Class Implications of the Brain Drain

Over at Gene Expression, Razib responds to my brain drain comments in a way that provokes some twinges of Liberal Guilt:

Second, Chad like many others points to the issue of foreign scientists allowing us (Americans) to be complacent about nourishing home grown talent. I don’t totally dismiss this, there are probably many doctors and lawyers out there who could be scientists if the incentives were right (Ph.D. scientists are one of the least compensated groups in relation to how much education they have). But, I would frankly rather focus on tightening labor supply on the low end of the socioeconomic ladder so that blue-collar workers could attain a high standard of living as opposed to padding the security of the middle class (yes, scientists and post-docs are underpaid, but they get benefits and work in a field that they are passionate about). In other words, I think a prudent national policy would focus on stocking up on intellectual capital and making sure that the least amongst us can achieve a modicum of comfort and security.

It’s a good point, but I don’t see it as an either-or situation (further explanation after the cut).

In the end, I think that investing in science is probably one of the best ways we can improve the standard of living for those on “the low end of the socioeconomic ladder,” particularly if we were to tak a sensible ground-up approach, and work on improving science education as a key step.

There can be direct benefits from science investment, of course, in the form of new jobs working with new technologies. And there will also be indirect benefits, in the form of new technologies to make life easier– even very poor people today have things better than they would’ve a hundred years ago, thanks to the myriad gadgets that have been invented since.

The most important benefit is generational, though. The point of greater investment in science education is not just to encourage the children of the middle class to become scientists and engineers rather than doctors or lawyers, the point is to make it possible for the children of the lower classes to become scientists and engineers rather than factory workers and farmers. Economic class should not be hereditary, and one of the purposes of public education is to keep economic class from being hereditary.

As I say nearly every time the subject of public education comes up, this is an area that means a lot to me. My grandfather dropped out of school after the eigth grade to work in a shoe factory, and he was tremendously proud that all of his children graduated college, and went on to better jobs than he ever had. My comfortable middle-class life owes a great deal to the fact that his children got a decent education, which gave them a base on which to build a better life for themselves and their children.

In the same way that people in the “women in science” debate argue that sexism leads to throwing away half of the smart people who could be working in the field, a failure to invest in science education for everyone amounts to writing off a large chunk of the population, who might be able to prosper in the sciences if given the proper background. Investing in science, and science education, will give them the tools they need to make a better life for themselves, and possibly for us all.