Thursday, September 12, 2013

Pernicious Progress

Well, everybunny is waiting for the real IPCC WG1 report to come out, and Eli has to amuse himself with a number of hobbies, one of which is bedeviling a certain poor Thoreau about the structure of STEM education in the United States.

It is, indeed, a bundle of we want this, so we ask for that that, which is, surprise, not what we wanted.

Let Eli start with a simple observation:  Since the time that the US stole the secrets of the Awkwright thread making machinery the US has always imported scientific and technical talent.  It's a tradition.  The American way as it were.

To beat another drum, Thoreau and his friends constantly bemoan the sorry situation with hiring of STEM graduates.  They can't understand why the various funding agencies are tearing their hair out about getting more kids into the pipeline when they and their friends are going crazy finding a job.

From Eli's point of view, and the Rabett has been viewing the farce for many a year now, since the last good year for hiring, 1968, or was it 69, the answer is structural.  US STEM education is based on a pyramidal system, with a small number of research universities at the top that feed new faculty to wanna be research universities, non-research habituated teaching institutions and community colleges.  Of course, there are also industry, Wall Street, national labs and natural migration out of the pipeline elsewhere, including rock bands.  Everyone has to run harder to keep up.  It's classic capitalism, grow or die.  In cartoons, this is the Mickey Mouse version of the sorcerer's apprentice.

The research universities each have major and expensive infrastructure needed to support modern research and the accounting that the federal government demands of how grant money is spent.  Each faculty member is expected to bring in grants and contracts to support the infrastructure, it ain't cheap, which requires that the faculty member have a large research group composed of graduate students and post docs to do the work on several grants.  Groups of more than ten are common, and some exceed twenty.  Each person is expensive to support.  Graduate students with tuition, fees and stipends are of the order of $50-75K per year, post docs are probably on the level of $75-100K per year when you consider salary, fringe benefits and overhead.  That is without equipment, materials and supplies.   Maybe it includes travel.

As bad as this is for the physical sciences, it is much worse in medical schools because of the fall in NIH support.  Medical schools have been habituated to hiring increasing numbers of faculty on a partially funded basis with the faculty expected to bring in the rest of their support.  As grants become harder to get these faculty are increasingly stressed, the medical schools are less able to keep feeding new bodies into their maws because overhead is falling and not generating enough set up money and the number of jobless trainees in holding positions (permadocs) is growing by leaps and bounds.  (see Drug Monkey for discussions).

US colleges are not graduating enough STEM majors to fill the research university groups.  Therefore the research university departments recruit a large number of international students.  Anybunny can see this by looking at the number of international students in research groups and departments.  The number of graduates from these groups including the international students overwhelms the job market and today, with decreasing support from grants, has begun to overwhelm the ability of the R1 schools to support them.

While some of these students return home after earning their doctorates, many international students  stay in the US producing an oversupply matched against STEM position openings. However, this pleases the educational nomenklatura as it allows them to have a large group and maintain a jet set life.

It pleases Deans at all levels , because they can low ball hires (an Asst. Prof. position is a giant step to a green card) and it pleases industry, because it keeps costs down. And, of course, once the international students become immigrants they compete for the other types of jobs.  While international students have contributed mightily to US science, thee numbers staying have increased steadily since 1980 and  (see immigration debate), an obvious consequence is that currently their larger number are overwhelming the STEM job market.

Without international students there are not enough US citizens to fill the tree and that is what NSF/NIH are trying to work on. The second order effects are more subtile. The large number of international students allows R1 professors (the nomenklatura) to maintain large groups. Of course to have a large group, you need a lot of support, which starves those lower down the tree. And then, of course, there is the third order effect, since for an international student a faculty position in any tertiary institution is the ticket to immigrant status, and they have a hard time getting a visa which allows them to work in industry/national labs, so there has been over the last 50 years an imbalance in faculty hiring with the faculty of many not R1 places being predominantly (maybe too strong, but you better bring data) from former international students.

But wait, there is more.  and this is an increasing problem in many other countries (UK for example), universities pursue international students at the undergraduate level because they pay full tuition and fees as well as housing and meals. This is similar to what has happened in the US in state universities where out of state students have an advantage in admissions. It can be traced back to a fall in government support for the universities. So yes, there is an advantage to international students in admissions at the undergraduate level. Second, departments need majors to stay departments, and there are not enough US students majoring in physics, so there are Departments of Physics and Chemistry, Departments of Physical Sciences, Departments of Natural Sciences and so on.  So, yes, one purpose of recruiting international undergrads is to maintain faculty slots and departments.

Third, those from elsewhere are depressing the standard of living of US citizens in STEM fields because while there are more than enough jobs with a smaller number of international students staying on, the large number who wish to overwhelms the number of openings.

