Saturday, April 2, 2011

Why did the prestige of science and engineering decline in the US?

I just finished reading The Great Stagnation a couple of days ago and enjoyed it very much.  There's a lot there to think about -- especially about technological changes, even for an STS-er.  Plus the book is only about 20000 words -- go for it!

In the chapter "Can we fix things?" Cowen offers the following policy prescription: "Raise the social status of scientists."  And by social status he seems to mean something like: "do something that makes doing science something more young people aspire to."  (And remember this book is specifically about the United States.)

I think that is exactly right.  But I'm curious: does anyone have any ideas why the social status of science (and I presume, engineering and technology) declined in the US?  And when it started to decline?  I am starting to get particularly interested in this question.  Any books, articles, or your own hypotheses that you think are relevant to this?

Please leave your response in the comments.


Nigel said...

Climate change denialism, tea party creationists, anti green power (wind and small hydro) nimbys, on and on.

bradshaw1965 said...

The percentage of smart people working in finance trended much higher then science and engineering. Fake disciplines like "Financial Engineering" thus became paramount. Institutions supported these changes.

caseydk said...

As an actual Electrical Engineering grad (Rose-Hulman, 2001), here's what I see:

* Brad has a good point with all the fake "engineering" titles diminishing the field. Engineering is a discipline and a specific foundation of knowledge.. I have no clue what those other knuckleheads have studied, let alone understand.

* We've been told for a decade that all technical jobs will move overseas. Unfortunately, as the media beats that drum, they can make it self-fulfilling as they discourage and entire generation away.

* We have an entire society that believes more education means more intelligence. Living in DC, I can't even count the number of times a PhD in Theatre or a MA Fine Arts outright told me that they were smarter than my "little bachelors".

* On the output side of things, the system is geared towards the lower end instead of us... tax deductions for student loans start to decline at 50k and are gone by 80k annual income. The average starting salary from Rose Hulman last year was in the high 50's.

* And finally, we have a government that generally believes we (as a population) and dumb and need to be taken care of.. where other governments see the value of innovation and get the hell out of the way.

Oddly enough, I'll cite China as an *improving* example of this and I think it's due to the makeup of their leadership:

* In the US, the top of the Obama Administration is mostly lawyers and/or mostly from Harvard. Over half the Senators were/are lawyers. The last President with technical/scientific training past Chem 101 was Herbert Hoover.. 80 years ago.

* On the other hand, China's president was a hydraulic engineer and the Communist Politburo is eight engineers and a lawyer.

Which country do *you* think values scientists and engineering more?

(Now I feel dirty for celebrating something about China's political leadership.)

jimrandomh said...

"Lies propagate, that's what I'm saying. You've got to tell more lies to cover them up, lie about every fact that's connected to the first lie. And if you kept on lying, and you kept on trying to cover it up, sooner or later you'd even have to start lying about the general laws of thought. Like, someone is selling you some kind of alternative medicine that doesn't work, and any double-blind experimental study will confirm that it doesn't work. So if someone wants to go on defending the lie, they've got to get you to disbelieve in the experimental method. Like, the experimental method is just for merely scientific kinds of medicine, not amazing alternative medicine like theirs. Or a good and virtuous person should believe as strongly as they can, no matter what the evidence says. Or truth doesn't exist and there's no such thing as objective reality. A lot of common wisdom like that isn't just mistaken, it's anti-epistemology, it's systematically wrong. Every rule of rationality that tells you how to find the truth, there's someone out there who needs you to believe the opposite. If you once tell a lie, the truth is ever after your enemy; and there's a lot of people out there telling lies" -- Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality by Eliezer Yudkowsky

The truth is that in an argument between a scientist or engineer and someone who is neither of these things, the scientist/engineer is usually right. Unfortunately, politicians sometimes get into arguments with individual scientists, or worse with the entire scientific community, and so they have to convince people that this is not true.

André-Francois Landry said...

Came across a great documentary by Adam Curtis about the rise of science and atomic power after WWII.

And then, the pression put on science by politics and commerce which led to failure to fulfill the promises that had been made by science which brings us to today where science is not trusted anymore.

Worth watching...

