Leave science careers to the market?

In Nature last week Colin Macilwain has a thought-provoking piece arguing that Governments should not promote science and engineering careers in schools:

But taken together, these schemes — which allocate perhaps $600 to each child passing through the US education system — constitute bad public policy. Government promotion of science careers ultimately damages science and engineering, by inflating supply and depressing demand for scientists and engineers in the employment market.

His argument is that such encouragement and subsidy allows employers to lower the salaries of scientists and engineers. Employers support these initiatives because it ultimately saves them money.

I think his points are worth considering, controversial as they are. The difficulty is seeing how to get out of the current situation. Even if Macilwain is right, if policy is changed it will take a while for salaries to respond to the associated reduction in supply of scientists and engineers. And unless the policy change is global, companies will simply fill their vacancies from other nations.

It is also worth remembering that science and engineering related interventions in schools often have a dual aim. As well as encouraging some to opt for careers in science and engineering, the policies also seek to encourage learning and enthusiasm for science in all. Arguably this second aim is the more important and shouldn't be ignored.