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Physicist, Startup Founder, Blogger, Dad

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.

13 comments:

Nameless said...

I agree with the premise, not with the conclusion.

This is free market at work.

There's limited amount of money available to do science (primarily because a lot of this science is financed with taxpayers' money, with zero return on investment), and there are three billion people in BRIC countries from which to draw the talent pool.

Therefore, you maximize the amount of useful science done per dollar spent, by hiring cheap BRIC labor, even if that discourages native-born Americans from going into fundamental science.

Nameless said...

To expound on that thought.

It is perfectly natural for some domestic workers to lose their well-paid jobs doing X and to become unwilling to do X at market rates when their markets are open for competition with low-income countries.

For example, some domestic tailors are going to lose their $20/hr jobs if they have to compete with foreign tailors who make $2/hr, unless they have sufficient advantage in efficiency (which is not the case in science).

Economics teaches us that it's beneficial for the overall economy because it increases overall output. Domestic workers switch to industries where they have competitive advantage (Wall Street), to industries that can't be outsourced (defense), or to industries where outsourcing and importation of cheap foreign workers are made impossible by domestic laws and regulations (neurosurgery).

We can't pay all U.S. university scientists $100,000/year without (a) significantly increasing taxpayer expenditures on fundamental science, and (b) imposing laws and/or tariffs that ensure that we don't get 2.5x the number of Chinese post-docs making $40,000 each in our research labs, instead of the same number of domestic post-docs making $100,000. It is difficult to say whether (a) is beneficial for the economy of the world as a whole, but basic economics tells us that (b) is definitely not.

So, the best option is to keep importing BRIC post-docs and let locals search for jobs where they can make much more than prevailing scientist market wage.

Good news is, this situation is not going to last forever, because, in the long run, the imbalance between BRIC wages and US wages will close. At that point, the flow of post-docs between BRIC and US will become much less a one-way street it is today, and the "problem" will resolve itself. You and I may not live to see that day, but that's a different story.

Nameless2 said...

"It is difficult to say whether (a) is beneficial for the economy of the world as a whole, but basic economics tells us that (b) is definitely not."

1. Since 'basic economics' has become nothing but a promoter of the interests of capital and has zero predictive capability, why should most of us care what it has to say?
2. Please explain the term 'economy of the world as a whole'.
3. Why should working Americans care about this 'economy of the world as a whole' more than their own economic situation?
4. Economics should not be the only way to view what is good and what is bad.

Nameless said...

1. Just because some people choose to forget macro 101, does not mean that it no longer exists or that it has zero predictive capability.
2. Cumulative value of all products and services produced in the world.
3 and 4. Would you prefer to live in a world where the USA is shielded from destructive wage influence of BRIC, so that you can wear $500 "made in the USA" jeans and drive in a $50,000 Ford Pinto, while millions of highly intelligent Chinese work in the fields growing rice instead of doing science? Would this world produce more or less science? Should working Americans care about maximizing science done per taxpayer dollar?

Of course, scientists are interested in their own economic situations. I'm interested in having a no-obligation job that pays me six figures to do research and maybe discover something interesting. I also realize that, as long as Chinese post-docs are willing to work 60 hours a week on what we see as starvation wages for a college graduate, they can produce five times the scientific output for the same money.

Nameless2 said...

1. You didn't answer my question.
2. Distribution among people does not factor in. Weird way to define beneficial.
3 and 4. Implicit in this statement is "all things being equal" and the statement itself presents a false dichotomy. The answer would then be: "of course not". But all things are not equal and it's not so black or white.

"Of course, scientists are interested in their own economic situations. I'm interested in having a no-obligation job that pays me six figures to do research and maybe discover something interesting."

"I also realize that, as long as Chinese post-docs are willing to work 60 hours a week on what we see as starvation wages for a college graduate, they can produce five times the scientific output for the same money."

Don't you see the horror in this? What you see as the beneficent workings of the unfettered free (HAH!) market I see as the setting up of a perpetual global labor arbitrage that will concentrate power in those with great stinking gobs of investment capital that can be moved at the click of a mouse. Why do you want to give so much power to the small minority of super wealthy rentiers? Or are you expecting a little blood to be shed to even things out?

Anonymous said...

Hear, hear.

However, as other commenters have mentioned, this may be the most efficient way of spending our limited research dollars.

