The depressing truth of elite students

Originally published in the Stanford Daily as part of a column series known as Adventures in Academia that explored issues related to the Stanford University community.

Last week’s hubbub over the Nobel Peace Prize nearly shrouded a far more interesting story about the Nobel Prize in Physics. The prize this year was awarded to three scientists for their research into CCD sensors - the device that underlies most digital cameras.

Two of the three researchers who made the discovery worked at Bell Labs, one of the premier basic research institutions in the country. Or at least it was. The storied history of the labs, including its now seven Nobel Prize wins, ended last year when parent company Alcatel-Lucent decided to shut them down.

The story of Bell Labs is a truly American one about the technological greatness of the past discarded in the drive for profit. Unfortunately, one needs to look no further than the aspirations of Stanford students to see that this disappointing trend will not be disappearing.

Ask graduates (or even prospective freshman) about their dream job, and a depressing truth becomes evident: the most desired positions are in finance and management consulting. Even in the wake of the largest economic meltdown in decades, students throng for industries that advise, rather than create.

The hard numbers are difficult to refute at peer institutions as well. At Princeton, 60% of graduates who find full-time employment will go into these industries. At MIT, 40% do the same, although neither number accounts for those students who pursue higher degrees before entering these industries.

Bill Gates recognized the allure of these industries, and attempted to draw a wider cross-section of America into science and technology through scholarship grants. Yet, many of those at Stanford receiving grants are giving up 10-year fellowships in order to major in fields more relevant to finance and consulting.

What do these companies do that is so attractive to such a large number of students? Bain & Company, a leading management consulting firm, puts it this way: “We look at a business as an integrated, cohesive whole. Bain helps companies find where to make their money, make more of it faster, and sustain its growth longer.” Other firms state the same mission in similar terms.

The most brilliant students no longer attempt to solve basic science, technology or even political problems. Today, they want to work for firms whose goal it to make as much profit in the shortest time as possible. Increasing profit is certainly important, but not at the expense of a company’s long term potential.

When we look back at Bell Labs, we see this kind of decision-making in a microcosm. Basic science research is not immediately profitable, and thus does not fit into the equations that these consulting firms provide. From an Alcatel-Lucent spokesman quoted in Wired magazine, “In the new innovation model, research needs to keep addressing the need of the mother company.” Of course, expanding the company into new and unexpected industries is probably asking for too much.

America is in for a rough future if this kind of shortsightedness continues. Sigfried Hecker was head of Los Alamos National Laboratory, and was recently bestowed the prestigious Enrico Fermi award. He related an anecdote about meeting some students in India while attending a conference. The students repeatedly asked for his autograph, excited to see such an accomplished scientist. The difference in mentality between our two countries is palpable.

I do not blame students for choosing the nicer of these divergent paths. Look at the incentives: there is better pay, more varied work, and to a certain degree, better job security in consulting. Earning a PhD in science is not the measure of success it once was. Training is poor and support is difficult to find, not to mention that the time to earn a degree continues to increase. After graduation, there are few avenues to pursue research as the number of basic science laboratories falls. In short, there are almost no incentives for high-achieving students to consider the basic sciences.

To solve these problems, two fundamental problems need to be solved. The first is the compensation of scientists and engineers in corporate America. Respect for the individuals actually innovating and producing the products is paramount. Action may need to come from Washington in the form of incentives, but I believe a far stronger approach should focus on changing the mentality of the top management professionals.

The second approach must center on lowering the barriers blocking a science education in this country. President Obama has proposed significantly increasing the number of NSF fellowships - one of the most important fellowships for graduate study. He should also advocate for better science training and mentoring.

Bell Labs was one of the few bastions of basic research left in the corporate world. Winning another Nobel is merely an elegy to that forgotten era. Today, the focus must be returning America’s best to the source of America’s power - science and engineering.