Monday, May 11, 2009

A Knowledge-based Economy

Comic credit: Scott Adams

I hope everyone had a happy Mother's day yesterday. Like Dilbert's mom, the first time I tried explaining what I did to my mom, she was more concerned about how I'd be making any money as a scientist than with understanding my research. Now that I am a policy fellow, the value of my work may be even more difficult to measure.

For the past few months I have been working on issues of building human capital for the knowledge based economy. That is quite a mouthful, so let me break it down:
  • Human capital is the basically assets in the form of well-qualified, trained people in other words - labor;
So, I've been working on how to increase our workforce (a.k.a people) for a knowledge-based economy (a.k.a the world we live in now).

This is an issue that has fascinated me for some time now, so I was ecstatic when the good folks at Research!America said that I could work on it.

Why is this issue important? For me (and many of you), it is important because I am a scientist, and this issue directly impacts my workforce.

It is also important in the larger context of our economy. Pretty much everyone now realizes that the days of a manufacturing-based economy are over. We are moving towards a knowledge-based economy . We are moving from jobs that largely require manual skills (like assembly line jobs) to jobs that require intellectual skills (like doing research). Our economy is now trading in goods that are more the product of the mind than the hand (eg. trading in fuel-cell technology has more value than selling a car).

We are also a mature economy and the jobs that promise to stay in America are not the manufacturing jobs but rather the intellectual jobs. The rise of inexpensive and reliable telecommunications and transport has led to the export of jobs requiring intensive input of manual labor and a demand for jobs requiring input of intellectual skills. In other words, a company that trades its products globally is minimizing its manufacturing costs by shipping those jobs overseas, while keeping its R&D facilities - and thus those jobs - here in the US.

So, if we are moving to an economy where intellectual skills and research are going to be valuable, don't we need a trained workforce? Do we need more people who can do research? If so, how will we train these individuals? How much will we need to invest and how long will it take?

I'll be exploring these and other questions over the next few weeks throughout a series of posts on building human capital in a knowledge-based economy. Stay tuned!

This is Part 1 of 6 in our Human Capital and Knowledge-based Economy series.
Part 1 - A Knowledge-based Economy
Part 2 - U.S Competitiveness and Innovation

Part 3 - The Making of a Scientist
Part 4 - From Training to Practice: Joining the Faculty
Part 5 - A Race to Save the Lab Rats
Part 6 - Advocating for Human Capital


  1. Well the easy first answer is to make science and technology "labor" jobs pay a living wage.
    If you are going to expect someone to take 5+ years earning a Ph.D. and then 3+ years in a postdoc for additional "training" you better make sure there is a decent job on the back end. At this point most early career scientists I speak with have come to the realization that they would have been better financially not ever pursuing their acdemic dreams. What is the point of all the training if in the end you still have to start at an entry level sub-50K / year position?!?

  2. I totally agree with you about the need for a better financial cushion for researchers in training. I will be addressing exactly these issues- the time and financial commitment needed to become an independent researcher, in future posts. So, do check back and let us know what you think.