Harry Targ : STEM and the Tyranny of the Meme

The STEM ‘crisis’ and the ‘fear of falling behind’ meme.

The tyranny of the meme:
Commies, the arms race, and now STEM

The threats of the United States falling behind some fictional adversaries is a similar ‘meme’ to those that have been articulated by economic, political, and military elites at least since the end of World War II.

By Harry Targ | The Rag Blog | November 19, 2013

A spokesperson for Purdue University testified before a Congressional research and technology subcommittee on November 13 warning that the United States is “losing a cadre of innovators that will never come back.” The university spokesperson was echoing warnings that have been coming from his university and major research universities all around the country.

Purdue’s President, Mitch Daniels, not unlike other university presidents, has committed increasing shares of his budget to building so-called STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) fields. While support for STEM fields in higher education is not in and of itself a danger to higher education, Daniels has been implying that the United States has been falling behind other, potentially economically and/or militarily competitive nations, because of inadequate STEM funding.

And, he has recommended that expanded allocation of resources for scientific and technological research and education should come from cuts in vital programs such as Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. In addition, as governor, Daniels was a leading proponent of the privatization of social services and public education.

The threats of the United States falling behind some fictional adversaries is a similar “meme” to those that have been articulated by economic, political, and military elites at least since the end of World War II. A “meme” is generally understood to be an “idea, behavior, or style that spreads from person to person within a culture.” It is a framework for bundling ideas into a common theme that can be used in speeches, writings, and rituals. The meme or idea of falling behind some imagined competing or threatening force has been misused by political leaders over and over again.

When World War II was coming to an end, members of the Roosevelt and Truman administrations were concerned that the economy would return to the depression of the 1930s. What stimulated economic recovery during the war, of course, was the mobilization of the military, corporations, universities, and workers to engage in massive research and production of war material to defeat fascism.

In the context of the winding down of the war, one CEO serving in government recommended that the United States create a “permanent war economy” to maintain the high level of economic and military mobilization and thus forestall economic decline.

Support for high levels of military spending and corporate/government/university cooperation required a rationale. This rationale became the “meme” of the international communist threat. It justified the misallocation of societal resources for continued war production that has been a central feature of federal policy ever since.

The threat of “falling behind the Soviets” reverberated in the mass media after the shocking October 1957 Soviet projection of an earth satellite into space. All of a sudden Americans were made to believe that their institutions were inferior to the enemy and that a new commitment of resources was needed to beat the Soviets to the moon and expand dramatically the American war machine.

Three years later the threat of falling behind the enemy was used by presidential candidate John Kennedy to mobilize support and encourage new rounds of huge investments in military expansion. Kennedy warned of a “missile gap” that had emerged between the two super powers, a claim that was admitted to be false within a year of the new president’s assuming office.

Twenty years later presidential candidate Ronald Reagan referred to the “window of vulnerability” that had emerged in the 1970s as a result of Soviet/United States arms control negotiations. Although the United States agreed to limitations in arms production, the Soviet Union, he claimed, continued their arms buildup creating this vulnerability to Soviet power. Consequently, President Reagan between 1981 and 1987 spent more on the military than had been spent in the entire period of U.S. history from 1789 to 1981.

With the end of the Cold War, the meme shifted to wars on “drugs,” and today it’s “terrorism.” All of these manifestations of the “falling behind” meme led the United States government to waste trillions of dollars and the loss of millions of lives of Americans and peoples in other countries such as Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan.

Returning to “the STEM crisis,” Michael Anft, in a recent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education, points out that there is much research showing that U.S. higher education is not falling behind some possible competing nations, that American universities are producing as many STEM college graduates as are needed, and that the institutional spokespersons, from universities, the corporate sector, technology associations and others, may be motivated more by institutional interest than demonstrated need.

Further, in an article earlier this year, Robert N. Charette challenges a variety of claims made by advocates of more resources for STEM fields. Among these are the following:

  • Many workers in STEM fields do not have STEM degrees and those who hold such degrees do not necessarily find work in their fields.
  • STEM jobs have changed over time. For example, long-term engineering jobs have been reduced while shorter-term project driven hires have increased.
  • With repeated shifts in the economy, it is difficult to project what STEM job needs will be over long periods of time, five or 10 years from now.
  • Some studies find that the supply of STEM trained college students exceeds the demand for their labor. In one study by the Economic Policy Institute it was found that more than one-third of computer science graduates in recent years have not been able to find jobs in their chosen field.
  • Many STEM jobs have been outsourced. In addition, international workers with STEM qualifications have been enticed to take jobs in the United States, often receiving smaller salaries than American workers.
  • Salaries of those working in STEM fields have been stagnant, much like the broader work force. This is so, some economists suggest, because demand for such trained workers has declined over the last several years.

Charette discussed possible reasons for the hyperbolic calls for quantum shifts toward STEM fields in universities and public investment. He refers to a cycle of “alarm, boom, and bust” that has governed phases of the public policy meme affecting foreign and domestic policy. Recently, the federal government has been spending $3 billion each year on 209 STEM-related initiatives, amounting to “about $100 for every U.S. student beyond primary school.”

Charette identifies powerful forces in the country that gain from this massive allocation of societal resources. Corporations want a large pool of trained workers from which to choose, thus cheapening the cost of labor. State governments and the Federal government measure their successes in part by how many scientists and engineers they help produce.

In addition, a third to one-half of the budgets of large universities come from government and corporate research grants in the STEM fields as public funding for universities has declined. And finally, about 50 cents of every dollar in the federal budget goes to the military, homeland security, and space exploration.

As Charette points out; “The result is that many people’s fortunes are now tied to the STEM crisis, real or manufactured.”

[Harry Targ is a professor of political science at Purdue University and is a member of the National Executive Committee of the Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism. He lives in West Lafayette, Indiana, and blogs at Diary of a Heartland Radical. Read more of Harry Targ’s articles on The Rag Blog.]

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1 Response to Harry Targ : STEM and the Tyranny of the Meme

  1. Leslie C. says:

    Leslie C. said.Ha, ha. How well I remember the events of 1957, and I was so proud of myself because I had already been reading “Inside the Atom”, and I was doing projects from “The Boy’s First Book of Electronics.” We were already engaged in the International Geophysical Year (cool name) that started a few months before Sputnik I.

    Anyway, I spend too much time these days reminiscing about my life 50 or 60 years ago. More importantly,

    YOU HIT THE NAIL ON THE HEAD with your comment that
    “a third to one-half of the budgets of large universities come from government and corporate research grants in the STEM fields as public funding for universities has declined.” This is certainly the case at the UT Austin, where the administration has stopped even asking the legislature for more money, instead using the excuse that “we’re broke” to raise student tuition and fees, reorganize and lay off support staff, privatize low-income service jobs, and shortchange humanities, social sciences, and even some natural sciences. Meanwhile, the “STEM” areas keep expanding with plenty of corporate and government grant money.

    My granddaughter got all enthusiastic about paleontology when visiting the Texas Memorial Museum at UT. Now its budget has been cut by 75%. I’m thinking maybe I should try to turn my granddaughter on to “technology commercialization.”

    At least we have a significant campaign developing at UT to fight some of the worst abuses. It’s a coalition of the Texas State Employees Union, the UT Students Against Sweatshops, the University Leadership Initiative (a mostly Latino/a group), the Graduate Assistants Council–and maybe some others.

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