Not enough U.S. engineers?
Vivek Wadhwa, Gary Gereffi, Ben Rissing, and Ryan Ong from Duke University have clearly put a lot of work into their study of engineering education in the United States, India, and China (“Where the Engineers Are,” Issues, Spring 2007). From the perspective of current and future U.S. competitiveness and national security, it is clear that we need to have more studies such as this one. That acknowledged, we have some important reservations regarding their analysis.
First, although the Duke study clarifies some of the problems dealing with inaccurate data related to engineering graduation rates in China and India, the irony is that they too have made a major error in their treatment of the Chinese case. According to the Duke analysis, the official data from China are “suspect” because they were unable to reconcile some key differences in reporting undergraduate engineering graduation rates between China’s Ministry of Education (MOEd) and the China Education and Research Network (CERN). The Duke team therefore concludes that “the CERN numbers are likely to be closer to actual graduation rates” than those from MOEd. However, not only do the CERN numbers come from MOEd, which released them in the China Educational News (a MOEd newspaper), but they included only 56 specialties (out of close to 500) whose new enrollment in 2004 was over 10,000. In other words, Duke’s suspicion is misplaced because they have not interpreted the Chinese data correctly.
Second, the authors highlight the decrease in the number of technical schools and their associated teachers and staff as evidence to support their claims about the weaknesses in the Chinese data. According to their analysis, the number of such schools fell from 4,098 to 2,844 between 1999 and 2004, and the number of teachers and staff fell by 24%. We were surprised by the alleged sharp decline, so we consulted the China Education Statistical Yearbook. It turns out that “technical schools” have nothing to do with higher education, because they enroll graduates from junior high schools. For the record, the total number of Chinese institutions that grant bachelor’s degrees—engineering and others—actually increased from 597 in 1999 to 701 in 2005, according to the China Statistical Yearbook of Education.
Third, the article’s contention that one of the rationales for China to enlarge enrollments in science and engineering education is “to reduce engineering salaries simply” is supported by neither the wage data nor the official policy pronouncements. At no time, either formally or informally, has the Chinese government pointed to that as a specific objective, nor have we heard similar arguments during our extensive field research in China over the past year. The chief rationale behind the enlargement of engineering enrollment in China has been economic: increasing domestic consumption. MOEd officials now recognize that the enlargement has had an unintended consequence; that is, hedging on a projected decrease in China’s college-bound population in the future as suggested by the current Chinese demographic trajectory.
And fourth, based on our own overall successes in securing open-source data from Chinese government agencies and retail booksellers, we are quite uncomfortable with the assertion in the Duke article that “Chinese yearbooks generally are not permitted to leave China.” During our own multi-visit fieldwork in 2006, we purchased numerous volumes of Chinese statistical yearbooks regarding science and technology (S&T) developments, high-tech trends, education development, etc., and have never experienced any trouble bringing out or shipping books back to the United States. Although we have been careful to steer clear of what the Chinese government defines as “neibu,” or internal-use-only materials, we largely have felt unencumbered in searching for data in public libraries and think-tank book collections as well.
Although we appreciate the important contributions of the Duke team, it is clear that these types of studies cannot be conducted without a fuller in-depth understanding of the actual Chinese situation—with all of its achievements and shortcomings, especially with respect to the broad array of statistical materials that exists regarding higher education, the S&T workforce, and population demographics. Indeed, there remain many problems with the quality and reliability of Chinese data; there are many outstanding issues that make comparisons with the countries of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, as well as forecasting and trend analysis, quite challenging. In order to alleviate some of the frustrations that the Duke team and other scholars have encountered in understanding China’s statistics on human resources in S&T, we devote an entire chapter to the topic in our forthcoming book Talent— China’s Emerging Technological Edge (Cambridge University Press).
Finally, in the extensive research project we have conducted at the State University of New York’s Levin Graduate Institute over the past year regarding China’s high-end science and engineering talent pool, we have identified not only the supply-side elements addressed by the Duke team but, most important, also the demand-side variables that seem to be driving the rapidly expanded need for talent among China’s domestic firms and universities as well as foreign corporations and their newly established R&D centers. We believe that our research sets forth a fuller series of explanations for what is actually happening with respect to the current and future availability of science and engineering talent in China.
