In my last post, I randomly talked about why most of young students have no interest studying STEM subjects/degrees or being scientists/engineers. I blamed a little bit about our over-commercialized society. Yes, our society obeys too much about what is called “natural market” or “supply-demand balance”. In this post, I am going to talk about more about scientific research and commercialization; I would reflect on a common idea, that is “good scientific research achievements should be those that can be commercialized”.
After the end of the Cold War, the whole world has stepped into a “pure business” society. Commercial values are regarded as the only standard to measure an object. And the outcome is our society pays less and less attention to scientific research. Because those financiers and businessmen don’t have enough patience to wait for money. Those products that can generate huge commercial values must be those that have huge crowd of consumers. That is the reason why the most successful new companies are mostly internet service companies. It has been a declining trend in the past few decades: a century ago, the startups like Thomas Edison’s company invented countless new products that are still influencing our life today and their inventions were totally new to the world; in 1960s to 1980s, startups such as Microsoft and Apple tended to apply the science or technology which had already existed just to make those existed stuff work better; and after the beginning of 21st century, the startups are mostly like Facebook, Twitter and Amazon; they didn’t invent any new scientific or engineering achievements; they just use internet, an existed science or technology, to decorate our life with better methods to communicate or show off, which is merely a type of service. When the society only respect commercial value, the result is we enhance more on service innovation but don’t have patience for true scientific and engineering breakthrough; because it takes money and time.
In the last post, I analyzed why most of the breakthroughs of science main took place during the Cold War age. Because neither USSR or USA paid so much attention to the commercial value of their inventions. If USSR had asked about how to use Sputnik to make money, they would rather not launch such a “waste”. Meanwhile, Apollo 11 was a waste of money as well if we only regard it as a commodity. In other word, if the Cold War were a commercial society like today, we wouldn’t have seen people landing on the moon or the Voyagers passing Neptune by.
In the retrospect of human history, a scientific or engineering breakthrough could not have any business value when they appeared at the beginning. Because science and technology are mostly far more advanced than the contemporary industrial demand; only after a new scientific theory or engineering technology has been explored, could a new type of industrial production method which is related to the scientific discovery be exploited. Have a look at our story of all industrial revolutions since 1750s: Newton wrote the Principia first, then businessmen and engineers applied his theory to build and sell machines; Ørsted, Faraday and Coulomb started the exploration of circuit and electronics, then the industries various from electricity generator to today’s microelectronics spring out; Only after the physicists such as Feynman initiated the research of quantum physics, could we today start a new business or industry called “quantum computing”. Could we imagine that Newton, Faraday and Feynman etc did their research because they had already seen that their achievements could be commercialized later? If they unfortunately live today, would they be treasured by our society? If a “scientific research” can be seen with huge commercial value once it begins, it indicates that this research is just a small patch of a skyscraper.
I am not against commercialization; but I reckon when everything is commercialized, the value of science and scientists will be underestimated. Just as today, we connive the rule of “freedom of economics” and “supply-demand” rule and think the system of market should not be interfered, we see that scientists earn much less than those entertainment stars. And we stop the large-scale engineering or scientific explorations just because we are afraid of “waste of money”. And now we have the result: we have the products much more beautiful and convenient than those in 1970s, but they are using the same scientific principle; and we regard those internet service companies as “technological innovation”. The booming of internet companies, or to say, silicon valley startups, just comes up with more and more services, instead of true scientific breakthroughs. If we are still stingy about the investment of large-scale scientific researches, we will see science fictions are truly fictions in the future.
Governments around the world are advocating a slogan: “We need more young people to study STEM” (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics). However, it seems the result of this call is not so satisfying. Young people today don’t have such a passion on studying science and technology, as the previous generations had during 1960s to 1980s after Sputnik. As far as I know, my peers are most likely to study law, literature, history and performing art etc. The most popular scientific course is computer science, whose popularity is still far from humanity, social science or art.
In the discussion of why young students today tend to keep STEM subjects at bay when choosing university courses, a common opinion is that studying STEM requests too much time, effort or even IQ; most of them don’t want to take so much time to study STEM, so they choose humanity or art, which are “easy”. To be honest, I can’t share this point of view. It is far from what I have experienced and thought. If we say STEM is too hard, why there were numerous youth going into the field of STEM and later became famous scientists and engineers in NASA, DAARPA, Rolls-Royce etc. ? Does it mean the IQ or brain of human has been degenerating in the past few decades? Of course not. People don’t study STEM only because they don’t have the motivation. Why don’t students have motivation? Because our society doesn’t like graduates from STEM enough, though we think they are important. And all the reasons lie here: a commercial world!
