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3. Specific Problems: The Alleged Shortage of Scientists

We now have at our command the general principles with which to approach our problems; we may now turn to some specific applications of these principles.

First, let us turn to the widely-trumpeted problem of a grave “shortage” of scientists, researchers, engineers, etc. It is widely asserted that the Federal government should subsidize scientific education in order to relieve this supposed “shortage.” Now let us analyze this question more closely:

In the first place, a “shortage” of scientists is a general, rather than a military problem. The military can purchase the services of as many existing scientists (either as direct employees or as employees of private contractors) as it requires; the burden of shortage will then be felt by the civilian, rather than by the military, sector. Apart from this, if there really is a shortage of scientists, how can it be remedied? Not by government; government cannot manufacture one scientist; the scientists must enter this profession themselves.

Now, there are two sources of supply of scientists: (a) from adults who have left the profession and can be induced to reenter (e.g., ex-lady chemists who are now housewives); and (b) youngsters who are entering the profession for the first time. The (a) category can be induced to reenter in only one way: by paying them higher salaries, and thus attracting an influx. And the second category, in the final analysis, can only be stimulated in the same way: by higher salaries. Youngsters enter the scientific field for a blend of two reasons: a love of the work, and the expected salaries and job opportunities. The former cannot be increased by anyone except the young scientist himself (although more can be done via educational methods to awaken his interest—see below); only the salary factor can be increased by others. The way to increase the supply of scientists, then, is simply to increase the salaries of scientists, relative to other occupations. (If all salaries increase, then obviously there is little or no added incentive to enter science.)

It is already becoming apparent that Federal aid to scientific education, for example, is an improper and unsuccessful method of relieving a shortage of scientists. We have seen that any shortage must stem from the fact that scientific salaries are not higher than other occupations. Suppose, then, that the Federal government spends tax money to subsidize science students. What are the effects? The only thing it may accomplish is to create more students of science, who then find that, because of the increased supply, scientific salaries are not only not raised—they are even lower compared to other fields. The result can only be to drive more and more scientists out of the field and into others, and to discourage any further students from taking advantage of the subsidized program. In short, the ultimate result of Federal subsidies to science study can only be to aggravate the scientist shortage rather than alleviate it, for the crucial problem: salaries, is worsened rather than improved by this intervention. This is one of numerous examples of a government intervention, aiming to solve a certain problem, ending by not solving it but creating new problems needing cure. The original purpose of the intervention is completely frustrated. And, this, if the government then tries to sure the worsened shortage by still heavier doses of Federal aid the shortage will only be aggravated still more.

The key, then, is scientific salaries. And here we come to another important point: there can be no lasting shortage of any occupation on the free market, for if there is a shortage, it will be quickly revealed in higher salaries, and these salaries will do all that is humanly possible to alleviate the shortage rapidly by attracting new people into the field (and bringing back those who left the field). If more scientists are needed, then free-market salaries will rise and induce a greater supply. If they are needed specifically by the military, then the military may increase its salaries for scientists directly, or the private scientific firms on government contract can raise their preferred salaries. Such are the workings of the market. No particular Federal intervention can do anything more to increase the needed supply of scientists. Furthermore, only the free market can decide how much salaries need to be increased to stimulate a sufficient supply. No form of governmental wage-fixing can do the job. (If the military sets its wage, it can use the free-market wage as a guide.)

If then, there is a shortage of scientists, market salaries for scientists will significantly rise, relative to other occupations. But since they have not so risen, is there really a shortage for scientists? This question was itself scientifically investigated only recently, after much loose speculation on the subject, in a highly important study by Blank and Stigler, of the National Bureau of Economic Research.2

The authors found, for example, that, in the last eighty years, the number of chemists and engineers in the United States expanded by considerably more than 17 times as much as the total labor force. Hardly appears like a shortage! But, more important, Blank and Stigler stress the point that the very concept of “shortage” makes little sense except in relation to price—in this case, the price for scientific services. A shortage means that demand for the labor is greater than its supply at current wage rates, so that the wage rate tends to rise. Yet, upon investigating recent earning trends, Blank and Stigler find that, since 1939, salaries of engineers relative to earnings of doctors, dentists and lawyers, have declined, and have also declined relative to manufacturing wage earners.3 Even the salaries of clergymen, pharmacists, and school teachers, rose relative to engineers in this period. How, then, can there be a shortage of engineers?

Neither can it be said that this relative decline of salaries is due to some sort of “exploitation” of engineers by their employers. For Blank and Stigler found a great deal of mobility between jobs among engineer-employers. Thus, we must conclude that, in recent decades, far from there being a shortage, the supply of engineers has grown more rapidly than the demand for their services. Even in the years since 1950, when demand for scientific services grew suddenly due to the Korean War, increases in scientific salaries have been no larger than in other occupations, and, indeed they have once again been smaller since the end of the spurt of Korean War demand in 1952.

