It’s become an article of faith among the intelligentsia that the way to really stimulate the economy over the long run is to graduate a new generation of engineering and scientific brainiacs to innovate our way into the 21st century.
Sure, in the short term the government can manufacture some jolts through spending or whatnot, but we’re constantly reminded that to compete in the global economy, we must invest more in science and science education.
President Obama brought up science investments during his press conference on Tuesday and other big economic minds like Alan Greenspan have warned that a lack of scientifically-trained workers is a key economic problem.
We’re sceptical. Sure, people with a scientific background tend fo get good jobs, but that in itself doesn’t prove we need more scientists too. Lawyers and bankers are paid well, too — it doesn’t mean we need a lot more lawyers.
Here’s how we should think about the question: What are the major challenges and opportunities that thace the country?
— Healthcare. Given the spiraling cost of healthcare, and the fact that few people are satisfied with our system, this is obviously one of the most fertile industries for growth. But our problem isn’t a lack of science. Our problem isn’t that engineers haven’t created enough dubious miracle pills. It’s that our conception of the system is wrong. We have antiquated models for healthcare delivery on all kinds of fronts, from how it’s paid for to who patients see when they get ill. We could rattle off several ideas for how we might fix healthcare, and only a few of them would involve actual technological advances. If anything, we need more medium-skilled technicians to replace full-skilled doctors to perform more routine tasks.
— Education. Our system is in shambles and has been dysfunctional for a long time. We have a huge problem of matching students up against the type of education that would suit them — more vocational training for many of them would be good — and for many students there’s no upside in being educated. It’s a gaping opportunity, but it’s not a science question. It’s more a matter policy and design than anything else.
— Financial services. We have a tremendous need for true financial services innovation. Not in the sense of how Wall Street conceived of it, but in genuinely useful financial services for consumers. Like ATMs and ETFs and index funds. We also need better financial services for the lower classes, a demographic that few companies have figured out how to service well.
— Energy. Ok, this is one area where we expect that the big challenges will be solved by engineers.
No doubt there will be plenty of areas where scientists and engineers will contribute significantly to our economic well being, but there are plenty of other skills that matter too.
Take design. The iPod and the iPhone are two of the greatest homegrown innovations of the decade, but they’re not really about engineering. The core science is old. What’s new is the creativity and reconception of the business model. Actually, that applies to a lot of interesting “tech” innovation.
Many of the big breakthroughs these days have nothing to do with engineering, but rather creativity in thinking how people will interact. Take Twitter and Facebook. Sure, there are engineering challenges, but the breakthroughs all creative. The engineering is in incidental to their success.
Going back to healthcare, we don’t need a new pill or a new scanning device. We need the iPhone of healthcare — a triumph of design and creativity to change how think about delivering healthcare.
We could go on. But the point is that there’s nothing special about scientists and engineers in their ability to positively contribute to our standard of living. Lots of people make positive contributions, and we should get rid of our un-grounded biases against or for certain careers.