STEM Celebs

This interesting article on the need of more science, technology, engineering, and mathematics graduates in the United States to compete with other countries strikes me as the kind of thing said to Romans right before the fall. Maybe also to the English just before World War I. Of course, predictions of the future are fraught with misreading the most crucial factors.

In fact, scientists and engineers are celebrities in most countries. They’re not seen as geeks or misfits, as they too often are in the U.S., but rather as society’s leaders and innovators. In China, eight of the top nine political posts are held by engineers. In the U.S., almost no engineers or scientists are engaged in high-level politics, and there is a virtual absence of engineers in our public policy debates.

Why does this matter? Because if American students have a negative impression – or no impression at all – of science and engineering, then they’re hardly likely to choose them as professions. Already, 70% of engineers with PhD’s who graduate from U.S. universities are foreign-born. Increasingly, these talented individuals are not staying in the U.S – instead, they’re returning home, where they find greater opportunities.

Global leadership is not a birthright. Despite what many Americans believe, our nation does not possess an innate knack for greatness.  Greatness must be worked for and won by each new generation. Right now that is not happening. But we still have time. If we place the emphasis we should on education, research and innovation we can lead the world in the decades to come. But the only way to ensure we remain great tomorrow is to increase our investment in science and engineering today.

How would someone determine whether someone is a celebrity? This article did not define it other than as a leader or innovator. If one used by number of Twitter followers, then Lady Gaga is the current leader with the current president trailing at number four and with only 81% the number of followers. Well, even the President of the United States was a lawyer and not a STEM educated person.

I thought maybe the Secretary of Energy would be a good place to look for a leader with scientific credentials. It appears Chu (physcist) and Bodman (chemical engineer) were. The three prior to them were lawyers at best. The rest of the cabinet were mostly lawyers or political administrators. Chu is the only scientist on the list. The president’s science advisor is a physicist, so that is good.

Conservatives do after all say government is the worst of society not the best. They look to corporations to take the societal lead. So maybe top CEOs from the Forbes top 500 list would be a better metric? Three of the top five is pretty good.

  1. Walmart – Michael Duke – Industrial Engineering
  2. Royal Dutch Shell – Peter Voser – Business Administration
  3. Exxon Mobil – Rex Tillerson – Civil Engineering
  4. BP – Bob Dudley – Chemical Engineering
  5. Toyota – Akio Toyoda – Business Administration

Personally my favorite scientific celebrities are Neil deGrasse Tyson, Stephen Hawking, Jamie Hynaman, and Adam Savage. We Americans like to see people fail. Each of these have: Neil and Pluto, Stephen lost the black hole bet, Jamie and Adam often misjudge what happens in a test. The spectacular blunders of science are reported as a discovery. Reports on the discoveries in the news usually sound as though it was the intent all along. We get the impression scientists and engineers spend every hour successfully making cool new things.

What scares me of having scientists are leaders is the over expectation of them to be better than anyone else. A smart person is only as good as the decisions they make. Even a good engineer can make mistakes. The ability to acknowledge and work towards correcting errors is not an exclusively scientific ability.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: