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Experts, PhDs, research, employment – and musicians

There is anxiety that the UK is not producing enough PhD level researchers, particularly in science and engineering. The view of some commentators such as Brian Cox is that this puts our economy and national well-being at risk.

There is no doubt that we need experts. And there is no doubt we need cutting edge research and brilliant leading specialists to push things forward. The question is: how many such experts do we need, and would society (and the individuals in it) be best served by such a high level of specialisation? Investment in science and engineering also looks a decent bet to restore balance to the economy and move the country again towards production – the bedrock of capitalism. However, it does not follow that we need thousands of scientific specialists to achieve a world-class science and engineering base to our economy.

‘Cutting edge’ work can, by definition, only be done by a few people. The metaphor suggests that the tip of the blade is sharp, that is, there are only a few people who live on – and thus symbolise – this leading edge. You could not have ‘cutting edge’ research done by hundreds of people. (I should put in a strong caveat that I have recently been impressed by the open science movement of Michael Nielsen; but these collaborative projects are not the sort of research projects that Cox and others envisage when they talk about needing ‘experts’, so we will put this aside for this blog.) If the research is something that lots of people can do, then, by definition, it does not use that many experts.

I am at least skeptical about how many top scientists a country needs, or, indeed, can hope to support.

Music and the world of musicians gives us a good analogy here. When you leave the Fazioli practise studios in London, there is a sign up that says, ‘right now, 30 million people in China are practising the piano: have you done enough today?’. The point is made: to have any chance at all of success, you have to practise, practise, practise. Now, it may not be millions, but certainly thousands of young people pursue dreams of being soloists in classical music careers – they pour out of the music colleges each year. They practise immensely hard, they put in at least as much work as most PhD students will after 6-7 years of university study, they attain their 10,000 hours. And yet how many will make it? How many will earn a living as a classical soloist? Maybe a few hundred in each instrument per generation. The chance of really being a ‘classical musician’ for those who dream of it must be no more than 50 to 1.

What do the rest of them do? They become teachers, session musicians, semi-professionals, migrate towards composing jingles or other incidental music to complement their playing work, etc. They fill out the rest of the pyramid below the leading point.

I contend that something like that also happens in leading areas of science and technological research. Only a few will have the creativity and technical talent to actually lead innovation and drive forward historically significant developments. The rest have to follow behind, fill in the gaps, complement the work of others and supplement their own work with other skills and knowledge. This, I think, is how employment works. This is the jobs profile of an advanced industrial nation. By definition, and as a matter of fact, there can never be much room at the top.

And what good, really, is a PhD to the majority of scientists and engineers who will be doing support and auxiliary work – in product development, sales, marketing, media relations, software development, data collection, technician work etc? Would they not best be served, like their musician counterparts, by having a wider skill set? Perhaps an ability to link their science to policy work or to the media, or a foreign language to help them work in sales or take forward their company’s profile in overseas markets, or a good grasp of economics and finance to help them with their own start-up or to contribute meaningfully to wider corporate policy?

No doubt, we need outstanding science and engineering education, and we need the school syllabi and university structures to be in place to give our best scientists and engineers a chance to compete with the very best from elsewhere. No doubt, too, we need more and better scientists and engineers now in our country, many of the best similar minds having been drawn to finance in the past decade.

But we should at least ask the question of whether concentrating on producing a great number of specialists in these (or any) areas will not lead, ultimately, to a great deal of dissatisfaction in future employment, as well as starving individuals and our wider society of other knowledge, skills and attributes. Such knowledge, skills and attributes may serve just as well in an individual’s career and personal life – and be of wider benefit to society – as the narrow specialism that PhD study requires.

A similar line to the one  taken here is given in this article in the Economist – supported by various pieces of research. There is only so much room at the top. Just ask your musician friends who are now teaching or have given it up to work at something else.

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