Time to face reality

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Eugene Arthurs, executive director of SPIE, says that if you want scientists and engineers, you must reward them

Recent Hard Talk columns have commented on the importance of people in providing companies or organisations with sustainable competitive advantage. A recent survey in The Economist discussed various aspects of the global talent shortage. This reminded me that one of the pieces of wisdom and encouragement that my supervisor, laser and instrumentation innovator, Dan Bradley, gifted me was that ‘there is always a shortage of good people’.

As a callow postdoc looking out to a somewhat depressed job market after the unprecedented expansion of the UK’s universities in the late 1960s, I did not comprehend the depth of this seemingly simplistic message. Now after a good number of years leading teams and companies, I came to appreciate how consistently valid this little observation remains, and as executive director of SPIE I take every opportunity to pass this on, to encourage a wide range of ‘good people’, students in optics and photonics with this affirming insight.

The words ‘good people’ for the context of Dan Bradley’s comment meant motivated individuals with solid science and technology training. We now realise that top talent must also have the ability to work in teams, have a global outlook, and possess what I would call innate active learning. Keeping up with the technology frontiers is like breathing to some. Others, sadly a substantial portion of the science and engineering workforce, resist lifetime learning and call for protectionist measures. I believe such barriers to talent flow would be a disastrous approach to long-term competitiveness for any nation seduced by the short-term interests of some of us.

On a global basis, the quest for the brightest and best in scientific talent is increasingly seen as a vital element to national economic competitiveness. Nations are adopting various approaches to grab more ‘market share’ of this global resource. Within nations, universities, cities and regions compete to attract and retain creators and innovators. With the current dynamic growth of the applications of optics and photonics and the associated huge economic impact, talent availability will be an important factor in determining the progress of our technology and where the winners and losers are throughout the world.

There are at least two aspects to attracting student talent from the global pool. One is the immediate economic impact on universities and countries of gaining market share of a substantial global business – student education. The Australian share amounts to more than $7.5bn, and is the nation’s third biggest money earner!

For the US this aspect is dwarfed by the contributions of the students who stay and power the huge US technology enterprise. As optics and photonics are key enablers for progress in many scientific disciplines, and also vital to many segments of the high-technology economy, there are trends that concern me. We are failing to adequately nourish two of the feeder disciplines for advances in optics and photonics, physics and electrical engineering. Indeed for some years, more than 65 per cent of EE PhDs in the US have been awarded to people born outside the US.

Recent data suggests that more of the new or seasoned PhDs are returning to the growing opportunities in their native lands. So in the US and much of the developed world, we are failing to produce the talent we need, and may be unable to hold those we educate. There remains a perception of an endless supply of scientific talent from China, India and Eastern Europe. I see signs that this is only temporary. For the US, the talent-flow patterns that have underpinned our scientific enterprise look increasingly fragile, as the lure of IT salaries and business opportunities grows in India, and business career opportunities explode in China.

After a fall-off in students coming to the US since 2001, some universities have become more active at recruiting students abroad – and there is a welcome increase in US students gaining a better world view through studying abroad. The unprecedented recruiting swing through Asia last month by US Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings shows some recognition of the importance of the talent intake.

As the global quest for talent heats up, the US has joined other nations by improving the visa situation for foreign born students, but still falls short of the Green Card or permanent visa tacked to every PhD degree in the hard sciences. Technology companies press for easier ways to import scientific talent and, facing real shortages, many of the multinationals are establishing R&D centres according to current talent demographics (I do recognise that often potential cost advantages and better coupling to exploding markets are also important factors in locating R&D). These recruiting measures are all welcome, but are not enough.

Even as corporations and governments through the world recognise the future economic value of innovation, and step up their recruitment, I do not see in the international competition for talent any widespread recognition that science and engineering talent deserves to be better rewarded. To me this is fundamental, but only a few Asian nations seem to be acting on the obvious. Of course the ‘brightest and best’ students in the developed world recognise that MBAs, financial types, doctors and lawyers all do financially substantially better than scientists and engineers. Yes, the psychological rewards of science and engineering can be exhilarating, but other fulfilling professions also have better financial rewards. I just flew back from India from an SPIE meeting on remote sensing. The meeting covered many uses of photonics and imaging technology to better deal with serious global challenges on the environment, the oceans, agriculture and on disaster forewarning and mitigation. There were a number of senior scientists from Nasa and other agencies on the flight. We all sat in the back in economy; businessmen on the same flight, at least some of them relatively junior sales and marketing people from conversations I had with them as we waited out the delays in Delhi’s airport, sat up in business class. This reflects what is valued in society. It makes it easy to understand the talent flows.

Unless we do something with a sense of urgency, there will be a heavy price to pay as we try to grapple with problems facing humanity, problems so serious that the brightest and best minds among us should be dealing with them. We need some urgent action on a pretty basic issue, the rewards for taking the harder road through the years of education and a lifetime of continuous learning.

So far the timelines of innovation and the previously inadequate recognition of its long-term ROI have meant that the folk in the stock market driven by near horizons react negatively to a CEO starting a new research centre, never mind increasing salaries in R&D. Leaders in government must act. Significantly increased rewards for science and maths teachers, with appropriate competence criteria and tax or grant incentives for updating the talent we already have in place, would be a start, and would send a message to young people. Upgrading and greatly extending the R&D tax credits may be a start to the long process of convincing the investment community.

I fault us, the community, also. Scientists have not been nearly aggressive enough. They may well compete intensely for grants, but somehow personal rewards are taboo. This must change for the benefit not just of science but for humanity.

Altruism, the great mental rewards of a scientific career, and the fascination of exploration will continue to draw some to the field. But we cannot rely on these to meet the need for science and engineering professionals to create a sustainable future that also meets the expectations of the billions now exposed to better conditions by photonics-enabled communications technology. From my earlier aphorism to another: hope is not a strategy – action is needed.