As observers have pointed out over the years, the “science” of science policy is weak at best. This shortcoming has been particularly obvious in the policy discussion concerning the implications of the globalization of engineering labor, where policy proposals have largely been based on flawed data and no analytical framework. Vivek Wadhwa, Gary Gereffi, Ben Rissing, and Ryan Ong’s article provides some important and grounded contributions, pointing us in the right direction when thinking about these issues.
Their most significant contribution is an analysis of hiring statistics regarding U.S. engineers. Rather than relying on the impressions of company executives, as so many news stories and studies are wont to do, they asked hiring managers to provide objective metrics, such as offer-acceptance rates, signing bonuses, and time to fill positions. Their findings belie the conventional wisdom that there is a persistent shortage of U.S. engineering labor, calling into question the usefulness of doubling the number of engineering graduates: the principal policy response proposed by our leaders, chief executive officer and university president alike. The lesson is that objective data-gathering needs to be extended to the multiple dimensions that influence domestic engineering labor markets: supply, demand, incentives, career durability, pipeline capabilities, wages, employment relations, cost of entry, foreign labor substitution and complements, public mission, etc.
What is also missing in the policy discussion is an analytic framework in which we can evaluate the policy choices. We know that a company will rationally seek the lowest unit cost for all of its production inputs, and that includes engineers. The new reality is that firms, for a variety of reasons (the deterioration in employment relationships in the United States is the most important and overlooked), can choose from a much larger menu of options, domestic, foreign, or imported, when it comes to sourcing engineering talent. This poses a genuine competitiveness challenge for U.S. engineers, whose traditional comparative advantages are eroding fast. The key policy question, given the fundamental changes that globalization is making in the engineering labor market, is how do we make U.S. engineers more competitive? One way to solve this is for domestic engineers to lower their compensation demands and give up workplace and career security, but this doesn’t seem to be a very sensible solution. A better answer is to make U.S. engineers significantly more productive than their foreign competition to justify their wage premiums. This would be the high road to solving the competitiveness challenge for U.S. engineers.
However, we have good theories about how firms compete with one another through lower costs or product differentiation, but our thinking about the dynamics of competition at the occupational level seems to be quite limited. For example, the productivity advantages for engineers practicing in America are not simply derived from a better U.S. engineering education, as so many engineers with foreign training have demonstrated. Instead they come from a more complex set of demand and structural factors. It is those factors we should be exploring in more depth, to formulate our policies and help engineers understand what they need to do to compete. For example, should U.S. engineers crowd into non-tradable jobs, as Alan Blinder’s recent work seems to suggest, or should they be seeking ways in which they can create comparative advantages in tradable activities? With a better understanding of the market dynamics, we can work to get market incentives right and render attempts to centrally plan the number of engineers moot.
First off, I’d like to thank Vivek Wadhwa, Gary Gereffi, Ben Rissing, and Ryan Ong for their important, insightful article. As a technology executive deeply involved in research and recruiting efforts for Microsoft, I can say that our industry is actively engaged in this issue. From our vantage point, the article misses a few key elements that are essential to this broader discussion, particularly that the enrollment into engineering programs has declined, significantly reducing the pipeline of prospective computer science graduates.
The authors look at engineering degree production during a specific time frame to suggest that the current U.S. supply is sufficient. Yet they overlook enrollment, which tells a completely different story over the past few years. For example, the Computing Research Association’s Taulbee Survey on computer science enrollment in the United States shows a decline of 39% since 2001. According to the Higher Education Research Institute/University of California Los Angeles annual Cooperative Institutional Research Program Freshman Survey, the percentage of incoming undergraduates planning to major in computer science declined by 70% between 2000 and 2005.
After six years of decline, the number of new computer science majors in 2006 was 7,798—roughly half of what it was in 2000 (15,958). Granted, these figures represent only computer science as opposed to engineering as a whole, but they do reflect what we believe is a general trend in the United States across the engineering and science disciplines.