A is for Atom, third part of Pandora's Box by Adam Curtis :

J.R.Mooneyham said...

Mostly it has declined because modern conservative politics cannot gain and keep the support of voters if truth and facts are widely known and given proper consideration. And science and engineering are some of the main bastions of such. Once science and related endeavors are sufficiently discredited, ANYTHING GOES in public debate, with the winner usually being whoever can shout the loudest and most often-- for truth and facts no longer matter. And no one can shout louder in a capitalist economy than billionaires and their cronies.

Anonymous said...

Yes plus to the above. In addition to Mooneyham's conservative political needs, are the greedy capitalist needs, and a recursive impact of conservative religion (religion is often used to control disadvantaged groups).

I think all three, the conservative political groups, greedy capitalists, and conservative religious groups all feed off of each other, and all of them benefit in multiple ways from the masses' denial of science and education.

At this point, Clarke's statement "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic" is a self-fulfilling prophecy. e.g., We don't need to understand how a remote control, or phone, or oil rig, or nuclear power plant work, they just do. And if you don't understand the underlying scientific principles about technology, how can you question them? How can capitalism work if you don't understand the differences between your various options?

Anonymous said...

So it was the media's fault.

They sold science and engineering badly. They fucked up (obviously, politicians were thrilled and encouraged that kind of positivistic view, didn't the goverment payed part of the budget for films like 2001?).

Magice said...

I am seriously amazed how engineers love to blame others for their own decline that much. The government, the school, the president, the corporations screw things up, while the engineers themselves are innocent victims of this onslaught. So laughable. Funny how someone brought up China. A Chinese famous quote goes, "Ignorant citizens make his country fall." No the outside force.

These are my reasons why engineering and sciences decline:

* Worship of wealth. Let's face it, finance is ALWAYS a good way to get rich. True, engineers and scientist drive the engine, but those finance people keep the money. It is obvious who gets richer. When engineers themselves start to worship wealth, their own disciplines decline in the eyes of themselves and their children. I can imagine a conversation like this, "why are you engineer, dad/mom?" "it pays well." "but finance pays better!" End.

* Disdain of hardwork. Engineers and scientists lead the way. Listen to all of those "work 'smart'" and disdain to calculus and "trivial" homework, and you will understand. What IS engineering, anyway, but the tenacity to try out one approach after another? What is science but billions of experiments to find the truth? Engineering and Sciences personify hardwork. Art, Management, etc. have an air of, you know, magic to them. Engineering and Sciences, meanwhile, personify hardwork. When hardwork is looked down, those disciplines are looked down upon.

* Egoism. Again, engineers lead the space here, with all of those smears against just about everything else, from pointed head bosses to lowly janitors. If one does not lower one's self, one can never understand the joy of a discipline. As engineers consider themselves better than others, others consider themselves better than engineers. Remember, engineers alone canNOT run an efficient economy. Other disciplines are there for a reason. Back to the point, as engineers push for an egoistic society, young people feel no need to lower themselves to get pass all of those busy and "stupid" work, thus never understand true joy of engineering and science. If you just go to work for money, why not work for the best paying jobs (like consultants, finance, lawyers, etc.)? After all, I am the best, and I deserve the most money.

Most of the time, people bring their own decline. True, the environment helps, but it is the engineers themselves that brought down their own troubles.

Of course, my bad, they are better, smarter, and more important than any other to admit this anyway.

Paul said...

Friends Don’t Let Friends Get Into Finance

chemDroid said...

Why? Too many scientists. Federal funding (and funding of other nations seeking to improve prestige) has inflated a science bubble. naturally, the number of mediocre scientists has increased like crazy. The low reputation of scientists is well deserved. In fact, I believe it should be even lower. Having many non-science friends, they are very surprised when I inform them that there actually is a ton of fraud and misconduct in science.

Anonymous said...

@André-Francois Landry

Curtis is showing you an entrance to the Rabbit Hole. Make sure you watch all his documentaries on He will alter your view of the world.

Pandora's Box, The Trap, The Mayfair Set, The Century Of The Self, The Power Of Nightmares etc.

roadtrippers said...

