Has it ever paid to be smart?
Even if you’re just answering the question in terms of book smarts, the correct answer is still yes. Yes it has and in more ways than just money. If you’re smart enough you get the college experience, you have a better quality of life, you live longer, you’re wanted abroad as well as domestically; in general, you get to have the cake and eat it, too. But it never really seems to be that way, does it? Specifically from a viewpoint of the STEM fields (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math), does our investment in our technical education and our lifetime commitment to learning and wondrous scientific feats really justify the meager end?
Don’t get me wrong: we’re pretty well off in the scheme of things. Most college educated individuals live a comfortable middle class lifestyle and, in the recent scheme of global economic strife, the STEM fields in particular have watched their Liberal Arts brethren attend top tier universities and come out the other end jobless with tends of thousands of dollars of debt; meanwhile, an engineer is practically guaranteed a job after graduation. The November election season is here and with it come the complaints about America’s education system, how there are not enough good teachers, how the schools are crumbling, how the costs of an university education is sky high. And it wouldn’t be an American national election without the specific mention of how we’re not graduating enough engineers and scientists, how China is matching our engineering graduate output five-fold, how there aren’t nearly enough doctors.
And yet, if we were truly in such high demand, wouldn’t we be offered extremely high salaries for our work, the opportunity to have lavish lifestyles in exchange for our challenging work and society-changing breakthroughs, offers of extremely good perks and possible bonuses? What does it say about our line of work if the cream of our crop, our rocket scientists and quantum physicists, get picked up by investment firms instead of the Lockheed Martins and General Electrics of our respective fields? Even doctors, who fuel a full sixth of our mastodon economy, while making the six figure salaries deserving of such needed work only attain such prestige after a lengthy residency and closer to when they approach middle age.
What this comes down to is what I’ve observed to be a general lack of appreciation for the STEM fields, and not just for the people who work in them and not just from the people outside of these disciplines that were once called “The Professions”. On the whole, from our primary education all the way to social situations in our adulthood, being intelligent, having good cognitive skills, or even being well read is rarely respected, sometimes looked down upon, but most often simply ignored. But what sets apart The Professions apart from members of other “smart” disciplines is the rarely mentioned truth that our work is what drives stable economies and betters the quality of life for all humanity, not just for those here in America. From the previously mentioned healthcare industry, to NASA’s thousands of spin-offs and claim to creating modern medicine, to Silicon Valley where Apple alone pushes a sizable dollop of our GDP… and yet, we are still vastly under-payed, infrequently acknowledged, and are witnessing a decline in our national STEM capabilities.
In 2011, an article titled “The End of the Future” was published in the National Review by Peter Thiel, a man best known for co-founding PayPal, predicting the demise of higher education in favor of YouTube based learning such as Udacity and the Khan Academy, and obtaining millions of dollars in funding for his Seasteading Institute venture which plans to create affordable water floating cities. In this article, Thiel waxes poetic on this subject and also the general recent decline of human innovation, the differences between progress and change, and the controversial issue of what drives an economy: good economic policy or fervent scientific innovation? He asks the question that has been lost over the decades: what has happened to the future?
The 1940s, 50s, and 60s were the era when science fiction was born, when men walked the moon, when the government said we needed a bomb and in three years, in the middle of a dense city, the art of nuclear fission was mastered. Is it pure coincidence that during this time, when a completely new airplane design surfaced once a week and Einstein’s theories were put to shame by quantum mechanics, the economy grew by double digit percentage points and the American dream emerged? Was it really foolhardy for the people of that time to assume the year 2000 would be full of flying cars, colonies on Mars, hypersonice airliners, and underwater metroplises?
But let’s ignore that theory for now. Let’s focus instead on how that time was different in terms of respect for The Professions. The short and narrow of it is that it wasn’t. Attending college was generally discouraged unless you were on a football scholarship; why not busy yourself with something really worthwhile, like getting a welding apprenticeship or getting ready to take over your parents’ mom & pop convenience store. Today’s figures showing that 46% of our populace assert that Darwin’s theory of species evolution has no basis in fact were probably not much different back then. The late Neil Armstrong imprinted the moon with his boots in July of 1969; by summer of 1970 when Apollo 13 flew, Americans were no longer tuning in to watch either the moon mission launches or the broadcasts the astronauts made on the way there (that is, until one side of the Odyssey Command Module exploded off of the rest of the ship; like a NASCAR crash, that got everyone’s attention).
In all honesty, we the scientists, the engineers, the doctors, the architects…. we never really were adored, much as we are ignored now, regardless of whether our incessant innovative inventions and discoveries changed the lives of people around the world or in times like these when, aside from Moore’s law, innovation has ground to a halt. The atomic bomb began in earnest in 1942 and ended up in Hiroshima by 1945; yet Nixon declared a war on cancer in 1971 and who’s to say we are even halfway to a cure today? In another example, the brand spanking new Boeing 747-8 jumbo jet made it’s first delivery to Lufthansa earlier this year, and yet, aside from becoming longer, leaner, and cleaner, the plane hasn’t really changed since it was first released in 1970, no airliner has.
It brings one to assume then that we had something 50-60 years ago that today we do not. Maybe it truly is respect for our own discipline, not from others but from ourselves. Maybe it is will power and a knack for hard work. Maybe it is pride in what we do. Take note that the scientists and engineers of the 1940s-1960s were not Americans; the true American STEM graduates, those inspired by the feats of Apollo, only appeared after the last nail was put on the Saturn V coffin. The brains behind our mid-century innovation streak were immigrant engineers, Nazi rocket scientists, and refugees of persecution like Einstein.
I would like to offer you the chance to step back and look upon yourself right now; observe how it is you approach the education you are getting. Are you truly aware of the power you wield? With the knowledge you acquire, perhaps not in Virginia Tech but in your future career, you have the power to create both horrible and amazing things, and yet most of us use it to create something worse: mundane progress.
What about humility? Have you considered giving up your truly awesome abilities of creation to the needs of humanitarian causes? Remember that the cell phone is considered to be the singular thing most responsible for bringing people out of poverty in the last 20 years.
Do you stand up for your line of work? And I don’t mean standing up for the facts. Occasionally, whenever I discuss with someone the prospect of terraformation of Mars (changing Mars’ atmosphere and environment to that of Earth’s), I get ridiculed or treated as if I’ve read too much science fiction. The worst part of it is that my first reaction to these responses is “yea, they’re probably right, it’s ridiculous”. Never forget that you have the facts and your expertise behind you and you do know what’s possible while these others do not; assert your stance. Look to climate scientists for inspiration, those men and women and that have been barraged with harassment and death threats for their work and yet stand by it. They know there is no right or wrong side to their ideas, only the side that followed the scientific process and the side that did not.
Finally, what kind of representative are you of your field? As far as I know, only the Computer Science majors of all the STEM fields at Virginia Tech have to take a Public Speaking course. Take that class regardless of your major if you’ve never done any public speaking yourself. Take a class on debate, too; work on your personal charms; become the kind of person people would be eager to listen to.
I offer that now is a grim time in the fields of STEM, but yet there is hope. The propagation of 3D printing alone will allow engineers who before could only come to their job to create at the altar of science to treat the 3D printer as a smartphone that everyone will own and their new printable designs as the next killer app; for the scientists, a DNA decoder now costs less than $1000.
Yesterday’s programmers and Silicon Valley engineers are today’s visionaries and icons of progress. Become tomorrow’s visionaries by establishing these foundations to your powerful background of abilities and knowledge: self-respect and humility, ethics and eloquence.
Valeriy Vislobokov is a Virginia Tech alumni and former Managing Editor of the Engineers’ Forum.