This reveals a flaw in the premise of the article when it comes to the supply of engineers: The authors overlooked the 4- to 5-year pipeline between enrollment and degree production. The high number of 2005 degrees issued reflects enrollment in 2000–2001, at the height of the dot-com boom. In contrast, degree production numbers for the next four years have already been determined by enrollment rates such as those cited above, and they are anemic.
This dramatic dropoff in the domestic supply of computer science graduates is one reason why the leadership of the information technology community is sounding an alarm. The picture looks bleak over the next few years.
Although the solution to this worldwide shortage must be global, the U.S. technology industry must take immediate steps at home to get more people into the field. Many of the remedies suggested in the article align with strategies that the industry is currently pursuing: the number of H-1B visas and amount of research funding both need to increase. Green card reform is necessary. The industry and government must find ways to make science and engineering more exciting and rewarding for young undergraduates. And mid-career retraining efforts deserve examination and better funding.
The authors are correct that the answer lies in no single country, incentive, or program. Only by working holistically across disciplines, cultures, and geographies can we continue to fill the talent pipeline that fuels innovation in science and technology across the globe.
Technology evolution in India and China
In “China and India: Emerging Technological Powers” (Issues, Spring 2007), Carl J. Dahlman performs a useful service by calling our attention to the growing scientific and technological capabilities of China and India and by providing a set of statistical indicators for comparing relative performance. Both countries are developing their own national innovation systems but are also becoming important nodes in global networks of research and innovation. The prospects for both countries are enhanced by international cooperative relations with established centers of excellence in the countries of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, relations that are facilitated by the scientific diasporas of Chinese and Indian scientists and engineers to Europe, North America, and to a lesser extent, Japan.
As scientific and technological development in the two countries proceeds, however, their inherited institutions affecting higher education, R&D management, intellectual property protection, and the governance of science and technology (S&T) more generally will be increasingly challenged. Developing the capacity for ongoing institutional reform and innovation, therefore, is likely to pace their emergence as technological powers as much as standard input measures such as R&D spending and the education and employment of scientists and engineers.
For instance, in spite of two decades of institutional reform, the challenges of institutional innovation in China have become more pressing precisely at a time when financial and human resources for S&T have become more abundant and the expectations for R&D have risen. These challenges range from university reforms needed to stimulate greater research creativity in young scientists and engineers to mechanisms for more effective national coordination of research. They also include the need to develop quality-control and evaluation procedures to promote genuinely innovative work and to guard against fraud and misconduct, and the need for mechanisms for greater transparency and accountability in the use of public monies. Perhaps the biggest challenge is to infuse Chinese industrial enterprises with a zest for innovation and an understanding of how R&D and knowledge management more generally serve the longer-term interests of the enterprise. Similar challenges can be found in India.
At base, many of the challenges both countries face stem from the complexities of determining the proper role of government in promoting research and innovation. Both countries have experienced the positive effects of government action in human-resource development and in the initiation of new fields of research; indeed, without their active government policies, we would not be discussing their emergence as technological powers.
At the same time, the actions of the state have also led to resources being wasted on derivative research and distortions of market signals needed for strategically sound innovation decisions by industrial producers. Thus, the evolution of science/ state relations in the two countries warrants our continuing attention.
Major indicators point to the emergence of India and China as technological powers, but present conditions impose limits on the optimism about these two countries, most of which Carl J. Dahlman cites in his essay. There is one more. Central to the acquisition of globally competitive technological capabilities are strong supporting institutions and stable and efficient legal and governance systems, regardless of the nature of political systems. Continuous technological efforts demand the corresponding evolution of the country’s legal and governance apparatus in order to be more globally integrated and competitive. In this respect, both China and India face major challenges in improving government effectiveness and regulatory quality, upholding the rule of law, and controlling corruption.
