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Business ruined science in this country

These two posts go together:

Engineers See a Path out of Green Card Limbo at the NYTimes

and

Promoting STEM Education, Foolishly at In the Pipeline by Derek Lowe

Here’s the bottom line as Derek spells it out:

And that takes us back to the subject of these two posts, on the oft-heard complaints of employers that they just can’t seem to find qualified people any more. To which add, all too often, “. . .not at the salaries we’d prefer to pay them, anyway”. Colin Macilwain, the author of this Nature piece I’m quoting from, seems to agree:

“But the main backing for government intervention in STEM education has come from the business lobby. If I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard a businessman stand up and bemoan the alleged failure of the education system to produce the science and technology ‘skills’ that his company requires, I’d be a very rich man.

 I have always struggled to recognize the picture these detractors paint. I find most recent science graduates to be positively bursting with both technical knowledge and enthusiasm.

If business people want to harness that enthusiasm, all they have to do is put their hands in their pockets and pay and train newly graduated scientists and engineers properly. It is much easier, of course, for the US National Association of Manufacturers and the British Confederation of British Industry to keep bleating that the state-run school- and university-education systems are ‘failing’.”

This position, which was not my original one on this issue, is not universally loved. (The standard take on this issue, by contrast, has the advantage of both flattering and advancing the interests of employers and educators alike, and it’s thus very politically attractive). I don’t even have much affection for my own position on this, even though I’ve come to think it’s accurate. As I’ve said before, it does feel odd for me, as a scientist, as someone who values education greatly, and as someone who’s broadly pro-immigration, to be making these points. But there they are.

Anyone who thinks that all you need to make  good science is cheap, well educated labor should really give it a whirl sometime.  Let me know how you’re doing after a decade of lab work and half a dozen restructurings.

The idea that we need to import more foreign engineers when American engineers can’t get work here and have to go work in Canada and Japan is just beyond cruel and stupid.

As Colin McIlwain says, the idea that there is a shortage of well educated, technically proficient and experienced American scientists is something the business community conjured up in order to push wages down.  Congress is either willfully ignorant or completely bamboozled if it seriously thinks that we need more foreign STEM graduates.  I recommend that the coastal Senators and Reps take a good look at their states’ unemployment statistics to see what Pharmageddon has done to the R&D industry.  It’s a hemorrhage of good jobs and tax revenue and if they pass this immigration measure, they’re only going to make the problem worse.

Good science is hard work and should be paid accordingly.  Don’t get me wrong, I’ve known scientists who have been here for years and had difficulty getting a Green Card and I have great sympathy for them.  They paid their dues and deserved the card.  But we don’t need more foreign math and science students here until we can clear the backlog of the hundreds of thousands un and underemployed scientists that are struggling to get by since the bonus class decided it didn’t really need research after all.  In any case, they’re smart enough to figure it out.  When low wages make living in the US a losing proposition after 10 years of undergraduate and graduate school, they’ll stop coming here.

They might try France instead.  Here’s an article from the WSJ about how R&D employees got the aid of the French government on its side to keep the research facilities open when the Bonus Class at Sanofi tried to shut them down.  The secret?  UNIONS.

Want to know where the next great discoveries are going to come from?  Europe.

If American STEM workers don’t start fighting back, we all lose:

Still busy doing stuff work and house related.  It’s perfect gardening weather here in Pittsburgh.  I’m having a couple of cubic yards of mulch and top soil mix dropped off here later and I have a ton of weeding to do.  Now, where are my secateurs?

SOTU {{facepalm}}

There are two problems with the SOTU speech.  I don’t believe Obama and the Republicans have a gift for manipulation.  We need to learn how to monkeywrench that.

First, let’s start with Obama.  I don’t care what he said last night or what his delivery was like or even if some of his ideas were kinda, sorta in the vague general direction we need to go.  Even if he didn’t have a history of making you think he has your best interests at heart just before he delivers some incredibly weak policy, all his goodwill would have been negated when I heard this:

Our economy is stronger when we harness the talents and ingenuity of striving, hopeful immigrants. And right now, leaders from the business, labor, law enforcement, and faith communities all agree that the time has come to pass comprehensive immigration reform.

