Investment Priorities

We have, of late, been focused on federal policies to assure and enhance the STEM talent pipeline in the US.  There is a widespread sense that the pipeline is not as robust as the economy and competitiveness requires.  Are we trying to “fix” STEM? 

Maybe, but we need to keep priorities in perspective.  As I have frequently articulated elsewhere, the overarching goal is a “healthy, educated, and productive population that is competitive in the global marketplace.”  Thus, the STEM talent pipeline is just one element, albeit a very important element, in the complex adaptive system we need to address to achieve the overarching goal.

The starting point is health and wellness. Population health involves integration of health, education, and social services to keep a defined population healthy, to address health challenges holistically, and to assist with the realities of being mortal.  A healthy and well population is an asset that can provide the basis for competitiveness and economic growth.

Next is education, ranging from pre-school to K-12 to post-secondary education, which includes colleges ranging from community colleges to baccalaureate-granting institutions to graduate and professional schools.  Also important is job-related training received from employers, including the military.  The objective is lifelong education.  Learning is an ongoing process, not something one finishes.

Workforce productivity is enabled by heath and education, but requires substantial additional investments.  Some of this investment is in training to gain needed knowledge and skills.  Another major investment is in the technologies to leverage knowledge and skills.  This can include, for example, technologies to support detection, diagnosis, and remediation of failures of increasingly complex systems, for example, increasingly autonomous vehicles.

The intent underlying these elements of the overarching goal is to foster not the lowest-cost workforce, but to enable a workforce that can successfully compete in any arena.  This workforce will likely be highly compensated, but its effectiveness and efficiency will yield revenues and profits that dwarf the investments in people needed to succeed, now and repeatedly, in the global marketplace.

Consider returns on such investments.  The costs of health, education, and productivity are fairly clear.  What are the returns?  People work, create value, earn incomes, consume value created by others, and pay federal, state, and local taxes.  There is a multiplier effect as people’s expenditures become other people’s income, and their expenditures become other people’s income, etc.  Taxes are paid on all these incomes.

All of these cash flows can be financially modeled, over time.  ROI can then be calculated using a discount rate appropriate for borrowing the monies needed for these investments.  As reasonable as this sounds, it is not done.  Instead, highly fragmented and well-resourced vested interests focus on assuring their “rice bowls.”  Elected legislators aid and abet this feeding frenzy.  Consequently, there are no society-wide overarching investment priorities.

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