An important point underpinning Dahlman’s discussion of the “critical details” in the technological transformation of India and China is that there are many ways to innovate, and there is no one right approach for all countries and technologies. Simply emulating the United States and Europe will not work, because both of these nations, along with other transition economies, face the dual challenge of overcoming enormous socioeconomic problems while trying to technologically catch up with more advanced economies to compete effectively in the global marketplace.
The rise of India and China as centers of global innovation will radically shake up the still primarily Western-based technology industry. It presents vast opportunities for both countries to introduce new policy and institutional approaches in how technology is created, developed, and performed; to dictate the global technological agenda; and ultimately to proffer a new way of defining technological leadership. In this respect, China’s ascendance begs the question of whether democracy will eventually have to be a necessary condition for global scientific and technological leadership. In other words, what will be the defining characteristics of a new world technology order?
Finally, Dahlman’s essay inspires the observation that linear forecasts of technological growth are subject to the vagaries of geopolitical realities. The complex political and economic relationship of China and India with the world’s current scientific and technological leader, the United States, will yield outcomes on the technological front that will not always be linked to socioeconomic growth but can make sense only if viewed from a strategic and security perspective.
Advice for India
Salil Tripathi’s “India’s Growth Path: Steady but not Straight” (Issues, Spring 2007) is a wide-ranging article focusing on the role of science and technology (S&T) in increasing incomes and improving the quality of life of India’s 1.1 billion people. Occasional clichés apart, the article does convey the sense that India’s economic growth path and evolving role of S&T will be steady, but not necessarily straight.
India has many of the right ingredients for high growth over the long term: institutions facilitating participation, a rising share of the young in the population, and greater acceptance of social entrepreneurship and markets. Challenges such as low quality of political leadership and government service delivery, poor physical infrastructure, environmental changes, and deficiencies in managing rapid growth and urbanization, however, strongly suggest that there is little room for complacency.
The role of S&T in India should not be confined to elite organizations or a small section of population capable of doing scientific research. A knowledge economy should involve applying different sub-branches of knowledge that are already available to obtain real resource cost savings and significantly enhance quality and productivity. For example, during a recent visit to a vegetable farm, a farmer indicated that his curved chilies fetched around 20% less than the straight ones. He wanted technical advice on applying existing knowledge to sharply reduce the proportion of curved chilies, helping to raise his income. This example can be multiplied many times in all areas, both in the public and private sectors.
It is therefore developing the mind-set and mechanisms for the diffusion of knowledge and innovations that is critical, particularly in India’s current catch-up phase.
There should have been a mention of the Knowledge Commission set up by the current government to help develop deeper and wider industry/science linkages, to promote S&T in institutions of higher learning and research, and to narrow the technology gap with the rest of the world. India’s relatively young population and its earlier inappropriate decision to separate scientific research from the universities lend urgency to increasing the supply of scientific and technical manpower, and to developing full-fledged universities.
But these initiatives have come into conflict with old dogmas that are no longer relevant and with entrenched interest groups. These include counterproductive use of quotas and reservations in higher-education institutions and government’s reluctance to modernize rules and regulations applied to the education sector with the aim of raising standards and increasing higher-education opportunities.
The application, adaptation, diffusion, and generation of scientific and technological knowledge in all areas of national life are essential for India. The challenges are huge, and there is room for all stakeholders. The government in particular should shift its mind-set from ruling and micromanagement to governing and enforcement of standards, while corporations should give greater weight to their social responsibility.
China as innovator
“China’s Drive toward Innovation” by Alan Wm Wolff (Issues, Spring 2007) is an excellent and informative analysis of how China plans to wrest leadership in information technology from the United States. The challenge to U.S. leadership is very real, and the stakes are very high.
The emergence of China as a major force in the electronics industry is a healthy development. With the steady migration of electronics manufacturing over the past decade, China is now the world’s largest national market for semiconductors. Currently, China imports approximately 80% of the chips that go into electronic products manufactured in China. The Chinese government would like to reverse this ratio over time, and as Wolff notes, is currently formulating policies to achieve that end. Although we do not yet know precisely what policies will finally emerge, clearly there are some issues of concern on the horizon.