Real reform means strong border security, and we can build on the progress my Administration has already made – putting more boots on the southern border than at any time in our history, and reducing illegal crossings to their lowest levels in 40 years.

Real reform means establishing a responsible pathway to earned citizenship – a path that includes passing a background check, paying taxes and a meaningful penalty, learning English, and going to the back of the line behind the folks trying to come here legally.

[yeah, yeah, all well and good but what's this...?]

And real reform means fixing the legal immigration system to cut waiting periods, reduce bureaucracy, and attract the highly-skilled entrepreneurs and engineers that will help create jobs and grow our economy.

There are two problems with the idea that American needs more highly skilled entrepreneurs and engineers from foreign countries.  The first is that it’s bullshit and the second is that Obama is getting his information from the same Wall Street braintrusts who ran our research complex into the ground.

Let’s take on the bullshit aspect first, shall we?  Since 2008, the biotech/pharma research sector has laid off over 100,000 scientists, the bulk of them in NJ.  Don’t believe me?  Check out FiercePharma Top 10 Layoffs for 2009 for a taste of the carnage.  As for foreign engineers needing to come here, I can only assume he means the kind of engineers they employ in the Apple plants in China.  Because I know American chemical engineers who are working in Canada and Japan because they can’t get a job in the United States.  So, the only reason I can think as to why we are bringing in foreign engineers is that the companies that want to hire them have been keeping perfectly good, highly skilled American engineers out of the labor market and now, realizing they actually need engineers, they want to bring in cheap labor from elsewhere.

It is the mark of a very disinterested, captured president if he is unwilling to address the real problem of unemployed American STEM workers, who apparently have no voice, in order to shut up the yammering from the executive suites of big companies.  He’d rather send our own American high tech workers out of the country and away from their families than ask companies to demonstrate why they need to be sitting on the pile of cash that should be wages.  This is shameful.

Secondly, about that entrepreneurship?  What exactly does he think R&D professionals are made of?  When we were working for corporations, we were not exactly making the big bucks.  Some of us came from the midwest and were dragged out to the most expensive areas of the country when our corporate overlords decided to merge their little hearts away.  THEN when those same corporate overlords realized that the cost of research was suddenly too high, because they vastly increased the cost of each scientist by moving them out to the suburbs of New York City and Philadelphia, they unceremoniously laid our asses off and stranded us here.  The severance packages are temporary, mortgages are forever.

So, where exactly are we supposed to get money to be entrepreneurs?  I mean, who in their right mind would lend money to little biotech startups with a lead compound and expect that compound to go all the way through clinical to market?  Well, as we have seen from recent evidence, it is very, very difficult to start those kinds of businesses here because once the compound is at the development stage, you need to lay off early discovery personnel in order to have enough capital to see the drug through the next stage.  What foreign grad student would voluntarily come to America to put themselves through that  short employment cycle?  Why not go to Germany to study?  I would.  I wouldn’t waste my time struggling here in the US where you are expected to live on a pittance, public transportation is awful, healthcare is ridiculously expensive and you can’t buy a decent house on the $37K a year that you’ll be expected to make as a permanent post doc.

If Obama can’t get this one policy right with regard to the causes and effects of high unemployment among American STEM workers, I can’t believe he has a good grip on ANY economic issue.  It’s either willful ignorance on his part or he just doesn’t give a damn.

Look, guys, and by guys I mean the White House and Congress, high tech workers have to eat too.  You may think we’re all a bunch of unwashed geeks who eat Cheetos out of the vending machines and are awkward around the opposite sex but if you actually do any kind of investigation into the lives we live, you will see that we’re not that different from other “normal” Americans.  We like nice places to live that aren’t collapsing on us, decent transportation, a nice bottle of wine with dinner, trips to DisneyWorld with the kids we procreated and all the other stuff that makes life in the US worth living.  Whoever is telling you that STEM people are willing to work for post doc salaries until they get the brilliant idea that’s going to turn them into the next Thomas Edison is really not dealing well with reality.