"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."

I am not sure why we need homegrown talent for domestic innovation---if we can hold onto the talents from abroad. (Unfortunately, our immigration policy is crazy, since too many Republicans think it is unfair to favor scientists over bus drivers.) As to the "high-level, classified, technical work vital for national security," that may be a point. I think a lot of money is wasted on this today, so the work is less vital than they would argue. However, one reason it is wasted is because the talent isn't there.

Nameless2 said...

"I am not sure why we need homegrown talent for domestic innovation---if we can hold onto the talents from abroad."

This statement exemplifies one of the problems with the econocentric neoliberal-globalist outlook when it comes to national entities. When it comes to "the good of the country", you act like some corporate manager talking about resource units to be moved around in order to increase the bottom line of the company instead of discussing policy that helps the citizenry. This is not the proper mindset to have when discussing such issues.

You want to nurture homegrown talent to give opportunity to homegrown people. Otherwise, the homegrown people will become angry, get nasty, and create strife. As well they should.

Nameless said...

"You want to nurture homegrown talent to give opportunity to homegrown people. Otherwise, the homegrown people will become angry, get nasty, and create strife. As well they should. "

What you're saying is that you want to structure the society to let homegrown people do whatever they want, and to make sure that they are well compensated for it. If someone wants to be a scientist, give him a spot in a lab and pay him $100,000. If someone wants to be a tailor, give him a sewing machine and pay him $50,000. If someone wants to be a landscaper... you get the idea. After all, if we need to nurture homegrown scientists, why not tailors or landscapers?

Problem is, what people *want* to do is not necessarily what the society ("citizenry") *needs* them to do. No one except a small group of homegrown tailors would benefit if we banned all textile imports from developing countries and recreated a domestic textile industry. Prices of clothing would go up, quality would probably go down (it usually does when you try to smother competition), foreign workers would suffer.

If you're an intelligent college student with a knack for science/technology, you should read the cues from the market. Our society does not want or need for you to become a scientist. There are plenty of opportunities in the private sector that pay as well or more than what you can realistically expect as a government financed scientist. Get your bachelor's degree and start looking for private employment.

Nameless said...

One last thought.

There are many people in this country who routinely practice and enjoy tailoring and gardening. For them, those are hobbies, things that they like to do even though they have no illusions about ever making money out of it.

Maybe science should become more of a hobby too, financed out of a paycheck from a "real" job. That will encourage people to work on relevant stuff, as opposed to measuring the mass of a B^0_s-meson to the resolution of 0.1 MeV, or working out the magnetic behavior of URu2Si2 from first principles.

Nameless2 said...

"Our society does not want or need for you to become a scientist."

Bullshit. A small minority of people who have a disproportionate amount of power and who benefit from cheap labor want this in order to enrich themselves. This is why things are as they are.

"What you're saying is that you want to structure the society to let homegrown people do whatever they want, and to make sure that they are well compensated for it."

This is not what I am saying. But let's leave it at this. I see Hsu has moved on to a new topic.

LondonYoung said...

Nameless - I agree with everything you say.
I would add only one point. As Namesless2 implies, Joe from Flint, Michigan is not gonna be happy short term. When GM cuts his pension benefits, and his kid loses out on a bid for a third postdoc to a Chinese immigrant, Joe will sit back in his 5000 sq ft home, with three S.U.V.'s in the driveway, and get angry as the injustice of it all. While the Chinese immigrant and Joe from Flint are likely to agree there is an injustice here, they won't be agreeing on what it is. Joe will cast his vote for politicians that agree with his views.

According to Wikipedia, in May 1930, a petition was signed by 1028 economists asking Hoover to veto the Smoot-Hawley Tarrff. But mid-term elections were coming up in the fall ...

Europe Endless said...

"Nameless - I agree with everything you say."

Of course you do. You're a money man.

And of course *you* deserve everything you have unlike scum like Joe. It'll be nice to see you and your ilk cut down to size. For your sake I hope the cutting is sooner rather than later. The more blood you guys are allowed to suck away, the greater will be the rage against you. Again, just because I'm a nice guy, I hope you parasites are brought down soon, but, not being too nice a guy, better late than never.

LondonYoung said...

E.E. - I believe in democracy, just one bit of caution:

"Heat not a furnace for thy foe so hot that it do singe thyself."

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