Intellectual property protection is one issue of major concern. China understands the need to improve its intellectual property protection regime in order to foster innovation and attract investment by foreign technology leaders. At the same time, however, China is considering adoption of an antimonopoly law that could undermine the intellectual property rights of companies deemed to have “a dominant market position.”
Another potential concern is the use of domestic standards to disadvantage foreign competitors and coerce them to transfer know-how and share proprietary technology with domestic producers in order to gain access to the enormous Chinese market. Several years ago the Chinese government proposed to promulgate its own wireless security standard (known as WAPI) for products such as portable computers and other devices with wireless connectivity. Only domestic producers would be allowed access to the encryption algorithm essential to comply with the WAPI standard. Fortunately, China put the proposed WAPI standard on hold in the face of strong international pressures and announcements by several important suppliers that they would withhold products from the Chinese market. Nevertheless, the idea of using proprietary standards to coerce technology transfer and weaken the intellectual property rights of foreign producers is still alive.
Although we have some concerns about these and other potential issues as China strives to foster innovation, we view these efforts on the whole as very positive. Competition is by far the most effective driver of progress and advances in semiconductor technology. We believe that market forces, not government-directed policies, foster effective competition. The Semiconductor Industry Association’s (SIA’s) top priorities, therefore, are aimed at enhancing the competitiveness and innovative capabilities of U.S. producers.
SIA’s public policy initiatives are based on three pillars of innovation:
- Ensuring access to a world-class workforce by maintaining our leadership in university research and our ability to attract and retain the best and brightest from throughout the world.
- Supporting basic research to advance the frontiers of science at U.S. universities and national laboratories.
- Ensuring that we have a competitive investment climate for capital-intensive industries and R&D programs in the United States.
Wolff’s article is an excellent summary of the challenge we face from China. It is up to us to meet this challenge.
Alan Wm Wolff does all of us a great service by concisely describing many of the most important issues and trends in China’s current innovation drive. I would differ in emphasis in only two areas.
I would not describe the Medium- and Long-Term Program on Science and Technology Development as “remarkably different” from what emerged before. Almost all of the specific policy goals and tools discussed in the program have their origins in earlier plans or experiments. All of the previous major policies—the 863 and 973 Plans—targeted “critical” or “strategic” technologies on a large scale. The Torch Plan, initiated in May 1988, supported science parks and high-technology development zones and provided loans, subsidies, and other benefits for small startup enterprises. Almost all technology policy has involved the coordinated action of state actors at the local, provincial, and national level.
The Medium- to Long-Term Program may be most notable not because of its ambition or scope, but because of how it was put together. Over 2,000 experts took part in early discussions of the program’s goals and of how policies should be developed and implemented. Some analysts involved have complained that representatives of the business community were not included in these preliminary discussions, but the process was remarkably open and consultative for the Chinese context.
Also, the Medium- and Long-Term Program reveals an underlying political tension over technology development in China. As Wolff notes, the stress on “independence” or “selfreliance” reveals a continued technonationalist strain in the Chinese bureaucracy, yet a great number of the specific policies in the program revolve around creating a more robust ecosystem for technological innovation. These policies are less interventionist, more open to the outside world, and more focused, in the words of the Chinese economist Wu Jinglian, on creating “the right environment where qualified personnel of all types, including technical personnel and managerial personnel, can put their talents to good use.”
Wolff skillfully describes the resources flowing into and the political will dedicated to building an indigenous innovative capacity. He is equally convincing in delineating the social, political, and economic barriers to innovation with China. Yet it strikes me that the most pressing question is not whether China “will evolve into a major source of innovation in the not-too-distant future,” but rather how a unique innovative system is already emerging from the mix of China’s strengths and weaknesses. The most likely outcome, at least in the mid-term, is not system-wide innovation, but innovation located within a specific industry or geographic location.