As usual, it was probably a constellation of factors; the draw of Wall Street (as bradshaw1965 said) as well as the growth of celebrity culture. There's a book that sort of predicted the decline: Amusing Ourselves to Death by Neil Postman.

I come from a family of engineers, mechanical, electrical, petroleum, chemical etcetera, and I don't buy into the political or "general decline" theses. rather, I think people just started to follow the money.

I remember back in the 80's, when pundits wanted a clarion example of America's STEM decline they used corporate reactions to environmental legislation. "When the U.S. changed CAFE standards, the Japanese hired a hundred engineers, the Americans hired a hundred lawyers."

Victor said...

Because the science it doesn't pertain any more to an elite, it developed and penetrated in to the masses. It became mass science. The capitalist society is driven by the elite forces not by the masses and the social status of prestige is no more compatible with the scientists as large social category. This doesn't exclude that the elites are made also of scientists but one can not be any more just scientist in order to be part of the elite and gain the prestige social status.

dilla said...

These days, the "nerd" is becoming a little more cool. Thanks to the real life stories of Google and Facebook, movies like the Social Network and shows like The Big Bang theory, the pendulum is swinging back a little in the engineer's favor. The problem with media portrayals of nerds is that being a geek is an organic trait - not something that requires schooling. You're just an inherent geek. But we all know even smart people have to learn circuit theory and physics to give them power to be productive. It's just not a sexy story.

But I see a new startup culture now - brought to the for by the likes of Paul Graham and Y-Combinator and Techstars - that young, smart, engineers are being encouraged to create and be entrepreneurs instead of being a corporate drone. The odds are against them, but the upside is fame and fortune. Why not. It's a great thing to aspire to in your 20s. YOu can work for the man the rest of your life. And in this depressed economy, especially for our young, you might as well create and be passionate about something instead of being bored and unemployed. Hopefully the general public starts to see that knowledge in the applied sciences is gateway for creating things (Software things usually, which require hardly any capital investment these days).

Steve said...

I think @chemdroid may at least partially have the right of it. This is a great (albiet long) article on the sad state of the American post graduate scientific community, where there are in fact far too many scientists, not too few:

(google cache link, as original article seems to be down at the moment)

This doesn't specifically speak to engineering, but after reading this article I thanked my lucky stars that I didn't choose to pursue a career in science, particularly of the academic variety. I have a number of friends currently moving from grad to to post-doc work, an from what I gather from them the various claims made in the article hit far too close to the mark for comfort.

So, perhaps the entire premise of the question is wrong. It's not "why has science in the US declined?", bit rather, "why does everyone believe that science in the us has declined?"

mad libertarian guy said...

@ Nigel

You like the GMC deniers in progressive circles, or those who set politics above science when it goes against their policy predilections?

It's not a partisan thing; BOTH sides of the aisle deny scientific conclusions based on politics, not based on whether the science is sound.

Get off your high horse. If you're so concerned with science, then start supporting genetically modified crops, and write UCLA telling them how horrible of an institution they are for firing a professor who came to a conclusion that the green lobby didn't like. Tell AGW supporters to release the RAW data, and explain, in full, why they have chosen to ostracize and blackball scientists who speak out against AGW.

That is if you're concerned with science, and not "science" (though I won't be holding my breath).

bajramovic92 said...


Um ... Liberal?

thetechie said...

The reason may be relatively simple. Women don't, in general, find men in these careers particularly alluring. This is not lost on young people who, in general, will instinctively choose careers that enhance their chances of finding a better mate, or one at all, than otherwise.

Women did find these careers alluring from the 1800's through the 1950's. But then there was nothing but disdainful imagery from popular culture about engineers and scientists, including, "mad scientists", and inept charactizations of technical people. Then came the mass layoffs from Nasa and related industries after the Appollo cancellations. This led to a severe decline (though temporary) in the earning power of engineers and scientists which, together, with the continuing negative imagery, left its indelible and negative mark on the professions' status.

This negative imagery continues today in the form of the anti-vaccine, locavore, luddite and primitive movements, as well as many popular shows. In such shows, if not overtly negative then with the undercurrent, "the techie won't get the girl", theme.