If we pay a little attention to the mainstream media, except Discovery Channel and National Geographic Society, we will easily find that the absolutely most of the stars or heroes in our world are 3 types: financiers, silicon valley genius and young entertainment stars. Every young student, like myself, wants to be a rich and successful person in the future. Those who want to do a job that attracts them purely for personal hobby despite of unsatisfying income are always minority; because finally we need to make a living. When the media boast how rich the 3 types of people I mentioned above, students will definitely want to study the knowledge relevant to these fields, such as art, finance & business, IT etc. It’s not our young people’s selfishness, but just the nature of human. And now the government encourages young students study STEM, because “science and technology is the future of the world”, “the nation which have most scientists is the most powerful one in the future”. Yes, we totally agree with it. But have you ever heard of a scientist as rich as Mark Zuckerberg or as famous as Justin Bieber? No – yes, we once had, he is Carl Sagan. But after him, we couldn’t find another one any more. Even Brian Cox has far less popularity than Mr. Sagan had 30 years ago. Most of scientists and engineers give young people this impression: they are nerd; they study a lot; if you get a theoretical physics phd, you can’t find a job; scientists who have worked for NASA for 30 years earn almost same as a graduate programmer in Facebook. After seeing this cruel fact, do you think young people would study STEM subjects? Why should we study the hardest subjects but earn far less than an entertainment teen star or a junior programmer? Although the government officials have called frequently that young people should study STEM, but sorry, we are not sage, and we are living in a practical world. Just like that saying: “Those who are claiming political correctness have never lived in Bronx.”
Some people, especially those economists, have their own theory to explain the cruel fact I mentioned above. It’s called “supply-demand balance”. This summary can be summarized like this in short: because there are more people liking film stars and more users talking on Facebook, so people working in these industries SHOULD earn a lot; but there are few people using NASA’s product and there are too rare people studying theory of wormhole, so scientists’ income is REASONABLY low. I’m totally supporting this theory in a totally commercial society. But here comes next problem: can everything be commercialized? Can everything evaluated by its business value? Should our society thoroughly obey natural economic rules? If we totally obey the natural rule in a dynamic system, we will see water flowing down instead of soaring up. If the society wants to go forward, there must be government pushing it. A free commercialized society leads to short-sighted atmosphere. Because of commercial profit, there won’t be a company willing to invest 10 billion dollars and 10 years to build a space probe flying to Jupiter. Same principle for the income of scientists and engineers. By obeying the rule of commercial society, we will see the income of financiers, IT genius and stars going increasingly higher, and then more and more people flooding into university degrees such as business, it, music and other performing arts, no matter how government claim the importance of STEM subjects. When everything is commercialized, the value of STEM is underestimated. I do think people like Mr. Zuckerberg is improving our communication, but compared with scientists, maybe their contribution difference is really amazing. Because providing service online is a virtual stuff, but our society is improved by producing new theory and sensible material.
The best way to improve the popularity of STEM education is not a political slogan. The first task for government and media is to improve the treat for STEM talents with laws and policies and improve the fame and reputation of them. We can’t expect young people are sage, who only contribute to society but care nothing about self-interest.
17 Jun 2017
In 1960s, scientists predicted that cancer would be cured in 20 years; in 1980s, scientists predicted that cancer would be cured in 20 years agin…until now, doctors and scientists are still struggling to find the method to achieve their prediction. Why did we have our prediction failed? Because our society tends to ignore fundamental scientific research but focus on too much applied technologies which can be commercialised soon!
The “genius” in Silicon Valley call up all students should learn programming. But actually, it doesn’t mean computer or AI will take over the jobs from other types of engineers. The truth is those IT companies are in deed of more programmers for themselves! Engineers, such as mechanical, electrical and aerospace engineers, will never be taken over by what is called “AI”. Up till now, all “AI” companies are using computers. However, as long as a computer can be programmed, it is indeed still doing repeated tasks instead of creativity. Before figuring out how our brain works, there is no true AI existing.
18 May 2017