Take the chip industry as an example. Government policies skewer incentives, promote reverse engineering, and create massive time pressure to produce outcomes, fostering the conditions of the Han Xin chip scandal—a government-supported scientist passing off a Moto-Freescale chip as an “indigenous innovation.” At the same time, China’s chip design sector has developed faster than we might expect, because scientists and entrepreneurs have returned from Silicon Valley to set up their own companies, and multinationals are increasingly locating production and research and design in Beijing and Shanghai. China in the future will be innovative, but in, at least initially, a limited number of industrial sectors.
Education and U.S. competitiveness
Congressman Bart Gordon’s “U.S. Competitiveness: The Education Imperative” (Issues, Spring 2007) is an illuminating summary of what needs to be done to halt the nation’s slide in science and technology (S&T) relative to our competitors. The revolutionary advances of globalization and technology are enabling nations around the globe to produce scientists, engineers, and technicians who are as well or better educated than ours and who can afford to work for a fraction of the cost of a U.S. engineer.
Gordon understands the crucial role of U.S. education and the data indicating that we have a failing educational system. Since he is in a position to implement educational reform, the article provides important insights into a problem of great complexity. Gordon seizes on the need to improve the education of new K-12 science and math teachers. The concurrent need for students to accept and thrive in the K-12 system raises new issues for the nation to address. Gordon notes that there is not enough data to support conclusions about the supply and demand of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) professionals. We do know that increasing use is being made of offshoring S&T tasks.
It is here that this reader departs more in scale than in content from Gordon. U.S. post–World War II prosperity emerged from a huge investment (the G.I. Bill) in our human resources and a strong and continuing contribution from immigration. For decades, some 60% of our graduate schools were occupied by immigrants. About half of these students returned home and half stayed to contribute to a vibrant S&T workforce. However, as anticipated by Alan Greenspan, over time and for a variety of reasons, our educational system began to fail and our immigration began to decline. Today, we are witnessing the results of this double whammy. Our primary-school teachers are emerging from teachers’ colleges as ignorant as ever of math and science. U.S. students begin to turn off in early grades. Our middle- and high-school curricula are out of the 19th century, and the “system” of 50 states, 15,000 school boards, 25,000 high schools, teachers’ unions, PTAs, and textbook publishers, and the wide diversity of public school education, all provide an awesome challenge. We need not to fine-tune around the edges but to transform this impossible system.
China and India are the tip of the iceberg. For the United States to maintain the competitive advantage that would ensure its standard of living and its ability to profit from the worldwide expansion of technological capabilities, we need a major revolution in education. As Gordon suggests, U.S. trained STEM workers will require skills that will differentiate them from their foreign competitors. This will require a pre-K–through–grade 16 revolution in the quality of teachers; in the construction of 21st-century curricula; and in the popular recognition of the need for excellence, creativity, and high-quality education across all disciplines. Our requirements are greatly enhanced by the desperate need to address the S&T of energy in the world’s ecological crises.
I am sure that Gordon knows the magnitude of the problem but also the political realities. These may be dictating steps that are far too modest for the tasks ahead.
Representative Bart Gordon’s article offers a concise overview of the competitiveness problem that America faces and the implications of this problem for education. Reducing the number of “out-of-field” teachers, offering more and better professional development, providing incentives to encourage students to pursue careers as math and science teachers, and fostering more collaboration among math, science and education faculties are all sensible (though long-term) ways to strengthen math and science teaching and learning in schools.
Since the article’s publication, Gordon’s proposed legislation to increase the teacher pipeline has passed in the House; the America Competes Act, a similar bill, also passed in the Senate. We can be hopeful that many of the recommendations in the National Academies’ report Rising Above the Gathering Storm, will soon receive funding.
That said, addressing the teaching side of the equation is only one part of the needed solution. We must also attend to the needs of today’s K-12 students and not neglect those who demonstrate potential talent in the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields. We need both a well-prepared workforce and the future innovators whose ideas could transform the economy. This does not just happen by chance. There is also a large pool of untapped talent for STEM careers. It is made up of students who score well on spatial ability measures but who are mostly overlooked in school environments emphasizing math and verbal abilities. Students who learn with their hands, or through visualization, are too often turned off by the heavily verbal orientation in schools. Identifying and nurturing spatial talent could open access to an underused and under-appreciated group ideally suited for STEM careers and thus greatly improve our national ability to compete.
