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Mrs. Gillibrand Comes to Ithaca

As she is a Dartmouth alumna, I don't know if Senator Gillibrand has a strong opinion of Cornell one way or another, but I do know that I am especially encouraged to hear her talk about the need for more science, technology, and math majors in American higher education.

Gillibrand said she sees a lack of American students studying life sciences in college and noted that other occupations, such as nursing and engineering, have also been affected by shortages.

She has proposed a bill that would provide federally funded tuition for juniors and seniors majoring in science, math and technology. The senator will also encourage Gov. David Paterson to enact loan forgiveness for medical students who choose to practice primary care, as opposed to a more lucrative specialty.

Her proposal is exciting because it recognizes the fact that there are significant public benefits to educating students in the sciences, and that the current costs to such a degree may be restricting the pool of interested students. Who could pass up a half-price degree from CALS or Engineering?

Where I am worried, though, is that there is no mechanism to require that students actually pursue a career in the sciences. There has been an increasing tendency for students educated in the sciences to find themselves lured by the financial excesses of Wall Street. Nate Silver has blogged about this worrisome phenomenon, and I'm convinced that absent a rebuilding of the regulatory framework that has been dismantled so handily over the last thirty years, the underlying incentives to enter certain careers will not change.

What's striking is how we have reinvented so much of our economy over the last thirty years to replace work of actual productive value (e.g. producing machines, improving the health of children, and perfecting agricultural techniques) with work where the value is nebulous, on paper, and fleeting, at best (e.g. underwriting CDOs and coming up with financial arbitrage techniques in what is essentially a zero-sum game). Even more striking is how the barons of Wall Street justify their salaries by claiming to have actually added value to the nation's economy, when all they have done is joined a particularly well-connected club with a monopolistic stranglehold over the American economy.

So perhaps Gillibrand should first focus on keeping her downstate constituents in line.

Matthew Nagowski | Posted on April 08, 2009 (#)

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