A recent issue of C&EN (the Specialty Chemicals swimsuit issue, Vol 89, number 5) quotes several top research profs on the topic of the present glut of PhD’s.  Seems that these professors profess to actually grasp the job picture for recent and current grads.  Was there a flash of light or was there a visitor in the night who whispered the situation to them?  These folks have been benefitting from cheap, abundant, and enthusiastic labor to propel their research forward for decades and suddenly they claim to be paying attention to the job picture for their alums. Oh please!

In his column, Rudy Baum concludes that it isn’t so much that that we have too many PhD’s, but that we aren’t teaching them what they need to “succeed and benefit society.” 

OK. I can get on board with that. But it begs the question, who is going to teach them what they need to know, whatever that is? A bunch of academics who have spent their careers grooming students to be academics?  Are you kidding me? The status quo is not capable of adjusting curricula to make this change.  It isn’t in their bag of tricks. It is well beyond their experience.

Imagine trying to convince a group of faculty members of anything, much less that their past efforts are now obsolete?  Just imagine that happening. I can’t.

C&EN is the publicity organ of ACS. Imagine the handwringing and chafing that had to happen before these Polyanna’s came to publish such findings? The horror, the horror.

The university/research apparatus in the USA is the principal system within which basic R&D gets done in this country. Resources by way of tax revenues are plowed into the university system to maintain the research effort. Corporations hire the graduates of this system and benefit from their education by way of invention and innovation.

IBM, Dow, GE, GM, etc, didn’t grow wealthy and successful in a vacuum. Their hires, many of which came from the US university/research infrastructure, brought their eduction to bear on the problems of market penetration faced by these companies.

These companies took advantage of the entire spectrum of American infrastructure available to them. They did not have to build roads, monitor public health, run power distribution lines, build hydroelectric dams, or fight wars on foreign soil themselves. That infrastructure was provided to them. Yet, these and other corporations are unhappy with operations in the USA and, rather than inventing a domestic solution, are happy to export their operations and magic.

Over time, university departments and institutions grow based on state and federal funding. Now, the system finds itself possibly with excess capacity. But who is going to admit it? Who is going to go along with American industry and admit that R&D is too expensive to do in the USA?

Part of the problem with the present dearth of scientific jobs is with the structure and imperatives of the publically owned corporation. Publically owned corporations are owned by absentee landlords. The owners, i.e., we who have 401(k)’s, are only interested in quarterly growth. Absentee landlords don’t want to throw cash at a new roof and an upgraded sewer line. They (we) insist on rapid growth in shareholder value. That imperative isn’t necessarily compatible with the organic growth of a business or a market. So, if outsourcing of R&D offshore will save money, then the CEO better do it. I think we need a new business model that isn’t so anxious to export our magic.

My libertarian friends will say that this is the natural result of market forces, as though whatever the market wants is good by definition. 

The market is like a stomach. It has no brain. It only wants one thing- more.

Is that automatically the only acceptable consequence? I don’t think so. We have civilization to buffer us from the extremes of reality. Those who advocate adherence to pure market logic are missing the point of civilization.