Representative Bart Gordon has been a champion of science and math in Congress, and we agree completely that the necessary first step in any competitiveness agenda is to improve science and math education. For over two years now, scores of leading policymakers and business leaders have been calling for reforms in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics education and offering a myriad of suggestions on how to “fix the problem.”
Before we can fix the problem, however, we have to do a much better job of explaining what is actually broken. A survey last year of over 1,300 parents by the research firm Public Agenda found that most parents are actually quite content with the science and math instruction their child receives; 57% of the parents surveyed said that the amount of math and science taught in their child’s public school was “fine.” At the high-school level, 70% of parents were satisfied with the amount of science and math education.
Why is there such a disconnect between key leaders and parents? Clearly we have to get parents on board that there is, in fact, a crisis in science and math education and it’s in their neighborhood too.
With all the stakeholders on board we can work together to ensure innovations and programs are at the proper scale to have a significant impact on students. We can ensure that teachers gain a deeper understanding of the science content they are asked to teach, and we can do a much better job of preparing our future teachers. Together we need to overhaul elementary science education and provide all teachers with the support and resources they need to effectively teach science. Our nation’s future depends on it.
I am commenting on “Promoting Low-Carbon Electricity Production” by Jay Apt, David W. Keith, and M. Granger Morgan in your Spring issue. As the scientific evidence continues to mount about global climate change, the general public and the business communities seek clear governmental direction to address the implications of increased carbon dioxide (CO2) and other greenhouse gas emissions. Throughout the United States, progressive governmental officials have taken up the environmental mantle that has been dropped by the federal government during the Bush administration. Various governors and mayors have pledged and developed plans to cut back CO2 emissions.
In New Jersey, Governor Corzine issued an executive order to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by 2020, a 20% reduction, followed by a further reduction of emissions to 80% below 2006 levels by 2050. As a founding member of the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), a cooperative effort of northeastern and mid-Atlantic states, New Jersey will set up a cap-and-trade program to limit CO2 emissions from regional electric power plants. RGGI will be the first regulatory effort in the United States addressing CO2 emissions.
Both RGGI and the European Union’s CO2 program naturally follow principles from the highly successful U.S. nitrous oxide (NOx) and sulfur dioxide (SOx) trading programs. These NOx and SOx programs implemented market-based solutions to manage air pollution, which previously had been a classic market externality managed only through environmental regulation. Because the NOx and SOx cap-and-trade programs created a proven approach to reducing pollution, the subsequent efforts to curtail CO2 emissions in Europe and the United States followed this methodology.
Although cap and trade is the current expedient policy for reducing CO2 emissions, the carbon emission portfolio standard (CPS), as outlined in the article, could ultimately be the more cogent effort. The CPS directly targets CO2, making it more effective, fairer, and ultimately easier to administer. The CPS would require each supplier to meet an overall constraint on its CO2 emissions but enable trading among other market participants. The CPS would reduce CO2 emissions by creating appropriate market signals and eliminating the externalities associated with CO2 emissions.
Good government needs to establish a solid framework to let the invisible hand of the free market work its magic. We must use our imagination to create new approaches. Carrots work better than regulatory sticks, and following that philosophy will expedite our reduction of CO2 emissions. We need action now to dramatically reduce the buildup of CO2, whose presence lingers in the atmosphere for decades and has devastating effects on the world’s climate.
Assessing science’s social effects
I appreciate the opportunity to comment on Robert Frodeman and J. Britt Holbrook’s article (“Science’s Social Effects,” Issues, Spring 2007). They present some thoughtful observations and provocative suggestions.