And finally, the major over-representation of new immigrants on university faculties brings a role model issue, that, some, not all US students can’t see themselves as being in the mold of the faculty and thus are alienated from STEM departments and majors.

It's a bitch all around.


David B. Benson said...

With regard to the TE part of STEM, industry in the state of Washington cannot find enough junior engineers to hire from within the state; the University of Washington and Washington State University are full up of wanna be engineers and both schools have decent retention rates in the engineering programs. Yet, there simply are not enough and so companies recruit elsewhere as well as intensely at the two engineering schools.

dbostrom said...

David's remarks about Washington the state call to mind the constant lip-service paid to STEM at the primary and secondary educational level, the portion of the educational ecosystem providing scholastic metabolites (students) to big empty stomachs at the level discussed by the Head Bunny. If no plankton or krill with suitably equipped brains are emerging from high schools, then certainly the Big Mouths will have to import their food from overseas.

My own educational food unit (son) is moving on from high school to university. For my part, I'm sticking with volunteering at his old high school, as a mentor with the robotics club. Why? Because while this facility -used- to be the premiere "vocational-technical" school in the system, the only signs of that history are the form of stumps of heavy machine tools once bolted to the floors prior to the rise of STEM. In an age when the archetypal home garage or workshop is a vanishing feature, schools also have forgotten about the necessity of actually touching and changing material things in order to have a fully integrated civil society.

Not to put too fine a point on it, the students brave enough to enter the robotics club frequently resemble something akin to executives spilled during a crash from an aircraft carrying a large quantity of tools and materials in the cargo hold, uninjured but completely helpless to use the things they find scattered around them. "What's this?" they say, holding a saw, or a drill motor. The ignorance of made things and how they're created is almost total. These are the curious and motivated kids; the vast majority of the student body are trussed into a life consisting purely of tapping and swiping, waiting for something made by somebody else to carry them. They are Eloi, living at the whim of Morlocks.

STEM as it's visible at the primary and secondary school levels seems to operate on the premise that we can purely think our way out of any problem, or that a problem is solved once we understand it, or perhaps even that doing more than simply thinking is to become a member of an inferior caste. As with so many districts, ours here mistakes training people to buy and use Microsoft products for technology education. Engineering seems to be entirely missing; ask a student to draw two simple machines and they'll show you a thing that makes espresso and another that dispenses money with the swipe of a card but you won't see a lever or a screw. You also won't get a drawing that's any good for conveying information to a person interested in replicating the machine under discussion; the depiction will be highly abstract.

Indigenous, homegrown undergraduates capable and interested in engineering careers who actually have touched engineered artifacts at the fundamental level seem purely an accidental byproduct of the food metabolite pyramid. If other countries can still produce this kind of food then what else are universities supposed to eat?

James Cliborn said...

What the two previous commenters said, plus, having a STEM education is without a doubt the best preparation any person can have for tackling life.

Anonymous said...

"while this facility -used- to be the premiere "vocational-technical" school in the system, the only signs of that history are the form of stumps of heavy machine tools once bolted to the floors prior to the rise of STEM."

The irony is that trade jobs are arguably some of the best in many regards.

They can't be outsourced (eg, like engineering) , they are challenging (mentally and physically), are often well-paying (your plumber probably makes as much as many engineers), and often very satisfying (trades-people provide an invaluable service to our society).

As a society, we are really shooting ourselves in the foot by "closing up shop".

And the biggest irony of all is that we have a created a society of "knowledge workers" who actually don't know how to think for themselves, something which learning a trade teaches you to do.

David B. Benson said...

James Cliborn --- Yes, provided it is done (more or less) the CalTech way: one humanities course each and every quarter.

guthrie said...

I realised, back in 2002 when I as in Sheffield, that when you have to have a 'science adventure centre', you're fucked when it comes to STEM.
If enough people are employed in stem type jobs, so that children have an aunt/ uncle/ neighbour/ friends father etc etc who goes out to work doing stem stuff, then they grow up with at least an awareness of it, which surely helps in preparing them for such work, as well of course as home projects, garage workshops etc.
But when they don't, you need a 'science adventure centre' to try and get them interested, as if a couple of hours a year playing with a jcb arm or a virtual reality body somehow makes up for not seeing stem subjects being used in real life.

Anonymous said...

One thing is certain: STEM educated folks are very impressed with their own superior thinking skills and superiority in general.

Physicists are a perfect example (as are computer "scientists", who live in a virtual world that has nothing to do with the real one)

John said...

One of my colleagues, a mathematics professor originally from India, told me his motivations as a youngster:
"For me, mathematics was a way out of poverty!"

Quite a few Americans don't have such a strong motivation. OR they weigh the years of training required against the financial rewards, and decide it's a better deal to go to business school or law school or medical school, instead of grad school in sciences.