Outsourcing Science

Stephen DeAngelis

April 29, 2008

In a recent post [Speaking in Numbers], I discussed the fact that the United States needs a program to stimulate an interest in science and mathematics in its children. New York Times columnist Bob Herbert reports that the problem is not in stimulating interest in our younger children, but keeping that interest alive as they enter puberty [“Clueless in America,” 22 April 2008].

“Allan Golston, the president of U.S. programs for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation … noted that the performance of American students, when compared with their peers in other countries, tends to grow increasingly dismal as they move through the higher grades: ‘In math and science, for example, our fourth graders are among the top students globally. By roughly eighth grade, they’re in the middle of the pack. And by the 12th grade, U.S. students are scoring generally near the bottom of all industrialized countries.'”

One way to stimulate that interest in older youth and teens is to ensure that those who major in math and/or science have well-paying jobs waiting for them when they graduate. One of the things that happened in the computer science field was that outsourcing depressed the job market in the IT field after the dot-com crash early this century. This could become an issue in the math and science fields as well according to G. Pascal Zachary, who reports that U.S. companies are now beginning to outsource science [“How Scientific Gains Abroad Pay Off in the U.S.,” New York Times, 20 April 2008].

“At a time of economic belt-tightening, might cheap science from low-wage countries help keep American innovators humming? Americans have long profited from low-cost manufactured goods, especially from Asia. The cost of those material ‘inputs’ is now rising. But because of growing numbers of scientists in China, India and other lower-wage countries, ‘the cost of producing a new scientific discovery is dropping around the world,’ says Christopher T. Hill, a professor of public policy and technology at George Mason University.”

I’m not sure that Americans have “profited from low-cost manufactured goods.” America’s consumer culture and life style has been maintained through a period of stagnant wages by relying on low cost goods purchased on credit, but America’s trade deficit has been enormous. Zachary is arguing that it is time for the U.S. to borrow a page from low cost countries and learn to exploit discoveries made elsewhere to help fix what currently ails the U.S. economy.

“American innovators — with their world-class strengths in product design, marketing and finance — may have a historic opportunity to convert the scientific know-how from abroad into market gains and profits. Mr. Hill views the transition to ‘the postscientific society’ as an unrecognized bonus for American creators of new products and services. Mr. Hill’s insight, which he first described in a National Academy of Sciences journal article last fall, runs counter to the notion that the United States fails to educate enough of its own scientists and that ‘shortages’ of them hamper American competitiveness. The opposite may actually be true. By tapping relatively low-cost scientists around the world, American innovators may actually strengthen their market positions. ‘We shouldn’t fear the rise of science in Asia and other poorer countries. We should figure out how to take advantage of it,’ says Patrick Windham, a lecturer in technology policy at Stanford and a former staff member of Congressional science committees.”

The argument I made in the previously mentioned post is that America needs to produce world class mathematicians and scientists in order to remain in the global conversation that increasingly relies on math know how. I believe it’s a complementary argument to one being made by Zachary. Both arguments involve strategies that take advantage of globalization.

“Optimism about scientific globalization is a wrinkle on the familiar story of outsourcing. Just as United States companies have contracted out physical production, they can do the same for scientific ‘goods,’ which range from formulas and ideas to the results of experiments. In the short-term at least, higher spending on scientists by India and China could create a glut of them in these countries, driving wages down further and making the costs of acquiring science even lower. ‘Science is the ultimate global activity,’ says Richard B. Freeman, a labor economist with the National Bureau of Economic Research. ‘You can outsource research.’ Mr. Freeman, among others, questions whether there is a shortage of scientists in the United States. He cites evidence suggesting that American dominance in science will decline over time and that we should worry less about purported shortages at home and more about ‘developing new ways of benefiting from scientific advances made in other countries.’ Of course, scientific knowledge isn’t a thing, like a child’s toy or an electric motor, so the day may never come when ‘science’ can be purchased from a Chinese or Indian catalog.”

In order to exploit discoveries made elsewhere, the United States must continue to produce people who can understand the potential of such discoveries. Those people won’t be English literature majors or lawyers; they will be scientists and mathematicians. They must be people who are fluent in the global scientific language that will drive innovations of the future.

“While the United States is expected to remain the home of choice for the world’s best scientists for some time, industry is increasingly striking deals with scientists in developing countries eager for wider exposure. … Benefiting from foreign science isn’t new. Last October, the Nobel Prize for physics, for instance, was shared by French and German scientists for their basic discovery of what is known as the ‘giant magnetoresistance’ effect, which enables much more digital data to be stored on a disk drive. The breakthrough, by Albert Fert and Peter Grünberg, had essentially no commercial impact in Germany or France. But by using open scientific literature and attending conferences, Seagate [Technology, a U.S. firm,] found ways to capitalize on the breakthrough, which had been financed by European governments.”

Another reason that the U.S. needs to continue to educate math and science students is that commercialization of breakthrough innovations is seldom an easy thing to do.

“Commercializing science isn’t easy, which is the main reason that rising scientists from India, China and other countries can’t readily achieve business success. In the case of the magneto effect, Seagate engineers ended up using different materials — at different temperatures — than the Nobel winners. ‘We made the big step to get the scientific advance into products,’ Mr. Re says. ‘And then we had to manufacture hundreds of millions of them. This is a very different challenge.’ Precisely because the gap between basic science and commercial innovations is large, Mr. Hill’s postscientific society makes sense to innovators on the front lines. One implication for the future is that the United States ‘won’t have to import so many scientists,’ says Stephen D. Nelson, associate director of policy programs at the American Association for the Advancement of Science.”

That should make the anti-immigrant crowd happy. The only way that can prove to be an accurate prediction, however, is if U.S. schools produce enough mathematicians and scientists to fill the jobs needed by U.S. corporations. A “post-scientific” world is not a world without science but a world that knows how to exploit science from wherever it comes. The “post-scientific” world is just as dependent on scientists and mathematicians as the world in which we now live.