We have recently argued in several posts that the pressures in academia today make funding hard to secure, good science jobs seemingly hard to find, and lead to the churning out of tons of useless research, the support of a large academic welfare system, and increased cheating. 'Research' has been so heavily marketed--and that's the right word for it--by both academia and the media, all thumping like itinerant preachers, that it has become an iconic status symbol and, even, idol of near-religious worship.
We argue that one way or another we should rectify the system. There are not enough funds for as many people to play this game as want to, or as we lure into when we recruit graduate students. Exponential growth, and institutions largely serving themselves rather than their purported societal clientele, will eventually, inevitably, become overcrowded.
We can tolerate overcrowding, somewhat akin to Marx' and Engels' idea of an excess labor pool, kept on hand, but only on the brink of sustenance, to be hired or shifted around as needed.
We still import large numbers of students from abroad, in part because American-trained kids don't want to or are insufficiently trained or motivated for competitive-level science and technological research. But in part, the foreigners pay full-ride tuition, or they are serfs who work long hours on faculty members' grant projects without complaining.
But there are alternatives. First and primary, perhaps, is that we have a notoriously faltering (or should we spell it faultering?) K-12 system. In other countries, the top of the university graduate pool are those allowed into teaching. To be euphemistic about it, that's not the same here. And our complacent, self-satisfied society doesn't have nearly the work ethic that more driven societies do. So, naturally, many of our high school graduates are badly under-trained and under-attituded for serious university level work.
But what about the excess labor pool of PhDs who do, in fact, have a degree in science but who have not been able to compete for university faculty positions? Some may be not very well qualified and hence not competitive for limited positions, but that's certainly not the problem with all of them by any means. An obvious solution, we have argued, is to scale back the graduate school mill so it doesn't lure into, and ejest, more than can find employment. We are overstocked for reasons we've posted about before, including last week.
But there are very important areas where these people could use their training and skills, that would be much, much more important to society than the typical research-mill career. That would be in science education, especially at the high school level (a PhD would not be relevant for earlier-year teaching, but real solid BS degrees--not degrees in 'education'--would be very valuable, if we could goose up the level of undergraduate teaching to expect more and give more to our students. Junior or community colleges, or small undergraduate colleges, are also places where good teaching could have a major impact. These jobs can have job security, good health and pension plans, and plenty of time off, so they're not exactly scut-work. And, they could have a noble position in their local communities if our society re-evaluated what's important.
They don't have the panache, but they have far more punch, than the typical research-mill professor who escapes as much teaching as s/he can, or does it rather perfunctorily. But as long as we only give status to research careers, because that serves our rather than our students' interests, we will have the system we've created. Instead, solid Masters degrees that were given only to those who really were masters of their subject, or PhDs not aimed solely at academic research careers, could address many problems, even as the research enterprise continued purring along.
There will be no easy answers until society realizes that miracles from science are costly and few and far between, while the underpinning that can make life better for everyone, even in less than spectacular ways, should command far more of our attention and respect.....and provide good jobs for many good people.