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Today I read an article subtitled “” Essentially it is a warning from the executives of HP about how the government’s lack of investment in science and technology could spell the doom of America. A senior fellow at HP Labs named Stan Williams saw first hand that countries like India and China are investing billions in research while America is spending billions on bailouts for failed companies. Here is what I have experienced in this matter.

One thing that stuck out to me is that the reporter pointed out in Williams’ lab, “only 18 of the 75 scientists were born in the United States, and 10 of those American-born researchers are over 50 years old; only six are under the age of 35.” My experience in the Valley is that many people who work in high tech are foreign nationals and most of these people are either Chinese or Indian. So where are all the Americans? I think the problem is really quite complex and is a mixture of culture and the basic fact of population. First of all, the popular American culture is not nearly as obsessed with higher education as Asian countries like China, India, and Japan. In China you are pretty much expected to get at least a Master’s degree and it doesn’t surprise me that China invests a lot in its education system. In America kids are mostly taught that they could be anything they want, and that is a good thing.  However, most kids just want to be popular and accepted, and being a science geek will not win any social points. This is not to say that Americans do not value education, but a major problem is that higher education can be prohibitively expensive in this country. Even public schools cost tens of thousands of dollars a year and I am sure a lot of capable students are just priced out. Recently there was a report and only California got a passing grade of C- for its large system of cheap community colleges. Finally, the irrefutable fact is that the total population of Chinese and Indians in the world is about seven times the population of Americans so there is a much larger talent pool to choose from. When you couple that with the fact that most Chinese and Indians are it is really no surprise that there are less American scientists.

The good news for America is that there are still plenty of foreign nationals who are willing to live in this country and contribute to its economy. I am one of them, but I’m not sure how long America will stay as attractive as a golden mountain of opportunity and freedom. A lot of graduate students my age that come from China these days are going back to China after they graduate because they believe that China has more opportunities than America. As noted, Williams saw that in China a 28 year old recent graduate was able to get a $5 million research grant from the government for her research, but here in America a professor would have a hard time raising $50,000. Additionally, a major issue preventing foreign talent from staying is the draconian and frankly bizarre immigration system in America. It takes years for a foreign national to win legal rights to stay in this country, and while they wait they are often treated like criminals or indentured servants. For many brilliant young scientists, this crazy immigration system is really not worth the trouble. They can go back to their own countries and have all the rights of a citizen and make a difference for their people, so why should they go through the gauntlet here? This loss of foreign talent is an incredible waste for America because many of these students get fellowships and are trained by American companies and schools, but end up bringing all the things they learned back to their own countries. If the immigration system were easier on talent then I am sure more people will consider staying.

So will Silicon Valley become Detroit? I highly doubt that will happen in this generation because this area is still buzzing with innovation and there are also many immigrants here who have made America their home and they will continue to contribute. I know that there are people who hate us for having these high tech jobs here, but we would not have these jobs if there were enough qualified Americans. I do believe that America has to get serious about education and training in science to stay competitive in the world, and it has to start as soon as possible. I think the to upgrade schools around the country is a good start, but it is a drop in the bucket compared to the amount of money that went to failed companies recently. Will the American government ever learn to truly invest in the future long term?


P.S. Happy everyone!

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order levitraon 01.26.09 at 9:22 am

It’s not the schools.

It’s our culture.

No amount of money will fix it.

I graduated with my PhD in Civil Engineering from Berkeley in 2002. My wife of 8 years left me 4 weeks later. Took me two years before I was even able to date again.

Nowadays, I rarely tell anyone I have a PhD, much less one from Berkeley in engineering.

It just doesn’t fit. Doesn’t look right. Since I refused to overleverage myself with ludicrously overpriced real estate, I still live in the same little apartment as graduate school. This is socially very incongruent.

Gets even better: career track for civil engineering is highly structured and doesn’t pay as well as one would think… after the divorce I lost all interest in the subject… I haven’t ever practiced civil engineering!

Change the culture. Change culture so that engineers, “geeks” and other socially undesirable people are honored for their work ethic, their intelligence their passion and their commitment to succeed. Don’t even have to raise the pay really, just stop the sneering.

Throwing money at this problem is easy. But it won’t work. (Actually, it would work if they took all that money and gave engineers a raise. Then kids would make their own decisions.)

If we need engineers so badly, why aren’t employers knocking on my door? Hint: we don’t… we have plenty engineers… they just want to be treated with respect and earn a wage commensurate with both education and responsibility.

order levitraon 01.26.09 at 12:40 pm

Chill Bear,

I understand what you mean. I also graduated from Berkeley and I attended schools in America from the 4th grade. You have to be a “weirdo” to be a science nerd. America has a bad habit of worshiping vanity and idiocy, and I agree with you that throwing money at education probably won’t solve that.

order levitraon 01.26.09 at 7:13 pm

Great article along with why money will help. We need the talent no matter where it comes from. Yes! It is a start and it has been an issue for a long time. However, professors, educators, or deans have not found a way to get their hands in the cookie jars.

When they do, things will definitely turn around.

Hang in there and Happy New Year to you!

order levitraon 01.26.09 at 11:21 pm

I live in SV and I think this is blown out of proportion! :) Let us hope! By the way, Hello! Great blog, I drop on it often! I started a Ring for dedicated Entrecard bloggers who are dedicated bloggers. Consider joining? :)

order levitraon 01.27.09 at 10:54 am

What a great article and so on the mark. We finally have an administration in DC that values education and intelligence. The Bush administration did not – he was unable to communicate on any level so why would anyone aspire to learn when he was the example to the world. Obama speaks with eloquence and values education and languages. As an example to the nation, we couldn’t have picked a better man on so many levels.

California once was one of the two most highly rated education systems in the US and then came Ronald Regan as Governor and the State hasn’t been the same since. Add in the stupid system this state has with initiatives (Prop. 13 is the best example of that one), the largest constitution in the world, and a government that can’t govern and you can see why we are in the mess we are. When schools can’t get funds to operate and have to make draconian cuts who ends up being hurt the most? The students.

You are so right, we do not value education in the US, with some exceptions in the East and Mid-west where they are willing to tax themselves for good schools, California, the supposed leader of tech, is at the bottom for education support. A sad commentary about our values.

Don’t get me started on the immigration stuff, I could talk about that forever, and I am American born.

order levitraon 02.02.09 at 7:39 pm

As an American, I passionately agree that this country has taken a severe turn for the worst with regard to its foreign labor policies. We are shooting ourselves in the foot by making it so difficult for others who are willing and able to work here. And I say this with regard to both skilled and unskilled labor. Unfortunately and even worse, this type of protectionism seems to becoming more popular.

Also, in terms of what you say about engineers not being cool in American society, I agree. In some ways that’s unfortunate, but in most ways it is not: scientists and engineers are annoying. They burp and fart in your face. They smell bad. They are unable to empathize with other human beings. They forget to clean one or more parts of their body. Any country where engineers are considered cool has something wrong with it, in my not so humble opinion.

Note that I am an (unemployed) engineer, and I do my best not to act like one. I would have to say that I am pretty goddamn successful and that’s why I get laid way more than most other people I know who are able to take the derivative of 2x.

order levitraon 02.03.09 at 7:10 pm

[...] “Baglady” blog writes from California: My experience in [Silicon] Valley is that many people who work [...]

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