Science Careers Blog

April 18, 2011

The Misuse of American Talent

A few expert commentators have been in a huff lately about the choices being made by the best and brightest young Americans, and the uses to which their skills are being put. They're worried about a problem that's sometimes called "internal brain drain," where the best minds are unavailable to do the most important work even when they stay close to home.

They have a point, but I think they need to look at the bigger picture.

First, late last month, there was the TechCrunch essay by Vivek Wadhwa, the entrepreneur-turned-academic-thought-leader. In Friends Don't Let Friends Get Into Finance, Wadhwa expressed dismay that so many of his best engineering students (at Duke, where he has a visiting appointment) were entering finance and management consulting instead of pursuing careers as engineers. It's an easy choice, he admits, when Goldman Sachs is offering twice as much as the engineering companies.   

Wadhwa argues in his essay that the smart young scientists and engineers who enter finance and related fields are being badly misused. Wadhwa thinks they're needed to start up new technology companies.

The loss of this talent into finance is, Wadhwa argues, a huge drain of critical human resources, which he lays claim to on behalf of the nation that has invested in them:
"...not only are the investment banks siphoning off hundreds of billions of dollars from our economy with financial gimmicks like [collateralized debt obligations]; they are using our best engineering graduates to help them do it. This is the talent that our country has invested so much resource in producing."
Paul Kedrosky, author of a report cited by Wadhwa, coins the phrase "economic ebola" to describe "the virus that infects scientists and engineers and causes them to go to Wall Street rather than create something of societal value." Kedrosky "wants to become an 'economic virus hunter." That ambition earns him Wadhwa's full support:
"Let's save the world by keeping our engineers out of finance. We need them to, instead, develop new types of medical devices, renewable energy sources, and  ways [of] sustaining the environment and purifying water, and to start companies that help America keep its innovative edge."  
Then, last week, technology writer Ashlee Vance bemoaned the great young talent being swallowed up by Facebook and other social-networking companies. Vance argues that when the social-networking tech bubble bursts -- which he believes it will, soon enough -- those newly bereft social-networking experts -- Wadhwa's engineering graduates and their equivalent, a few years on -- won't have the expertise needed to do the more important work that needs doing. 

Vance tells the story of Jeff Hammerbacher, a young math whiz from Harvard who was among those lured to Wall Street, joining Bear Stearns soon after graduating. But he didn't stay on Wall Street long; before his first year was out, he contacted Facebook founder Mark Zuckerburg, a Harvard acquaintance, and took a job at Facebook. After a couple of years there, he got restless again, Vance reports:
"Hammerbacher looked around Silicon Valley at companies like his own, Google, and Twitter, and saw his peers wasting their talents. 'The best minds of my generation are thinking about how to make people click ads,' he says. 'That sucks."
He should have said that "some" or "many" of the best minds, since science still gets a share of those best minds -- but his essential point is still correct. "If instead of pointing their incredible infrastructure at making people click on ads," Hammerbacher says, "they pointed it at great unsolved problems in science, how would the world be different today?"

After leaving Facebook, Hammerbacher started up a company -- Cloudera -- to address one of those big problems: managing and analyzing huge quantities of data in genomics and other fields. "It won't be old school biologists that drive the next leaps in pharma," says Eric Schadt, the chief science officer at Pacific Biosciences, quoted in Vance's article. "'It will be guys like Jeff who understand what to do with big data."

Let us agree that, as Wadhwa and Vance both argue, we need to find a way of getting more of these people to do what Hammerbacher is doing, embark on careers doing foundational work in science, engineering, technology, and translation instead of -- um, instead of what? Instead of accepting a good job when one is offered? 

As Wadhwa and Vance apparently see it, the problem is that these other sectors -- finance and social networking -- offer opportunity disproportionate to their social value. They pay too much for doing non-essential work. They suck the talent away from where it naturally belongs and is most needed. I can see why a CEO -- or a former CEO like Wadhwa -- would see things this way. His goal is to staff a company without burning through his startup funds too fast. My goal, as one who cares deeply about science and science careers, is a bit different.

I don't think that hoping for bubbles to burst and opportunity to dry up is a sound approach to this very serious problem, for reasons both fundamental and practical. The most important is this: It won't work. The very best people will always be in demand somewhere. If jobs at Facebook vanish, these excellent people will find other promising opportunities. In making their career choices, they will act as Hammerbacher did: they'll consider the interests of society in making these choices, but they'll also consider their own -- and their families' -- personal interests, as we all would. The more we ask them to sacrifice to do foundational work, the fewer of them will make that choice.

Yes, it is true, as Wadhwa seems to assume, that brilliant folks with limited career opportunities will sometime start companies. But usually (no, not always) it takes time to acquire the skill and knowledge to do that well; meanwhile, many are drifting off to join the latest flavor-of-the-month career track.

The only way to keep them from drifting is to make them comfortable at home. Making those other careers less attractive won't work. We have to make these careers -- careers in foundational science and technology -- more attractive. It isn't just the money; indeed, I don't think it's mainly the money. What matters most is the sacrifice of professional and personal security. People shouldn't have to pay such a high price for the opportunity to serve society.

Jim Austin tweets as @SciCareerEditor

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