Studying Science

There has recently been some more suggestions that the U.S. is going to run short on scientists and other technical people, and that the best way to solve this is to encourage students to study science and engineering. As a computer programmer, I am certainly in favor of encouraging students to study science. But if we want most scientists, encouraging people to study science is backward. The way to get more scientists is to create more high-paying prestigious jobs for scientists. Right now most people who struggle through to get a Ph.D. in theoretical physics, say, can not get a job doing theoretical physics. There aren’t enough jobs. And most of them don’t pay particularly well, either.

If scientists got the highest paying jobs, there would be more scientists. In practice the highest paying jobs that come to my mind are company CEO, hedge fund manager, VP marketing, sports star, media star, surgeon. That is what the most capable generalists aim for. The people who become scientists today are the people who love it. Encouraging more people to study science may uncover a few more people who love it, but it isn’t going to significantly change the number of scientists. Making science a more desirable career, however, will significantly change the number–people will figure out how to study. And making science a more desirable career may even be cheaper overall for society.

I’ll also note that when Bill Gates (or some other computer CEO) says that he wants more engineers, he really means that he wants to increase supply so that he can lower salaries. Microsoft is not limited in what they do by the number of people they hire.

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