NEW YORK-Have you ever noticed (to paraphrase a famously vulgar George Carlin joke) that the people who want you to become a scientist are the last ones who'd want to work as one themselves? New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman has lately been pimping a book that bemoans the decreasing influence of the United States in the hard sciences. "For the first time in our history," Friedman quotes Harvard President Lawrence Summers as telling him, "we are going to face competition from low-wage, high-human-capital communities, embedded within India, China and Asia." Friedman riffs: "We can't rely on importing the talent we need anymore-not in a flat world where people can now innovate without having to emigrate ...There is a real sense of urgency in India and China about 'catching up' in talent-building. America, by contrast, has become rather complacent."
Don't mistake Friedman's trash talk for genuine alarmism. If he worried about Indians and Chinese kicking our butt in the computer programming and particle physics games, he could quit his cushy gig at the Times and apply to M.I.T. But that's the book biz.
What's lamentable about this latest why-do-our-kids-suck-at-math hand-wringing is that too many Americans are coming away from the conversation with the message that we're losing an intellectual arms race because our young men and women are lazy, stupid or both. As a recent study of high school kids in 26 states showed, 22 percent of entering college freshmen are required to take remedial math classes. Math and science have become lower priorities in the secondary educational system. But as I can personally attest, there's a good reason that fewer young Americans are pursuing careers in the sciences: the jobs suck.
Take engineers for example: The major employers are amoral, the coworkers are dull, and employment is sporadic. A job's rewards are commensurate to its social status, which, in the case of careers in the sciences, is dropping. A Harris Poll found that public perception of engineers ranks rock-bottom-just above congressmen and lawyers. The era of the scientist-celebrity died with Albert Einstein, subsumed by a money-grubbing anti-intellectualism whose stars recite other people's scripts and chase balls across a field.
Pressured by my parents to choose a major "that trains you for a job," I spent the first three of my undergraduate years at Columbia University as an applied physics major at the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. I considered switching to civil engineering until several professors helpfully pointed out that there hasn't been much work for civil engineers since our country essentially stopped building dams, bridges and other large-scale projects decades ago.
Columbia's liberal arts requirements exceed those of tech dork mills like CalTech and M.I.T. but their typical engineering student's ignorance of such essentials of American citizenship as politics, history and literature was staggering nonetheless. A disproportionate percent of the student body was composed of foreign nationals, but they weren't the only ones allowed to graduate without enough knowledge of English to compose a cover letter. My classmates' single-minded dedication to their studies came at the expense of reading the newspaper, listening to music and campus activism. Engineering students were widely-and accurately-regarded as boring careerists. Who'd want such geeks as coworkers?
Visits to the Career Services office reinforced the grim picture of life as a scientist. I knew I'd need a high-paying job to pay off my student loans after graduation. Dow Chemical, Monsanto, General Electric-all the decent offerings required spilling brain cells on the machinery of mass death on behalf defense contractors. An ex-girlfriend who'd graduated a couple of years before me worked as a physicist for a company that was secretly developing genetically modified organisms for use in internationally banned biological weapons. She was assigned to a team trying to perfect long-range lasers to incinerate cities and towns from the sky. "We're all sinners," I remember lecturing her over beers one night, "and we all do things we regret. But if there's a hell I'm positive that anyone who does what you do will be on the express elevator, going down."
Not much has changed. "But it's not just defense contractors that are hiring engineers," promises GraduatingEngineer.com. "The military ... is also looking for a few good engineers and computer science grads to hire." Check your conscience when you clock in.
Just after I learned enough about nuclear fission to make me someone Saddam would have liked to meet, I got myself thrown out of college. My engineering classes were too boring to keep my interest and too hard besides. But I've come to believe that I sabotaged my studies because I was depressed by the thought of working for those monsters alongside idiots. Wall Street, which cared less about my B.A. than my I.Q., paid my rent until I returned to Columbia a few years later as a history major.
Since then, I've heard from my former engineering school classmates. None were close to starving, but even those who went on to obtain masters degrees and doctorates were laid off when government contracts expired and projects were canceled. My brilliant ex-girlfriend, pushed out the door when her fraction of a fraction of a fraction of a percent error caused an expensive defense satellite to re-enter the atmosphere and burn up, had trouble finding work elsewhere. Employment security was haphazard across the spectrum but engineers were especially prone to bouncing from job to job separated by scary income gaps.
High school and college students considering their futures know that work as a scientist is morally nasty, brutally alienating and financially insecure. That's why nearly a million engineering-related job openings remain vacant in the United States. If the young men and women of Pakistan and Bangladesh want the work, let them have it.