Are We Missing The Point?

Today I read an opinion piece in Nature (by Colin Macilwain) which states that programmes that bolster STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) education, either distort the labour market (in favour of the employer) or are ineffective and, therefore, a complete waste of money.  When you get into the (US-based) statistics of the piece you can’t help but think that there is a point, at least where wasting money is concerned: there do seem to be too many overlapping programmes that share the same goals yet try to achieve them in perfect isolation. But the whole piece is a bit ‘glass half-empty’ for my liking.

Macilwain goes on to let the reader know that the Obama administration is suggesting these programmes are consolidated and strengthened (through increased funding). “Good” I thought “stop wasting money and make the most of what’s available”; a pretty smart move in a time of austerity. I might yield and say that to increase the funding may be unnecessarily generous. However, it seems that Macilwain wants to take things in completely the opposite direction and believes that these types of programmes are of no use at all:

“What no one asked was whether these many activities actually benefit science and engineering, or society as a whole. My answer to both questions is an emphatic ‘no’.”1 (Quote attributed to Colin Macilwain)

What he seems to be suggesting, is that these programmes are of benefit solely to the industry itself and that by flooding the job-market with new graduates the entire situation allows for the best to be cherry-picked and cordially paid a pittance for their effort and for the rest to have been abandoned and ultimately failed by these schemes. He might not be far off the mark here but I do think he’s missing a wider point (more on that later).

Pretty University

Avoiding the beauty of learning and further education because of a lack of inspiration is a travesty. Image credits: Lricewiki via wikicommons

Luckily Macilwain understands that these programmes were set up to involve under-represented minorities to a greater extent in STEM subjects. Furthermore he suggests that employers, who want the best, should invest more in their own employee’s education and training and they’ll have the best. A very fair point, indeed!

Here’s the rub though, Macilwain seems to be saying that all this money ($3 billion in the US) should be spent elsewhere, where it’s really needed and that governments should tell kids to just do what they want as a career. In a best case scenario, I think that he’s missing a bigger point. In the worst case, he might just be belittling the impact STEM ambassadors have on childrens’ lives – glibly calling the schemes “cuddly and wonderful”.  The bigger point is this; does he not remember what it was like to be young and impressionable? Not every child knows what they want to do with the rest of their lives. The process by which they chose their career path is rather more complex than:

“I just wanted to be an immunologist” (quote attributed to NOBODY).

Children often take a liking to a subject because they happen to have a particularly charismatic or very passionate teacher (I know that’s what got me hooked on chemistry in the first place). What happens to the child who might be sitting on the fence between a career in, say, plumbing or physics? Perhaps they had the potential to do well at both but needed the right education to know what was best for them.  Perhaps they just didn’t ‘click’ with their physics teacher and decided, by the proverbial ‘flip of a coin’, to become a plumber (no bad trade by the way – my Dad is a plumber – but that’s beside the point). That’s one fewer person who pursued a career in the sciences through a lack of education; a missed opportunity due to a lack of inspiration (or, for example, resources within a school).

STEM ambassadors (and people who work through similar programmes) can go into schools, or host events at universities and inspire young minds! This isn’t just warm and cuddly, it’s life-changing. They can be the spark to a child’s imagination that sets them down the path of science or any other STEM career for that matter. I don’t think that we should be cutting investment in STEM education programmes – though I’ll concede that maybe savings could be made – I do think that we should be looking at ways to attract more jobs. It’s not “second-guessing” the job-market, it’s actively going out and promoting it. It’s saying, we have a country that’s full of bright, well-educated minds who can work well for your company and you should set up shop here.

Some might read this and say I’m being naïve but I’d say they’re being overly pessimistic. I’d say that this particular Nature article is guilty of that too. The penultimate point being made, is that the consolidation of these disparate STEM programmes is ultimately futile. Futile because (in the US at least) government ineptitude and bureaucracy will prevent resources from being transferred from one particular site to another. Come on! Let’s not just criticise a system (as valid as that criticism might be) and then just ‘walk away’ without proposing a solution to the problem. Moreover, don’t suggest that axing funding all together is the way forward just because you happen to lack the imagination to fix the problem. The phrase “where there’s a will, there’s a way” jumps to mind. What this article smacks of is a lack of willingness more than the lack of a “way”. There could be many ways in which this problem could be fixed. Why even centralise the resources at all? Surely local resources could just be managed from a central location that’s in charge of the funds?

Returning to my main point, it’s a sad day when it’s suggested that we lessen education opportunities that genuinely help people, as opposed to proposing a solution to an addressable problem. I’d like to see this become the start of some productive dialogue and not the death of a valuable resource.

Leave a comment below or tweet me your opinions using @Sci_McInnes

  1. http://www.nature.com/news/driving-students-into-science-is-a-fool-s-errand-1.12981 as of 16 May 2013 at 2000 hours.
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