Possibly, a shortage has been felt in recent years in engineers in industries doing military work. A typical reason: the Air Force insists on a formal review of all salaries paid by its private contractors, and on justification given for all salary increases. This downward pressure on salaries had tended to cause a slight shortage of scientists doing war-work. The remedy for this is for the government to be willing to see technologists paid at their full market worth—otherwise it can only bring difficulties for national defense. But, again, this has not caused a general shortage of technologists; just a possible shortage in the defense contract industries.

These findings appear to be contradicted by the enormous growth in newspaper want-ads for engineers, which have seemed to reflect a great engineer shortage. But: (1) newspaper ads have been growing as a method of recruiting; and (2) nine-tenths of the advertising space have been taken by defense contact, rather than civilian, firms. Possible reasons are the lower salaries in war work, and, in particular, the fact that the recruitment costs of advertising are, for the military contract firms, fully reimbursed by the government.

In addition to their crucial studies of engineers and other scientists, Blank and Stigler also investigated the fields of mathematics and physics. These scientists are mostly on college and university facilities: 87 percent of mathematicians and almost 60 percent of physicists are employed in colleges. The authors found that the rapidly rising trend of college enrollments, coupled with the steady fall in faculty-to-student ratios in these subjects, insure a high and expanding demand for physics and mathematics professors far into the future. And as for supply, the growing increase in the relative, as well as absolute, number of Ph.D.'s in the sciences attests to the expanding supply. So there need be no fears of a general shortage of mathematicians or of physicists either.

There is another way in which government has tended to create its own shortage of scientists working on military projects. This is through onerous security and secrecy regulations that make working conditions unpleasant and unattractive to scientists. To be sure, we don’t want to encourage Russian spies to steal our military secrets. And yet we must recognize that scientific invention is the discovery of natural laws, and that these laws are open to all to find, whether Russians or Americans. Throughout history, no important new invention has remained a secret for long, and either espionage or independent discovery would eventually yield the Russians the same technology. It is far more important, therefore, to create a climate of freedom in which scientists can operate creatively. And if scientists are naturally reluctant to work under onerous restrictions, the only way to induce them to give their free creative energies to military work is by relaxing these restrictions. And it must be conceded that, knowing the bureaucratic mind as we do, many military restrictions simply multiply unnecessary red tape rather than protect vital military secrets.

Thus, security investigations have been made of scientists engaged in open, basic research where there was no question of secret material being used; in these cases, the National Science Foundation has warned, “loyalty or security-type investigations are clearly undesirable and unlikely to serve any useful purpose.”4 “Security” regulations have suppressed medical research devoted entirely to such non-military problems as high blood pressure and multiple sclerosis. Dr. Fritz Zwicky, eminent professor of astrophysics at California Institute of Technology, was suspended from guided missile work simply because he chose to retain his Swiss citizenship. Such absurd procedures should be altered.5 Professor Alfred Bornemann has written: “whether or not a policy of secrecy was ever justified, in the past, it can scarcely be justified for security reasons and longer. ... Freedom of thought and enterprise is essential. ... Military success itself has always depended in the past on the effects or products of free thought and private enterprise in inter-war periods.” And Professor Arnold Zurcher has warned that a policy of governmental secrecy threatens to render ineffectual the very basis of democracy: an informed public opinion.6

What, then, should the government do about the nation’s supply of scientists? We have seen that a program of positive intervention in the free market—such as been true of the Federal aid to over one-fourth of the nation’s graduate science students, amounting to $26 million in 1954—only distorts the allocations of the free enterprise economy, and can only prove self-defeating. We have seen that any shortage that does occur is cured most rapidly and effectively by the rise in salaries for these scarce jobs that occurs swiftly if undramatically on the free market. And we have seen that the best that government can do to sure any shortage of military scientists, is to be willing to pay, or see its private contractors pay, salaries at their free market worth, and to remove unnecessary restrictions and red tape on scientific activity. In short: the government does its best and most constructive job, not by positive intervention into the society, but by repealing its own restrictions on free activity, by lifting its own burdens from the scientific, or indeed any other, sector of society.

If government can cure a shortage of military scientists by these means, should it do anything at all to encourage a general increase of scientists, military and civilian? We have seen that it can only defeat its own purposes, and distort the economy, by positive intervention. But it can do other useful things to encourage science: acts that are not intervention, but are a repealing and loosening of its own policies that have been hampering the supply of scientists.

