The scientist and engineer as a working stiff…

To understand why we have lost our innovative edge, we have to understand what it is like to be an innovator.  Innovators that change the world with new technologies, innovators that make truly earth shaking discoveries are generally not great business people.  Sorry to disappoint, but most of them are working stiffs.

The fantasy of the inventor and innovator as a great entrepreneur who created an amazing earth shaking invention (like developing the internet) while working out of his garage while simultaneously building a corporate empire that rocks Wall Street is a myth that must be dispelled.  The world is not filled with Steve Jobs clones who dropped out of college to start a business in their garages only to emerge atop the Apple empire.

It should be noted that both Jobs and Gates were business men who outsourced most of the nitty gritty  “discovery stuff” to programmers and coders.  They were not the engineers that built the systems that they sold.  Jobs and Gates were visionaries, but  the devil of all visionary exploits lies in the details.  The details and execution is far from trivial.  Those who undertake such work generally have extensive education under their belts and sometimes years of postdoctoral training as well.  Further, the final product was built on the shoulders of those who came before and laid the groundwork for the final product – often decades before said product could even be imagined.  Implementing a “vision” as as difficult as being a visionary and running a company.  This skill set has litte if NOTHING to do with skills required for starting a company on the scale of Microsoft or Apple.  Unfortunately , it is a skill set that many in America have little respect for.

The romanticized fantasy of Jobs and Gates as engineers who like cowboys tamed the wild west of personal computing single-handedly from their garages has fueled the legend of the rugged individualist engineer conquering all single handedly. Nothing could be further from the truth.   Even   journalists with a high reputation such as Tom Friedman, can not seem to walk and chew gum at the same time when it comes to this topic.  They inextricably link the discovery process to entrepreneurship and pull out one or two people who have managed to pull it off and hold them up as examples of “success in science”.

When this type of fantasy has enough legs to  reach into government policy – you get a great deal of collateral damage.  Officials have thought  that by letting more and more scientists and engineers into our country on H1-B visas and the like,  that this would create job opportunities for our own citizens.  Somehow training more Ph.D.’s from abroad is going to magically result in more business startups and employment for all with STEM skills.

Well, ask any American scientist or engineer how that is working for them.  It isn’t.  In biomedical sciences (which includes biotech) we have literally FLOODED the system with foreign nationals.  Few start up their own companies.  Most just compete for the same jobs that American scientists need. Whatever edge we have created through new startups has been more than offset by the damage in terms of wage destruction and exploitive working conditions that such a glut of talent has produced.  As salaries and working conditions tanked, fewer Americans went into these fields.  Then more foreign nationals were “needed” and a vicious cycle was created.

If we want Americans in the STEM fields, we have to create the conditions that foster innovation at the grass roots levels.  We need to understand that scientists and engineers are actually employees – workers if you will.  As such, they are subject to the same middle-class squeeze  and commoditization that everyone else in our country has been facing.  The incentive for innovation is to have well-paying jobs and a level of financial security available at the end of the  long educational pipeline.  Right now that does not exist. Until it does,  our nation’s best talent will continue to rush for the limited seats at Harvard Business School instead of M.I.T.

© 2012 – RGHicks – – All rights reserved.




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One Response to The scientist and engineer as a working stiff…

  1. Pingback: The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory…a metaphor for the modern high-tech sweat shops – Part 2 | Reinnovating America

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