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Bring Us Your Poor, Your Tired … Your Scientists?

Physicist Michio Kaku recently raised some eyebrows when he said that the only reason the scientific establishment of the United States hasn't collapsed is because of the H1B visa, which allows US employers to temporarily employ foreign workers in certain specialty fields, like the sciences. At a recent Sapphire Now event panel discussion on the future of business, Kaku — seen here in a video posted on Chron.com's SciGuy blog — said, "Without the H1B, the scientific establishment of this country would collapse. Forget about Google! Forget about Silicon Valley! There would be no Silicon Valley without the H1B. And you know what the H1B is? It’s the genius visa. Okay? You realize that in the United States, 50 percent of all PhD candidates are foreign born," adding, "The United States has the worst educational system known to science."

But bloggers are refuting Kaku's assertions, claiming he gets it wrong. At NeuroDojo, Zen Faulkes says he works with many smart American students who can perform science "at the highest levels," and that many Americans don't go into science not because they're lazy or stupid, but precisely because they're smart. "Americans might not pursue scientific careers for the same reason that they don't pursue careers as migrant crop pickers or maids: there are better ways of making a living out there than being a researcher," Faulkes says. "Shorten the path to a doctorate and a career, increase the number of positions requiring doctorates in education and industry, maybe consider a slight pay raise, and then we'll talk."

Mike the Mad Biologist agrees with Faulkes, saying that most students who study science at the collegiate level do so either because they have to — if they're pre-med — or because they have a "non-careerist passion for science," like someone who studies French literature for fun. When it comes to getting a PhD, most students don't view it as a "professional degree," like an MBA, Mike says, and few science majors have an expectation that they'll find jobs that will compensate them well after graduation. In terms of salaries, Mike adds, "science is a sucker's game." So unless you have a passion for science, these days it's less of a "viable" career path for most people, he says, and "bemoaning the supposed failure of the educational system" isn't going to fix the problem. Instead, Mike suggests, it's time to start paying researchers as if they were professionals, like lawyers or bankers, and stop calling US students "stupid."

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