February 25, 2006

ROBERT SAMUELSON says that the “science gap” is exaggerated:

It’s true that in a “knowledge economy” —one where new information and ideas increasingly form the basis of useful products and government programs—nations need an adequate science and engineering (S&E) workforce. But it’s emphatically not true, as much of the alarmist commentary on America’s “competitiveness” implies, that the United States now faces crippling shortages in its technological elites.

But he’s worried that we pay lawyers too much, and scientists and engineers too little:

Only about 4 percent of the U.S. workforce consists of scientists and engineers. Having an adequate supply depends on what thousands—not millions—of smart college students decide every year to do with their lives. People choose a career partly because it suits their interests. This applies especially to science. “Physics is like sex,” the physicist Richard Feynman famously quipped. “Sure, it may give some practical results, but that’s not why we do it.” But intellectual satisfaction goes only so far.

On average, American lawyers make 42 percent more than chemical engineers. At elite levels, huge pay gaps also exist.

Yes, especially as the environments for scientists and engineers have changed, over the past several decades, in ways that make intellectual satisfaction harder to come by, I think. Too much bureaucracy and paperpushing, not enough exciting work.

And while it is, of course, definitionally impossible for me to be overpaid, it’s true that a country that pays its lawyers a lot better than its scientists and engineers is likely, over time, to have better lawyers than scientists and engineers. Much as it pains me to admit it, I think that’s a bad idea.

I also think, however, that getting rid of Dilbert-style management headaches, and letting scientists and engineers do more actual worthwhile work with fewer hassles, would help as much as raising salaries. I hear a lot of complaints about how government agencies and corporate research operations contrive to suck all the fun out of science, and that’s a bummer. Yeah, law practice isn’t as much fun as it used to be either, but at least that’s been compensated for, to a degree, by skyrocketing salaries.

UPDATE: Reader Matthew Christensen emails:

It’s not just pay that keeps people from becoming scientists — it’s also the long path to a job and the restricted possibilities. I was a chemistry major in college (back in ’94) and all set to become a scientists. But my advisor explained the realities of doctorate and postdoctorate life, and then pointed out that even after that you’re now in the highly competitive world of academia.

He did not end up getting tenure.

Anyway, I chose to go into programming, which is more like being a lawyer in terms of pay. My first job was at a lab and I saw what my advisor was cautioning me of — people working long hours for little pay. And the “reward” is eventually you run your own lab — which means spending your time chasing grants rather than actually doing science.

Obviously people do go into science, and god bless ‘em. I just don’t think it’s just about being lower paid.

It’s a different situation for engineers, of course. I think the lower paid counts there — why is it i can easily make twice, as an uncertified programmer, what a certified and graduate-degree engineer makes? Well, I suppose the answer is “the market.”

Good point, and this gets at some of the “quality of life” issues I was trying to invoke. Societally, we need big scientific advances. But we don’t reward the people who produce them very well.

ANOTHER UPDATE: Reader Ron Hardin emails on the pay difference: “You get an army of affadavits instead of scientists.”

“An Army of Affidavits.” Now there’s an appealing concept. Sheesh.