computer science “brain drain”

has an interesting post on the perceived “brain drain” in computer science. From a recent post at the Committee on the Anthropology of Science, Technology, and Computing blog:

But what do scientists think of big data? Last year, in a widely circulated blog post titled “The Big Data Brain Drain: Why Science is in Trouble,” physicist Jake VanderPlas made the argument that the real reason big data is dangerous is because it moves scientists from the academy to corporations.

“…But where scientific research is concerned, this recently accelerated shift to data-centric science has a dark side, which boils down to this: the skills required to be a successful scientific researcher are increasingly indistinguishable from the skills required to be successful in industry. While academia, with typical inertia, gradually shifts to accommodate this, the rest of the world has already begun to embrace and reward these skills to a much greater degree. The unfortunate result is that some of the most promising upcoming researchers are finding no place for themselves in the academic community, while the for-profit world of industry stands by with deep pockets and open arms.  [all emphasis in the original]”

His argument proceeds in four steps: first, he argues that yes, new data is indeed being produced, and in stupendously large quantities. Second, processing this data (whether it’s biology or physics) requires a certain kind of scientist who is skilled at both statistics and software-building. Third, that because of this shift, “scientific software” to clean, process, and visualize data has become a key part of the research process. And finally, because this scientific software needs to be built and maintained, and because the academy evaluates its scientists not for the software they build but for the papers they publish,  all of these talented scientists who would have spent a lot of their time building software are now moving to corporate research jobs, where this work is better rewarded and appreciated. All of this, he argues, does not bode well for science.

We’ve discussed this point on the blog before. We aren’t keeping good people in the academy. Aside from the financial incentives, we are really bad in terms of career development, job security, and gender equity. No wonder why we can’t keep people. We have to seriously reconsider the model where the only people who get good rewards are those who spend a decade getting their PhD dissertation published.

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Written by fabiorojas

July 24, 2014 at 12:01 am

Posted in fabio, mere empirics

One Response

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  1. Hi Fabio,

    I appreciate the link! Although in all fairness, my next paragraph says:

    Clearly, to those familiar with the history of 20th century science, this argument has the ring of deja vu. In The Scientific Life, for example, Steven Shapin argued that the fear that corporate research labs would cause a tear in the prevailing (Mertonian) norms of science, by attracting the best scientists away from the academy, loomed large over the scientific (and social scientific) landscape of the middle of the 20th century. And these fears were mostly unfounded–partly, because they were based on a picture of science that never existed, and partly because, as Shapin finds, ideas about scientific virtue remained nearly intact in its move from the academy to the corporate research lab. Would things be any different today? [3] One suspects not.

    Things could well be different today. But the historians seem to be telling us that the feeling that we’re losing the best scientists to corporations has been a salient fear through most of the 20th century, at least since the corporate research lab existed. Perhaps, what’s different today is that even quantitative sociologists and political scientists are starting to feel this way, rather than just physicists or engineers.



    July 25, 2014 at 12:44 pm

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