Today’s Washington Post ran a piece in what is becoming an increasing popular genre: “China is overtaking the U.S. in science research.” I’ve argued that such claims are vastly overblown, made by those in the U.S. with vested interests and a sensationalism-hungry American press. Yet there are legitimate questions raised here that sorely need a national conversation.
The article of course cites AI (itself a sensationalist term) an example, one that I debunked here a few weeks ago. And another perennial sensationalist favorite, supercomputers, is cited as well. I’ve debunked that one too. Actually, that example is even worse: In the AI case, at least the field is important, even if the claim of impending Chinese superiority is unwarranted, while bragging about having the world’s largest supercomputer is really akin to Trump and Kim arguing who has the larger “button.”
That said, though, there is absolutely no question that China is offering a much better deal to top researchers than is the U.S. — high salaries, mind-boggling signing bonuses, and most importantly, guaranteed research funding. The article greatly errs, though, in asserting that the U.S. is simply not allocating enough resources to STEM. Ironically, the problem is that we are overdoing it.
We are producing too many PhDs. The total amount of U.S. government research funding has been generous over the years, but is being spread out among a larger and larger pool of researchers. It has thus become more and more difficult — a better word would be agonizing — for researchers at U.S. universities to secure funding.
The problem is compounded further by the increasing number of foreign students. A 1989 internal report in the National Science Foundation, one of the two main STEM funders in the U.S., actually advocated bringing in more foreign students, on the grounds of costs savings, and noted that as the foreign students flooded the labor market, fewer domestic students would pursue PhDs, further bringing down salaries and thus making doctoral study even less attractive, and so on, a vicious circle (though a virtuous one from NSF’s point of view, as they “get more bang for the buck” in their research funding).
Now “they” are warning that the foreign students might go home after their study here, or not come here in the first place. I think that warning too is overblown, but really folks, they can’t have it both ways.
In other words, our national STEM policy has been just plain wrongheaded for years, in many respects. We need to have a national, rational, vested-interests-free-zone discussion of just what it is that we want. I would pose the following questions as among those that urgently need discussion:
- How important do we really consider STEM research, both fundamental and applied?
- Do we want quality research (American tradition) or merely quantity (China’s current strategy)?
- Is the policy of the last 30 years, which has the direct effect of discouraging talented U.S. students from pursuing careers in STEM research, acceptable? (And if not, why have we allowed it?)
I won’t hold my breath waiting for such a discussion, though.