Commentary: Science is losing out to the allure of Wall Street

  • 21 May 2008
  • From New Scientist Print Edition. Subscribe and get 4 free issues.
  • Lawrence Krauss

THERE has been much discussion of late, some admittedly generated by myself, of the dangers of an international brain drain that could, in the coming decades, siphon technological talent away from today's developed nations to the industrialising world. I will probably get myself into trouble here, but I would argue that at least some of this concern is misplaced. The First World may face a more insidious threat to its long-term competitiveness and continued productivity in science and engineering, and it comes from within.

When my daughter, now in her early 20s, was finishing high school, I began to notice that many among the brightest of her friends were already expressing an interest in careers in finance and on Wall Street. This trend continued through her time in university, where even those of her peers who studied science or engineering said they intended to seek employment with investment banks or venture-capital firms.

I did not think through the implications of this until I visited Norway several years ago to participate in a meeting on science communication. The meeting's organiser complained bitterly of the shortage there of young people pursuing careers in science and engineering.

He explained the problem as follows. Norway, the richest country in the world on a per capita basis, has essentially zero unemployment; everyone who wants a job can get one. My Norwegian colleague argued that as a result, young people interested in a productive career had two choices: take a technically demanding route and become an engineer or scientist, guaranteed to earn a respectable middle-class income, or go into the financial world, where the long hours are taxing but the intellectual demands much lighter, and the potential pay-off far greater. In the market-driven First World, is it any wonder that hard-working students are choosing the latter route?

This position contrasts with that of bright, young people in the Third World, where it is clear that the path to prosperity is a scientific or technical education. I recently lectured at the Indian Institute of Technology in Kharagpur, where only one out of every 121 applicants is admitted - a smaller percentage than at Harvard. Enrolment virtually guarantees a job as an engineer at a multinational corporation, with the possibility of starting up your own company a little further down the road.

And there's the rub. Investment bankers and venture capitalists manage and help create wealth by building on ideas, but ultimately it is to developments in science and engineering that about half the growth in US GDP per capita over the last half-century can be attributed, according to the National Academy of Sciences' report Rising Above the Gathering Storm, published last year.

Where then will we find ourselves a generation from now? In a world that is increasingly technological and increasingly "flat" - free of barriers to trade or capital flows - how long can a country thrive on managing wealth rather than creating it?

How long can we thrive on managing wealth rather than creating it?

I have tried to think of a solution to our overdependence on wealth management, and I admit to being stumped. But perhaps the recent turmoil in investment banking will take care of the problem. With mortgage disasters affecting finance worldwide, individuals at companies such as Bear Stearns are experiencing personal-portfolio disasters beyond anything in recent memory. Will this bring home to young people that a career on Wall Street is no longer such a sure thing?

Perhaps I am making much ado about nothing here, but unless we can ensure that a reasonable proportion of the next generation's best and brightest apply their talents to creating knowledge through basic research rather than to manipulating its fruits, we in the developed nations may find ourselves victims of the very success that those in the Third World want to emulate.

Read all of Lawrence Krauss's columns here

From issue 2657 of New Scientist magazine, 21 May 2008, page 48


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