Thus, in the critical field of education, which is the ultimate source of scientists, the government can remove its own repressions on science education. For example, the entire philosophy of public education in this country needs an overhauling. This has been recently pointed out in ever-growing force, in quarters ranging from Admiral Rickover to Life Magazine. In short, we must abandon the mind-crippling “life adjustment” philosophy of our schools, which rather indoctrinates children in “group adjustment” than equips them with the mental skills and disciplines of science or any other intellectual subject. Our schools must once again regard it as their basic function to teach subjects, to encourage the rapid maturation of bright young minds. The present educational structure drags all the students down to the level of the lowest common denominator, passes all students, teaches rubbish rather than subject disciplines, and allows hooligans to widen their “self-expression” by tormenting and distracting those eager to learn—all in the name of “democracy.” We shall never know how many potentially bright youngsters who could have been able and even great scientists, have been permanently crippled by the “progressive” education philosophy dominant in the public schools. (The Russians, be it said, abandoned the absurdities of “progressive” education many years ago, and to that extent enjoy superior scientific training.) The public schools are the responsibilities of the state governments, and therefore it is up to the states to transform their schools into “halls of learning.”7

There are importance corollaries to this task of the states in reforming their own public schools. There is the problem of the uneducable youth—those too dumb or too uninterested to benefit from formal schooling, and who would be much happier at a job or trade. The states should consider reducing the maximum age of compulsory attendance, or even repealing the compulsory attendance law altogether. Another important problem is the recent hullabaloo about teachers’ salaries. Roger Freeman has conclusively shown, in a definite study, that there is no teachers’ shortage whatever, present or future.9 Freeman shows that teachers’ salaries are fully adequate. There is, to be sure, a shortage of high-quality teachers, who are driven out of the profession by the absolutely uniform pay-scales, insisted upon by the teachers’ unions. Robbed of incentives for merit, and frustrated by the red-tape of bureaucracy and civil service and by the absurdities of progressive education, the good teachers—the very ones who are needed to educate the young properly—leave for the better salaries they can obtain elsewhere. This is particularly true for the good science teachers—for industry and government have more job opportunities for ex-science teachers than for other teachers. The public schools, therefore, should (1) pay good teachers more than poor ones; and (2) should pay science teachers more than others, so as not to lose them to other jobs. In short, not overall salaries, but the salary differentials, need overhauling—by officials who must have the courage to battle the entrenched bureaucracy of the NEA and other teachers’ unions. While this is a state and local responsibility, the Federal government should certainly lend more encouragement to the states in this needed reform.

Another important state policy would be to relax the absurd regulations which states now require for hiring school teachers. These rules play into the hand of the professional progressive educationists by requiring a myriad of “method” courses before a man can teach in the schools, in the meanwhile slighting the all-important subject matter. Our greatest physicists are legally debarred from teaching in the public schools because they lack the “qualifications” imposed by state laws. Here, too, the states restrict the supply of teachers, especially the able ones who wish to stress knowledge of subject over progressive methodology.

To sum up, the proper role of government is to confine itself to removing the shackles that it has imposed on the supply and training of scientists. The Federal government could: stop paying lower than free-market salaries to scientists doing military work, and eliminate needless restrictions on the freedom of scientists; the state and local governments could overhaul the public school system by: transforming progressive into real education; relaxing or eliminating compulsory attendance laws; replacing uniform teachers’ pay by merit differentials, and relatively higher salaries for science teachers; and eliminating the restrictions on the supply of teachers not indoctrinated with educationist methodology.

  • 2. David M. Blank and George J. Stigler, The Demand and Supply of Scientific Personnel (New York: National Bureau of Economic Research, 1957).
  • 3. Engineers constitute the vast bulk of the technological professions. In 1950, there were over 540,000 engineers, and 82,000 chemists, with all the rest of the scientists: physicists, mathematicians, biologists, geologists, etc., (excluding medicine) totaling less than the number of chemists.
  • 4. National Science Foundation, Fifth Annual Report, 1955.
  • 5. See Walter Gellhorn, Individual Freedom and Governmental Restraints (Baton Rouge: L.S.U. Press, 1956), pp. 42–43, 168–68; Medical Research: A Mid-century Survey, vol. 1 (Boston: Little Brown, 1955): 185–89; John T. Edsall, “Government and the Freedom of Science,” Science 121 (1955): 615.
  • 6. Alfred Bornemann, “Atomic Energy and Enterprise Economics,” Land Economics (August, 1954): 202; Arnold J. Zurcher, “Democracy’s Declining Capacity to Govern,” Western Political Quarterly (December, 1955): 536–37. Also see Arthur A. Ekirch, Jr., The Civilian and the Military (New York: Oxford University Press, 1956), p. 276.
  • 7. Typical of the recently growing mass of literature on this subject are Admiral Hyman Rickover, Education and Freedom, Arthur Bestor, Restoration of Learning and Educational Wastelands, Augustin Rudd, Bending the Twig, and publications of the Council of Basic Education, and many others.
  • 9. See Roger A. Freeman, School Needs in the Decade Ahead (Washington, D.C.: The Institute for Social Science Research, 1958).
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