Speaking of not dealing with reality well, Paul Krugman has a post on his blog about Marco Rubio’s response and how Rubio casually threw in this bit of, well, there’s no other way to say this, lying:

This idea – that our problems were caused by a government that was too small – it’s just not true. In fact, a major cause of our recent downturn was a housing crisis created by reckless government policies.

Krugman says:

OK, leave on one side the caricature of Obama, with the usual mirror-image fallacy (we want smaller government, therefore liberals just want bigger government, never mind what it does); there we go with the “Barney Frank did it” story. Deregulation, the explosive growth of virtually unregulated shadow banking, lax lending standards by loan originators who sold their loans off as soon as they were made, had nothing to do with it — it was all the Community Reinvestment Act, Fannie, and Freddie.

Look, this is one of the most thoroughly researched topics out there, and every piece of the government-did-it thesis has been refuted; see Mike Konczal for a summary. No, the CRA wasn’t responsible for the epidemic of bad lending; no, Fannie and Freddie didn’t cause the housing bubble; no, the “high-risk” loans of the GSEs weren’t remotely as risky as subprime.

This really isn’t about the GSEs, it’s about the BSEs — the Blame Someone Else crowd. Faced with overwhelming, catastrophic evidence that their faith in unregulated financial markets was wrong, they have responded by rewriting history to defend their prejudices.

This strikes me as a bigger deal than whether Rubio slurped his water; he and his party are now committed to the belief that their pre-crisis doctrine was perfect, that there are no lessons from the worst financial crisis in three generations except that we should have even less regulation. And given another shot at power, they’ll test that thesis by giving the bankers a chance to do it all over again.

Since I am about to move into a neighborhood that was affected by the housing crisis (disclaimer: my new house is a foreclosed property in a neighborhood of them), I will be doing my own little bit of research on Rubio’s side of the story to determine what exactly went wrong but let me just say that I’m skeptical.  Not only am I skeptical about the cause of the disaster but I suspect that the true bad actors are still acting badly.  Check out this post by Dave Dayan at The New Republic to see how investment bankers are messing with the housing recovery.  I had a conversation with a realtor yesterday, a listing agent for foreclosed properties, who told me that the banks are a mess.  From his description, I get the image of banks out of control, restructuring constantly, trying to game the system on a minute by minute basis, unsure who gets what contract papers when and in what order and losing money for themselves and their investors in the process because the working environment is constantly shifting.  Of course, that is a much more complex and longer story to tell and besides, it doesn’t fit with the “these are not the droids you’re looking for” strategy  of deflecting blame from the big money donors of the Republican party so the general public is largely unaware of the bankers’ shenanigans and how they are setting communities, homeowners and renters up for even more destructive wealth extraction.

But what really floors me is how so many voters who lean conservative actually believe this crap.  Is it because the alternative explanations never get floated past them or that those alternatives are too complex?  Or is it because the conditioning is too ingrained?  Demographic trends will take care of much of negative effects to a critical mass of Americans but for the good of the country, we really need to figure out how to put a stop to allowing so much of our population to believe lies.  At the very least, there should be a truth in advertising statement for both the SOTU address and its responses.  But even that will be insufficient if there’s no way to effectively push back in such a way that an evidence based world is the operant one.

It’s a huge problem for both the left and the right.  If we don’t solve it, we might as well just let the plutocrats indenture us now.

Update: So, apparently the new meme is “Down with Austerity! Up with a balanced approach of spending cuts and tax increases!”  A “balanced approach of spending cuts and tax increases” is still AUSTERITY.  I’m sorry, no matter how you slice it, when you cut spending in the midst of a depression, which is what we are in right now, the consequence is going to be AUSTERITY and a return to more recession.  Can we cut the crap already, Barry?  You need to spend money, the money you can get for ridiculously low interest rates, and put people back to work.  Anything else is AUSTERITY.

I blame the “progressives” who got us into this mess.  I will never, never forgive the assholes who got schmoozed by this Republican president in disguise.

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