The National Science Foundation (NSF), by action of the National Science Board, added the “broader impacts criterion” around 1997 in order to clarify ambiguous language in the criteria existing before that time, respond to congressional inquiries and laws (such as the Government Performance and Results Act), and garner greater public support for research by acknowledging, explicitly, that the rationale for federal research funding is the expectation of public benefits down the road, especially training the next generation of scientists and engineers. It was understood, at the outset, that there is no single template and that different projects will address this criterion in different ways, the investigators themselves being the best persons to make that determination. It was considered likely, indeed a good outcome, that investigators would consult with others on how to address this criterion.
Most researchers and NSF program officers believed at the time and, I suspect, believe today that the principal criterion by which proposals should be evaluated is the first, intellectual merit, and that proposals that fail to meet that criterion should not be funded. Certainly, that is my view. But it should also be said that aspects of broader impact are often an integral part of the intellectual merit of the proposal. So in many cases, the separation is artificial. The review process should be sufficiently flexible to handle that ambiguity.
I agree with Frodeman and Holbrook that the second criterion should not be treated simply as a tiebreaker and that it ought to extend beyond education and outreach. However, in many cases, I believe that the wider “moral, political and policy” implications of the proposed research are simply not knowable in advance. Where an investigator feels he or she can speculate with some confidence (such as regarding a possible new energy technology), such information should be considered. I agree with the authors that scientists need to understand more about the public, but I am uncomfortable with the phrase “impure science” as a way of emphasizing that research supported by taxpayer money should reflect taxpayers’ interests. I also identify with the authors’ plea to science and engineering researchers and humanities and social sciences scholars, especially those who do research on science, to reach across the campus and examine the intellectual opportunities that the broader impacts criterion offers. But although it might be useful for review panels to include this broader constituency, I am not convinced that the same argument holds for individual reviews. I believe that the wider moral, political, and policy implications of research supported by NSF are more appropriately examined at the aggregated level of the agency, directorate, or perhaps division or program, rather than for individual proposals. Additional requirements at the proposal level risk squeezing out precisely the kinds of basic studies that lead to major discoveries.
As Roger Penrose said in his book The Road To Reality (p. 1028), science does not address the why of nature, science only describes nature (my abridging paraphrase). The failure to recognize and articulate this fundamental endeavor of science, not only within the general public but within the scientific, fundamentalist religious, political, and philosophic communities, contributes significantly to the angst in such debates as those over intelligent design versus evolution and embryonic stem cell research. Thus it is that my reaction to the National Science Foundation’s requirement that grant proposals address the connection between their research and its broader effects on society is “Huh?”
Robert Frodeman and J. Britt Holbrook term this requirement the “broader impacts criterion” and further elaborate that its intent is to reflect on science’s impacts on the moral, political, ethical, and cultural elements of society. To what end, they do not say. Is it the contention that by understanding these impacts (assuming for the sake of discussion that this is in any way predictable) we should, or could, judge what knowledge of the workings of nature would be either socially constructive or destructive?
The authors state that the quality of the responses to the requirement remains a persistent problem. Could it be, perhaps, that the evaluators of the proposals have failed to describe the criteria by which the responses are evaluated? Certainly the authors have omitted such descriptions, other than the vague, and one might say almost meaningless, terms given above; and if I were one submitting a response I would certainly like some such guidance. It is my understanding that the grant proposals should be evaluated on the basis of priorities as well as intellectual merit. There is no doubt considerable debate about priorities but consideration of our current and projected problems would be legitimate concerns as well as assessments of the potential for the research to address these problems. I guess the question would here be the extent to which moral, ethical, political, and cultural issues serve to define these problems? Obviously, scientists have input to contribute to such discussions, but is some ill-defined appreciation of these aspects really germane to the merit of the research proposed?
I am just an old retired systems engineer and, as such, perhaps not deemed qualified to have an informed opinion on such matters. Still, when I read pieces like this I have to wonder if the authors are not too dismissive of the elementary fundamentals of problem-solving. The authors have not stated the purpose and objective of the broader impacts criterion. They have not defined the problem and listed their assumptions nor have they given any analysis or rationale for how applying this criterion would serve to contribute to a solution. On second thought, perhaps asking the scientists to show them the way is not such a bad idea after all. The one thing a technical education does (hopefully) is teach one how to think.