Monday, March 25, 2013

"Robots Aren't the Problem" in our economy, but what about our schools?

In an essay on the topic of technology entitled "Robots Aren't the Problem" in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Richard Florida writes:"we should look at how [technology] affects our social and economic arrangements—and how we have failed to adapt [it] to our circumstances."

This raises deep concerns about higher ed in general and the STEM disciplines in particular. Surely I am not alone with my concerns about the widening disconnect between the economy surrounding the highly integrated consumer technology... and the faltering economy of learning. 

Full disclosure: I am a nano / device physics guy; I and students built lovely nanotube-based transistors and whatnot together over the years before I left academia, so I'm about as close to the most hyped tech directions as you can find on a typical college campus. Even as a very tech-friendly academic, I have real questions about what exactly I am teaching for. I know that I can't simply break open an iPhone and fish out some parts and teach classes about those. Many of these devices that surround us are so integrated that their operating principles are obscure even to experts.

Okay... I could teach courses on this material... but those classes would be nothing at all like what most of our students take now, and very few students would be sufficiently prepared to delve into the black boxes that fill our lives. Within our current curriculum, frankly, we're doing well to bring students up to speed on technology a full decade (or two) prior. The tech fields have gone into so many different directions of late, it's very hard to keep students abreast without diluting the core curriculum. Do our institutions of learning really have any idea just how big the gap has become, between what we teach and what a student would need to thrive in the tech sector?

After completing the lectures and proceeding into the research labs, our students typically do very basic research sponsored by the likes of NSF, i.e. with very little tie-in to companies like Apple ($AAPL) and Google ($GOOG) and other tech leaders. And those tech leaders aren't really investing in next-generation talent; in fact, they aren't really investing in much of anything- they have huge amounts of cash on hand. Where do we go from here... Apple University? Google University? And do those companies have a faculty job for me... ;)

In summary: what economic growth we do have in this nation right now is very much about consumer tech designed by a few specialists and manufactured abroad, and ed is almost totally disconnected from that. This is a very worrisome trend, in my view. 

N.b. I am certainly not criticizing the underlying technology and I am no Luddite.... but I do question how consumer technology comports with ideas about a liberal higher education as a means of career advancement beyond academia.

P.S. Just for Mr. Coburn: my work to teach nanotechnology to undergraduates was partially supported by NSF Nanoscience Undergraduate Education (NUE) Grant 0532515, entitled "'We're Not in Kansas Anymore' - A Hands-On Introduction to the New World of Nanoscience and Technology."

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Just For Mr. Coburn: The Evolution of Transsexual Attitudes Toward Gerrymandering in the Context of Global Warming

Fresh news from the budget battleground in Washington: tension is high... it's coming down to the wire... we're a week or so away from partial government shutdowns...

...but Tom Coburn (R-OK) thinks there's enough time to dig into the details of NSF studies on the political science of filibustering. Seriously.

It seems Mr. Coburn is taking issue with political science research on the filibuster and on cooperation between Congress and the President. And note: Mr. Coburn's issue is not with the research itself, which I am sure Mr. Coburn never actually considered; no, Mr. Coburn's issue is that the NSF has research funding for such topics at all.

This particular intrusion of national politics is highly ironic. As Mr. Coburn should know, American politics is now all about filibustering, gerrymandering, super-PACs and widespread voter disillusionment. And that certainly isn't the fault of the NSF.... but it is certainly a valid scholarly topic.

Full disclosure: as a libertarian, and there is all manner of wasteful government spending that I'd dearly love to eliminate. Let's talk about gargantuan agricultural subsidies, the incredibly bureaucratic and directionless Department of Education, etc. But Mr. Coburn's views represent a new kind of thought control- the ultimate intrusion by a national politician through the legislative manipulation of taxpayer funds. This is Ken Cuccinelli vs. UVa at the national scale. This is the intrusion of short-sighted political whim into scholarly thought, and it evokes some of our darkest history, when differing points of view were silenced for reasons of power and domination rather than intellectual argument. And this is yet another embarrassment for thinking libertarians and conservatives like myself who aren't afraid of dissenting views.

At a time when we should be talking about eliminating massive and unnecessary trillion dollar projects like the joint strike fighter, we're instead wrestling in the weeds over... academic studies of the filibuster? Because one politician doesn't like an NSF proposal title...?

This truly makes me want to send in an NSF proposal entitled "The Evolution of Transsexual Attitudes Toward Gerrymandering in the Context of Global Warming" ... just to get myself on a talk show opposite the likes of Tom Coburn. Let's talk about wasteful spending, shall we?

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

#Privatization: an Important Ingredient Missing from the Budget Discussions

Paul Ryan recently released his latest budget, and it envisions some rather large cuts to the Federal workforce. I'd be the last to defend government bloat, but... Ryan's politics on this point is disappointingly amateur.

With their poor messaging, the national Republicans are missing a large opportunity to present with a theme that worked quite well for them in the past: privatization. This is a theme well familiar to the Reagan-era Republicans, and it does provide many opportunities to connect with a brighter vision of the future, as we see many green shoots in the private sector. Some recent, visible successes like SpaceX suggest that the private sector could snatch several batons from the public sector... and run with them, creating more jobs as they go.

The theme of privatization also connects well with the recent optimism throughout the financial markets, which do appear to be taking sequestration well in stride. What could quickly halt that momentum and produce a sharp downturn is any indication of further job loss. I suppose that some politicians might actually welcome a return to 8% unemployment and higher underemployment, as a short-term, political opportunity before the midterms, but surely there are enough reasonable centrists to overcome those few on the fringe.

Rather than letting job cuts and layoffs and furloughs remain the headline theme, Republicans could and should be emphasizing ways to transition public-sector work to the private sector. Privatization is a long-term political strategy with real opportunities. And, if properly implemented, privatization could produce much of what the Republicans want.... while installing a mechanism to ensure sure that public-sector jobs don't simply vanish.

The public sector has already shed many hundreds of thousands of jobs in the past few years. The perception that Republicans are willing to let many more public-sector jobs go really exposes their longstanding political Achille's heel, namely that they seem to care less about people than they do about abstract numbers.