An article in yesterday's Washington Post, U.S. pushes for more scientists, but the jobs aren’t there, By Brian Vastag, July 7, 2012 is related to my posting on the NIH report the other day.
The Post piece is excellent in one respect, showing the stark, even tragic, disconnect between DC's push to get more young people to get into STEM and the lack of STEM jobs. However, it fails to connect the STEM labor glut to H-1B.
(For brevity, I'll refer to the foreign worker programs, including theF-1 student visa, as "H-1B," and refer to the politicians—the article cites Obama but this issue is quite bipartisan—as "DC.")
Was this omission deliberate? Many readers of this e-newsletter consider the press to be flagrantly biased on H-1B. I'm less cynical, choosing to note instead that most journalists work on a new topic everyday, and thus simply don't have time to go into any depth. Once they obtain the requisite one or quotes from each of two opposing sides, their job is done, and it's on to the next topic. It's thus easy for them to fall victim to those who wish to manipulate public opinion.
But in this case I must say it's odd that H-1B isn't mentioned, given that the reporter seems to be well aware of the NIH report, and quotes two analysts who worked on it. If the reporter had watched the video, even just the first five minutes of the report presentation, he would have seen explicit statements that H-1B is a major part of the problem.
I'm more concerned about censorship on H-1B by academics than by journalists. As I've stated before, I'm proud that my university has supported my rabblerousing on H-1B over the years, even honoring me with its Distinguished Public Service Award in part due to H-1B. But being too critical can be hazardous to one's career. I've observed a number of instances in which even academic researchers critical of immigration policy engage in self censorship of various kinds.
That's why I found the NIH video so remarkable; they admitted there is a pernicious labor glut, and they admitted that H-1B is one of its major causes. I wonder if they now regret bringing up the H-1B issue.
In addition to overlooking H-1B, on a more subtle but even more important, level, the article fails to ask WHY this disconnect between DC and reality has developed. The answer, of course, is the lobbyists.
In the run-up to the passage of legislation establishing H-1B in 1990, the National Science Foundation (NIH's counterpart for general STEM), forecast a severe STEM shortage. That shortage failed to materialize, leading to the Wolpe hearings in Congress in 1992, in which the NSF was roundly chastised.
But the lobbyists know that people have short memories, and that pushing the Education Button always works. Moreover, there was the spectacular success of the computer industry in the late 1990s, and the rise of China.
So in recent years, the American public has been inundated with newspaper articles, statements by politicians and so on, that we have a STEM labor shortage, that "Johnnie can't do math," that we were going to lose the STEM race to China, etc.
Needless to say, those with vested interests in STEM are delighted to join in this charade, leveraging it to press for more funding, more tax breaks and expansion of H-1B. As I stated in my last posting, the universities like H-1B because it enables the labor glut and thus reduction in labor costs. Industry benefits from the glut too; I was startled a year or so ago to see that Microsoft had established post doc positions.
As a result, we have DC telling us we have a STEM shortage—and that we need to give automatic green cards to foreign STEM graduates of U.S. universities—at the same time that H-1B is causing a glut.
And indeed, another result is that it would be impossible, unthinkable, to hold something like the Wolpe hearings today.
By the way, the STEM glut does include the computer area, in spite of the article's claim that the field is "booming." It is indeed booming for new graduates, but not for the rest of the profession.
Speaking of the DC crowd, I've often referred here to my report on a workshop held at Georgetown University last summer,whose participants included a number of key policymakers on STEM in DC and elsewhere; see
I've referred to that workshop as quite an eye opener for me, as I saw so many highly influential people who knew of the problems but chose to rationalize them rather than solve them, the latter being a political nonstarter.
One of the most eye-opening aspects of that workshop was its discussion of "diversion," a DC euphemism for the highly-trained STEM people who ultimately cannot secure permanent employment in their fields. One of the participants, who him/herself was "diverted" to government after a doctorate in engineering, insisted that The Diverted don't mind at all that they can't work in the field they spent years training for. I don't doubt that this particular bureaucrat feels this way, but that many of The Diverted do in fact mind, a LOT. Those PhDs profiled in the Post article who are now working as administrative assistants and the like are obvious examples.
Instead of recognizing that the problem is largely one of excess supply, the article paints a picture of insufficient demand. And this is a question that one almost never sees addressed—is the U.S. funding enough STEM research?
My answer to that question has always been that we are already OVERfunding research. I really enjoy doing research, and it is a major attraction of the job from my point of view, but in my opinion most funded research is a highly questionable use of taxpayer money.
I have only limited experience with funding in the life sciences, but I can certainly say that in fields whose funding situation I know well—computer science, electrical engineering, math and statistics—most funded research is neither of fundamental importance nor of real practical value.
The funding should be much more targeted, with some of it going to fund "fundamental secrets of the universe" projects and the rest going to work that seems to have a good chance of short-term, tangible payoff. In addition, in order to counter the Internal Brain Drain I've often mentioned, government funding agencies should pay much higher salaries to many fewer people.
Finally, the "We're going to lose the STEM race to China" cry is nothing more than a calculated appeal to xenophobia. The irony, of course, is that China doesn't have H-1B or post doc programs. So why do we need them?