Monday, July 12, 2004

Crisis in Science ?

<Rant>
In what twisted universe does 11pt and 12 pages actually mean 10pt, illegible margins, and 20 pages ? I tell you, this is the real crisis in science.
</Rant>
Phew: now I feel better...

So this article from the Chronicle of Higher Education talks about the problems facing universities trying to admit students for graduate studies. However, even after I read it a few times, I couldn't quite figure out what its central thesis was. The subtitle says:

Leaders warn of a labor shortage in the U.S., but indicators point to an oversupply

However, the following data points are presented:

* graduate enrollment from Taiwan has dropped by 25 percent
* NSF announced that foreign enrollment reached a new peak by 2002.
* A survey of 113 schools showed a 32% drop in foreign enrollment in those schools (especially from China)
* Purdue, UCLA and UT Austin are cited as examples of foreign enrollment either going up, or number of foreign applications going up.

If you are confused at this point, join the club.

Regarding overall jobs in the market,
* BLS predicted in 2001 that there would be a 47% increase in jobs in science and engineering by 2010
* Unemployment rates in computer science and systems analysis jumped to 6.7%
* unemployment among chemists is at "an all time high", as measured in terms of the number of postdocs.

Now I am getting rather dizzy.

The article deals with a complex matter, and I can respect the need to factor in a number of different statistics, but it is not clear to me that there is any story here at all. Enrollment is going up and down, jobs are going up and down, foreigners are applying more or less: what is the conclusion ?

If we look at the summary of the article:

...although no one can predict how many scientists and engineers the nation will need in 20 years, everyone agrees that the faces of those technical leaders will be far more diverse than those of generations past, and that American universities will scour the world for the best minds.

I don't know: it seems a little wishy-washy to me...

Some detailed methodological problems:

1. There is a conflation of science vs engineering, Ph.D vs M.S vs bachelors degrees, research jobs vs non-research jobs etc. These have different dynamics, and it is dangerous to draw broad conclusions from the aggregate of so many different sectors. For one thing, unemployment in computer science may not necessarily be related to employment prospects for Ph.Ds, because the IT industry has such a huge effect on such numbers....

2. They use number of US-authored publications to indicate a "flat" trend for research in the US. Without more details, it is hard to understand this statistic. As we know from SODA/STOC/FOCS, classifying papers by country is almost meaningless in times of multi-authored papers, and in experimental fields with lots of authors/paper, even more so.

3. There is a lot of confusion over US-born student enrollment vs foreign-born student enrollment; some stats are quoted for one group, some are quoted for the total

4. Using the rate of postdoc employment to infer general trends may or may not work in general. Do people in the natural sciences go for postdocs because they can't get jobs (as was the case in theory in the early 90s), or because they NEED a postdoc to even cross the interview threshold (as appears to be true in biology at least, and maybe physics). It is possible that mathematics is an example of the first case, but I don't know if math was part of this study at all.

A point that is not made often enough:

Mr. Freeman, like other economists, looks to dollars to make sense of the trends among graduate students. "They're not studying science," he says, "because they look and say, 'Do I want to be a postdoc paid $35,000 or $40,000 at age 35, with extreme uncertainty working in somebody else's lab, and maybe getting credit for my work and maybe not getting full credit? Or would I rather be an M.B.A. and making $150,000 and hiring Ph.D.'s?'"




p.s So I just spent all this time writing a review of an article in the CHE instead of writing a review of a SODA submission. oh well....
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