll in his grave if he were able to read this blog post. But then again, I am sure I am missing the point… you can’t really be serious about not believing we are vastly behind in sciences and mathematics.

    “Innovation” as you redefine it seems to be specific to the area of web-based product design and development. because there are certainly innovations elsewhere in other industries that are entirely dependent on “nifty new technology”. Innovation in internet market is just a piece of the global market, and doesn’t mean that people with backgrounds in humanities and social sciences will rule the global economy.

  2. To correct a misstatement in my comment above – you do agree that we (the US) are behind in sciences and math… but can you really be serious that we shouldn’t be up in arms about it?

    For example, it is Earth Day tomorrow (sunday). The importance of conservation has been a major theme of the last year. How do we know that our planet is in serious trouble and conservation is necessary? We know because of science! That point alone should underline why science is important to our future and elevate our science and mathematic education.

  3. I have to concur with the commenters. While it’s true that much of the innovation we’re likely to see in coming years is around unmet needs and improved experiences, it’s equally important that we continue to solve scientific problems as well.

    To continue the conservation example set by Nathan, without a continued emphasis on math and sciences, how do we know future innovations will be delivered in an earth friendly manner.

    Perhaps it’s Mr. Dubno’s language that we’re “falling behind” that is disconcerting. I don’t mind falling behind so much, as long as we have fairly loose immigration, or good foreign policies that allow for U.S. based organizations to collaborate with bright engineers and scientists throughout the world.

  4. As I stated in my post, science and scientists are still important. But it’s the idolation of these fields, and the neglect of other fields, that bugs me.

    And, increasingly, engineering is simply going to be The Plumbing. I’m perfectly fine with all of our engineering being outsourced to other countries. It’s not the role defining innovation in the 21st Century.

  5. I still disagree – idolization of engineering (and certainly not science or mathematics) is a hard hard assertion without backing it up.

    If you are referring to design services as being neglected, again… only in the narrow view of the internet industry is that partially even correct. Elsewhere such as the entertainment, automotive, consumer packaged goods, and so on, design services are fairly represented.

  6. Much if not most of engineering -is- design, actually.

  7. I have not ready his books or seen him talk, but Richard Florida talks about “the creative class”. From a review on Amazon for his “Rise of the Creative class” book –

    Members include scientists, engineers, architects, educators, writers, artists, and entertainers. He defines this class as those whose economic function is to create new ideas, new technology, and new creative content. In general this group shares common characteristics, such as creativity, individuality, diversity, and merit.

    So he lumps the scientists with the what we would consider the designs (even tho designers are not listed there).

    I agree with Peter that we should not call out the need for one over the other – we need more “creative people” in general. But I also agree that we might not have the optimal mix of – we might need some more scientists. But maybe not. I think America is falling behind in QUALITY education, period, not just science and math…..

  8. I think you’re mistaken.

    One critical issue here is flexibility in the face of disciplinary boundaries. Many people who understand Maxwell’s equations and quantum mechanics also understand a lot about Shakespeare, Monet, and Marketing. And lots of them can pick up more in a hurry, if they need to.

    On the other hand, lots of people who know a lot about Marketing would find it very tough sledding to pick up a good working knowledge of quantum mechanics.

    This kind of asymmetry is familiar in other contexts. If you’ve got a shortstop who hits for power, and you already HAVE a shortstop, you can slot your spare shortstop at third, or second, or just about anywhere you want except pitcher and catcher. You can put him in left, if that’s your only hole.

    But if your only shortstop gets hurt, you’re in all sorts of trouble. But Manny Ramirez at short? David Ortiz? Mike Piazza? Not gonna happen. But you could swap Alex Rodriguez into any of their roles, and life goes on fine.

  9. I agree with Mark. (Except I’m not quite enough of a baseball fan to follow the analogy.) What we need are more scientists and engineers who are also passionate about design and the humanities. And we need more designer/humanities-types who are interested in science and engineering. More T-shaped people.

    I wrote a bit about this in a recent blog post of my own:

    We should be very concerned about the declining interest in math and science, because if we don’t understand it, we’ll be left creating new ideas without the knowhow to make them real. More importantly, scientists are inquisitive people who ask a lot of questions. If we don’t have people asking questions, and if we don’t teach students to ask questions, innovation just won’t happen.

  10. Good thoughts. And just to set the record straight, I don’t think my degree strictly counts as “humanities and social sciences,” but comp-sci definitly wasn’t “design.” You have a good point.

  11. without strong science and math the united states will ABSOLUTELY become the united states of jesus.

  12. This one makes sence “One’s first step in wisdom is to kuesstion everything – and one’s last is to come to terms with everything.”

  13. Well, peterme, it’s clear that you attempt to cover yourself by stating that you don’t wish to devalue the sciences. Twice. But I fear that your understanding of ‘the sciences’ may be lacking.

    As both a ‘scientist’ and an ‘artist’, I can assure you that there absolutely nothing unique about me. In fact, I am yet to meet a ‘scientist’ who falls short in the areas of creativity and innovation as both are very much required to be successful in the field.

    And I believe technology to be one of our biggest shortsights in that our continued reliance upon it leans us a lot more towards reactive thinking and behaviour than it does towards the innovative thinking and behaviour required to correct problems at their cause. In short, it makes us a ‘band-aid culture’, in my opinion.

    Science is much more than the pursuit of truth via the presentation of empirical evidence. It’s the pursuit of solutions to real world problems, and sadly, those created by a myopic culture. Problems, peterme, which extend far beyond the failed, product driven economic structure of society (but result largely from it). Problems which threaten our quality of life, and quite possibly, our very existence.

    Science (and math), as you say, is crucial.

    What the world needs is not to favour the ‘soft skills… borne of education in the social sciences and humanities’. Any more than it needs to favour the… hard skills (?) borne of education in math and science. What the world needs is understanding, appreciation, gratitude, tolerance and respect. What the world needs is everyone doing what they do best and like best whilst maintaining mutual respect for one another.

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