Friday, November 15, 2013


Harry Targ

A spokesperson for Purdue University testified before a Congressional research and technology subcommittee on November 13 warning that the United States is “losing a cadre of innovators that will never come back.” (Maureen Groppe, “Congress Hears Warning About Consequences of Research Cuts,” Journal and Courier, November 14, 2013, C1). The university spokesperson was echoing warnings that have been coming from his university and major research universities all around the country.

Purdue’s President, Mitch Daniels, not unlike other university presidents, has committed increasing shares of his budget to building so-called STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) fields. While support for STEM fields in higher education is not in and of itself a danger to higher education, Daniels has been implying that the United States has been falling behind other, potentially economically and/or militarily competitive nations, because of inadequate STEM funding. And, he has recommended that expanded allocation of resources for scientific and technological research and education should come from cuts in vital programs such as Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. In addition, as Governor, Daniels was a leading proponent of the privatization of social services and public education.

The threats of the United States falling behind some fictional adversaries is a similar “meme” to those that have been articulated by economic, political and military elites at least since the end of World War II. A “meme” is generally understood to be an “idea, behavior, or style that spreads from person to person within a culture.” It is a framework for bundling ideas into a common theme that can be used in speeches, writings, and rituals. The meme or idea of falling behind some imagined competing or threatening force has been misused by political leaders over and over again.

When World War II was coming to an end, members of the Roosevelt and Truman administrations were concerned that the economy would return to the depression of the 1930s. What stimulated economic recovery during the war, of course, was the mobilization of the military, corporations, universities, and workers to engage in massive research and production of war material to defeat fascism.

In the context of the winding down of the war, one CEO serving in government recommended that the United States create a “permanent war economy” to maintain the high level of economic and military mobilization and thus forestall economic decline. Support for high levels of military spending and corporate/government/university cooperation required a rationale. This rationale became the “meme” of the international communist threat. It justified the misallocation of societal resources for continued war production that has been a central feature of federal policy ever since.

The threat of “falling behind the Soviets” reverberated in the mass media after the shocking October, 1957 Soviet projection of an earth satellite into space. All of a sudden Americans were made to believe that their institutions were inferior to the enemy and that a new commitment of resources was needed to beat the Soviets to the moon and expand dramatically the American war machine. 

Three years later the threat of falling behind the enemy was used by presidential candidate John Kennedy to mobilize support and encourage new rounds of huge investments in military expansion. Kennedy warned of a “missile gap” that had emerged between the two super powers, a claim that was admitted to be false within a year of the new president’s assuming office.

Twenty years later presidential candidate Ronald Reagan referred to the “window of vulnerability” that had emerged in the 1970s as a result of Soviet/United States arms control negotiations. Although the United States agreed to limitations in arms production the Soviet Union, he claimed, continued their arms buildup creating this vulnerability to Soviet power. Consequently, President Reagan between 1981 and 1987 spent more on the military than the entire period of U.S. history from 1789 to 1981.  

With the end of the Cold War, the meme shifted to wars on “drugs” and today “terrorism.” All of these manifestations of the “falling behind” meme led the United States government to waste trillions of dollars and the loss of millions of lives of Americans and peoples in other countries such as Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan.

Returning to “the STEM crisis,” Michael Anft, in a recent article (“The STEM Crisis: Reality or Myth,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, November 11, 2013), points out that there is much research showing that U.S. higher education is not falling behind some possible competing nations, that American universities are producing as many STEM college graduates as are needed, and that the institutional spokespersons, from universities, the corporate sector, technology associations and others, may be motivated more by institutional interest than demonstrated need.

Further, in an August 30, 2013 article, Robert N. Charette (IEEE Spectrum, challenges a variety of claims made by advocates of more resources for STEM fields. Among these are the following:

-Many workers in STEM fields do not have STEM degrees and those who hold such degrees do not necessarily find work in their fields.

-STEM jobs have changed over time. For example, long-term engineering jobs have been reduced while shorter-term project driven hires have increased.

-With repeated shifts in the economy, it is difficult to project what STEM job needs will be over long periods of time, five or ten years from now.

-Some studies find that the supply of STEM trained college students exceeds the demand for their labor. In one study by the Economic Policy Institute it was found that more than one-third of computer science graduates in recent years have not been able to find jobs in their chosen field.

-Many STEM jobs have been outsourced. In addition, international workers with STEM qualifications have been enticed to take jobs in the United States, often receiving smaller salaries than American workers. 

-Salaries of those working in STEM fields have been stagnant, much like the broader work force. This is so, some economists suggest, because demand for such trained workers has declined over the last several years.

Charette discussed possible reasons for the hyperbolic calls for quantum shifts toward STEM fields in universities and public investment. He refers to a cycle of “alarm, boom, and bust” that has governed phases of the public policy meme affecting foreign and domestic policy. Recently, the federal government has been spending $3 billion each year on 209 STEM-related initiatives, amounting to “about $100 for every U.S. student beyond primary school.” 

Charette identifies powerful forces in the country that gain from this massive allocation of societal resources. Corporations want a large pool of trained workers from which to choose, thus cheapening the cost of labor. State governments and the Federal government measure their successes in part by how many scientists and engineers they help produce. In addition, a third to one-half of the budgets of large universities come from government and corporate research grants in the STEM fields as public funding for universities has declined. And finally, about 50 cents of every dollar in the federal budget goes to the military, homeland security, and space exploration. 

As Charette points out; “The result is that many people’s fortunes are now tied to the STEM crisis, real or manufactured.”