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Western science outgunned by emerging markets?

Finance Blogger: Anthony Harrington Anthony Harrington

With emerging markets expanding the boundaries of the possible at startling speeds, the old defensive mantra which emphasizes Western know-how and innovation over Asia’s ability to out-compete on low-skill manufacturing, is already starting to sound hollow. The plain fact is that while Chinese and Indian students demonstrate a huge hunger for places on science and engineering degree courses, the hard sciences are seen as too hard by too many Western youngsters.

The UK, it seems, has a particularly poor track record in this respect, despite the glittering record of UK academic institutions in the sciences. Things have reached the point where SEMTA, the Sector Skills Council for Science, Engineering and Manufacturing Technologies, and the UK and Scottish governments have launched yet another initiative to try to stimulate interest in the sciences among the country’s school children and graduates.

As the UK economy has shifted from a manufacturing to a service-based economy, jobs in manufacturing and science have been shed at an alarming rate. According to SEMTA, the average profile of an employee in the aerospace, automotive, and electronics sector is that of a white, 35-plus-year-old male.

“While this demographic is not expected to change much in the foreseeable future, low levels of young people coming into these sectors and difficulties with recruitment, particularly of skilled personnel, will require the industry to actively market itself to previously underrepresented groups such as females, ethnic minorities and people with disabilities,” SEMTA says.

The plain fact is that a country’s ability to play a lead role in the innovation stakes relies on two things. Its top companies need to have access to a high-quality pool of employees with deep skill sets, and those companies need to have sufficient incentive and belief in their ability to bring leading edge products to market to warrant them putting substantial funds into R&D.

Of course, if companies find thin pickings at home when it comes to recruiting top science and engineering talent, there is nothing stopping them from opening up R&D centers in Asia. At a stroke this gives them access to a vastly larger graduate pool at significantly lower cost, in terms of wages. Those who feel that there is something unique about the Western imagination which gives it an edge in innovation over other regions of the world, should contemplate the fact that genius is located at least two standard deviations away from the mean in a bell curve (if you take the general definition of “genius” as the brightest 2% of any good-sized population). The numbers embraced by each ”wing” of the curve fall off dramatically either side of the mean as the curve flattens out along the x axis.

The inescapable logic of this is that the larger the population pool you start with, the more geniuses you can expect to find in the “genius” section of the curve. In a huge backward economy with a massive peasant population many of the brightest may well bloom unseen and unnoticed. A genius goat herder can’t do much to foster game-changing scientific breakthroughs. However, an inclusive educational system and a determination to find and encourage the brightest and best to pursue hard science can really transform the logic of who gets file the most patents in future.

China and India are galloping down this road while the best in the west veer away from the portal leading to hard science and head instead in the direction of the service sector to become public relations consultants and merchant bankers. The writing, as they say, is on the wall for all to see…

Further reading for science jobs

Tags: Asia , engineering , intellectual property , manufacturing , research and development , science
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