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Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Supply, Demand and Scientists

Longtime reader STS referred me to this excellent article on the career prospects of young American scientists. It's long, but I recommend reading the whole thing.

See also A Tale of Two Geeks , Survivor: theoretical physics.

The Real Science Gap: ... To remain competitive against rising rivals, the nation must reconstruct this system so it once again guides the best of America’s large supply of young scientific ability into research and innovation. This process, experts contend, begins with identifying the real reason that scientifically gifted young Americans are increasingly unable and unwilling to pursue scientific careers. It is not, as many believe, that the nation is producing too few scientists, but, paradoxically, just the opposite.

“There is no scientist shortage,” declares Harvard economics professor Richard Freeman, a pre-eminent authority on the scientific work force. Michael Teitelbaum of the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, a leading demographer who is also a national authority on science training, cites the “profound irony” of crying shortage — as have many business leaders, including Microsoft founder Bill Gates — while scores of thousands of young Ph.D.s labor in the nation’s university labs as low-paid, temporary workers, ostensibly training for permanent faculty positions that will never exist.

Back when today’s senior-most professors were young, Ph.D.s routinely became tenure-track assistant professors, complete with labs of their own, in their late 20s. But today, in many fields, faculty openings routinely draw hundreds of qualified applicants. The tiny fraction who do manage to land their first faculty post are generally in their late 30s or early 40s by the time they get their research careers under way. Today’s large surplus of scientists began in the life sciences but is now apparent in fields as diverse as astronomy, meteorology and high-energy physics. These surpluses, Teitelbaum notes, hardly constitute “market indicators signaling shortages.”

The shortage theorists and the glut proponents, however, do agree on two things: First, something serious is wrong with America’s scientific labor supply. A prime symptom noted by all: a growing aversion of America’s top students — especially the native-born white males who once formed the backbone of the nation’s research and technical community — to enter scientific careers. Increasingly, foreign-born technical and scientific personnel on temporary visas staff America’s university labs and high-tech industries.

The second point of agreement is that, unless the underlying problem is fixed, it will seriously impair the nation’s ability to recruit top-flight homegrown talent — both for domestic innovation and for the high-level, classified, technical work vital for national security.

But disagreement rages about causes and cures. Is the influx of foreigners a cause of high-achieving Americans’ reluctance to become scientists, as the labor force experts assert, or an effect, as the industry interests insist? Once all the political rhetoric and verbiage of blue-ribbon panels is cleared away, the data clearly support those arguing for the existence of a glut of aspiring scientists.

America’s schools, it turns out, consistently produce large numbers of world-class science and math students, according to studies by Harold Salzman of the Heldrich Center for Workforce Development at Rutgers University and his co-author, B. Lindsay Lowell, director of policy studies for the Institute for the Study of International Migration at Georgetown University. But the incentives that once reliably delivered many of those high scorers into scientific and technical careers have gone seriously awry.

If the nation truly wants its ablest students to become scientists, Salzman says, it must undertake reforms — but not of the schools. Instead, it must reconstruct a career structure that will once again provide young Americans the reasonable hope that spending their youth preparing to do science will provide a satisfactory career. “It’s not an education story, it’s a labor market story,” Salzman says.

... For the great majority, becoming a scientist now entails a penurious decade or more of graduate school and postdoc positions before joining the multitude vainly vying for the few available faculty-level openings. Earning a doctorate now consumes an average of about seven years. In many fields, up to five more years as a postdoc now constitute, in the words of Trevor Penning, who formerly headed postdoctoral programs at the University of Pennsylvania, the “terminal de facto credential” required for faculty-level posts.

And today’s postdocs rarely pursue their own ideas or work with the greats of their field. Nearly every faculty member with a research grant — and that is just about every tenure-track or tenured member of a science department at any of several hundred universities — now uses postdocs to do the bench work for the project. Paid out of the grant, these highly skilled employees might earn $40,000 a year for 60 or more hours a week in the lab. A lucky few will eventually land faculty posts, but even most of those won’t get traditional permanent spots with the potential of tenure protection. The majority of today’s new faculty hires are “soft money” jobs with titles like “research assistant professor” and an employment term lasting only as long as the specific grant that supports it.

Many young Americans bright enough to do the math therefore conclude that instead of gambling 12 years on the small chance of becoming an assistant professor, they can invest that time in becoming a neurosurgeon, or a quarter of it in becoming a lawyer or a sixth in earning an MBA. And many who do earn doctorates in math-based subjects opt to use their skills devising mathematical models on Wall Street, rather than solving scientific puzzles in university labs, hoping a professorship opens up.

For scientifically trained young people from abroad, though — especially those from low-wage countries like China and India — the calculus of opportunity is different. For them, postdoc work in the U.S. is an almost unbeatable opportunity. Besides the experience and prestige of working in the world’s leading scientific power, a postdoc research position is likely to pay many times more than a job at home would.

... But unless the nation stops, as one Johns Hopkins professor put it, “burning its intellectual capital” by heedlessly using talented young people as cheap labor, the possibility of drawing the best of them back into careers as scientists will become increasingly remote. A nation that depends on innovation for its prosperity, that has unsurpassed universities and research centers, and that has long prided itself on the ingenuity and inventiveness of its technical elite, must devise ways of making solid careers in science once again both captivating and attainable. There’s no shortage of American talent. What’s in critically short supply are the ideas and determination to use that talent wisely.

Coincidentally, I just spent a week with Harvard economist Richard Freeman in Hangzhou.

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