Future Tense

We Don’t Need More Scientists—We Need Better Ones

A chemist responds to Slate’s David Plotz’s claim that not enough students are going into science and engineering.

Indian mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan’s talents as a youth were nearly unrecognized

Wikimedia Commons.

Read more from Slate’s special issue on science education and give us your best ideas for raising the next generation of scientists and engineers.

I’ve been making a living in science for nearly 25 years now—longer if you count eating peanut butter on a graduate school stipend as one variety of “making a living,” which is a tough call. And I’m pretty sure that not one of those years has gone by without some warning that the United States is facing a critical shortage of scientists and engineers. It’s gotten to the point, as in the first article in this series here on Slate, that people just stipulate this as a well-known truth. But we scientists are supposed to question such things, so: Is it true?

I very much doubt it. As evidence, let me turn first to my own field, drug research, because other high-tech fields share some of its problems. I’m a medicinal chemist—I spend my days in an actual white lab coat, thinking up potential new drug structures and new ways to find them, and then trying to make those ideas work for real out on the lab bench. I moved to my present job, though, because my last employer closed down the entire research site where I used to work. That’s been a depressingly common experience over the last few years. Since 2000, more than 300,000 people in the drug business have been laid off. Not all of them have been scientists, of course, but plenty of chemists and biologists have been hearing the swish of the ax as the industry looks to cut costs everywhere it can. These people, many of whom have been scrambling to find any work they can, are not a good audience for stories about America’s critical shortage of scientists.

Where have all these jobs gone? Some have just flat-out disappeared, but others have gone to lower-wage countries (chiefly China and India). When I started in the business, the idea of paying people out in Chengdu to crank out molecules for you would have seemed bizarre, but it’s become so common that no one remarks on it any more. In fact, it’s become common enough that it’s not as cheap as it used to be. That has some companies thinking of whether there’s anywhere less expensive left to go or, alternatively, whether it might make sense to have some of those compounds made closer to home again, with better quality control and fewer delays. The only way to find out if you’ve outsourced enough, apparently, is to outsource too much.

I use that phrase “crank out” in its strict technical sense, by the way. Much of the offshored research in my area (and others) has been, frankly, grunt work. The routine work and routine workers are the first to disappear. In a high-wage country like the United States, it is a truly awful time to be an average, undistinguished drug-company researcher. There are people available these days who will do your average research for a lot less money. That’s why David Plotz’s call for “more good scientists … even more mediocre scientists” strikes me as ludicrous. Mediocre scientists are in a terrible position these days. If you’re going to be worth your salary, you have to have more to offer.

But there’s an even larger problem with the “more scientists, no matter what” view. In R&D, the rate-limiting step (to use a term from my chemical background) is usually not the number of people working on a problem. Not after a certain point, at any rate. Automation and miniaturization have been changing that, as in so many other industries. We can test more compounds and generate even bigger server-choking piles of data faster than ever before. The problem is figuring out what all of those numbers mean and what they’re telling us to do next. The failure rate for new drug candidates going into human trials is well over 90 percent. That’s my industry’s problem, right there, and throwing more people at it won’t help much. What we’re short of is great ideas that will help us stop doing things this way.

And those ideas, needless to say, are probably not going to be supplied by Plotz’s Army of Mediocrity. I think that many other areas of science have the same problem. What worries me the most about the future of R&D in this country is whether we’re still attracting the smartest and most capable people to do it. I keep having dark thoughts about the next Claude Shannon—one of the leading mathematicians of the 20th century— refining risk models for derivatives trading, rather than changing the world. So I do agree strongly that we need to make good science teaching widely available, because some of those kids who experience it are going to get interested and realize that this might be what they were born to do.

They should have that chance. If you really enjoy scientific discovery, there’s nothing else like it in the world for you. Thomas Gray’s line in his Elegy about “Some mute inglorious Milton here may rest” goes for the sciences, too. I find it painful to think about children, all over the world, who might grow into great discoverers but will never have their chance. How many Ramanujans have spent their lives looking at the back of a water buffalo rather than flying through the higher reaches of mathematics? What have the rest of us missed out on as a result?

But we don’t need as many scientists as we can get just because they’re scientists. Does a bowl of soup need all the salt it can get? We need all the excellent ones we can find, without shoveling in people who’d just as soon be doing something else.

Also in Slate’s special issue on science education: Fred Kaplan explains why another “Sputnik moment” would be impossible; Philip Plait explains why he became the “Bad Astronomer”; Paul Plotz describes how almost blowing up his parents’ basement made him a scientist; Tom Kalil says that the Obama administration is using the Make movement to encourage science education; and Dana Goldstein explains why you should make your daughter play video games. Also, share your ideas for fixing science education in the Hive. This article arises from Future Tense, a joint partnership of Slate, the New America Foundation, and Arizona State University.