Monday, September 17, 2007

Crisis in American Science

The Chronicle of Higher Education has a long article about the bleak job prospects facing academic scientists these days. I'm interviewed in the piece, which ran with the picture on the right. The Chronicle must have a big budget because they sent a photographer to my office for several hours to get the shot! The editor wanted a geeky guy reading the Wall Street Journal, and I guess I'm your man :-)

The article covers a lot of ground, but one thing that I think could have been emphasized more is that, no matter how dismal the career path becomes for US scientists, there will still be foreigners from India, China and eastern Europe willing to try their luck, as well as a sprinkling of American-born obsessives (like me) who should know better. However, a significant number of talented Americans will simply choose to do something else.

The graphic below from the article shows physics job prospects since 1979. I notice my postdoc career coincided with the global minimum -- the worst period in 30 years :-(

The Real Science Crisis: Bleak Prospects for Young Researchers

Tight budgets, scarce jobs, and stalled reforms push students away from scientific careers


It is the best of times and worst of times to start a science career in the United States.

Researchers today have access to powerful new tools and techniques — such as rapid gene sequencers and giant telescopes — that have accelerated the pace of discovery beyond the imagination of previous generations.

But for many of today's graduate students, the future could not look much bleaker.

They see long periods of training, a shortage of academic jobs, and intense competition for research grants looming ahead of them. "They get a sense that this is a really frustrating career path," says Thomas R. Insel, director of the National Institute of Mental Health.

So although the operating assumption among many academic leaders is that the nation needs more scientists, some of brightest students in the country are demoralized and bypassing scientific careers.

The problem stems from the way the United States nurtures its developing brainpower — the way it trains, employs, and provides grants for young scientists. For decades, blue-ribbon panels have called for universities to revise graduate doctoral programs, which produced a record-high 27,974 Ph.D.'s in science and engineering in 2005. No less a body than the National Academy of Sciences has, in several reports, urged doctoral programs to train science students more broadly for jobs inside and outside academe, to shorten Ph.D. programs, and even to limit the number of degrees they grant in some fields.

Despite such repeated calls for reform, resistance to change has been strong. Major problems persist, and some are worsening. Recent data, for example, reveal that:

Averaged across the sciences, it takes graduate students a half-year longer now to complete their doctorates than it did in 1987.

In physics nearly 70 percent of newly minted Ph.D.'s go into temporary postdoctoral positions, whereas only 43 percent did so in 2000.

The number of tenured and tenure-track scientists in biomedicine has not increased in the past two decades even as the number of doctorates granted has nearly doubled.

Despite a doubling in the budget of the National Institutes of Health since 1998, the chances that a young scientist might win a major research grant actually dropped over the same period.

...Stephen D.H. Hsu is just the type of scientist America hopes to produce. A professor of physics at the University of Oregon, Mr. Hsu is at the forefront of scholarship on dark energy and quantum chromodynamics. At the same time, he has founded two successful software companies — one of which was bought for $26-million by Symantec — that provide the sorts of jobs and products that the nation's economy needs to thrive.

Despite his successes, Mr. Hsu sees trouble ahead for prospective scientists. He has trained four graduate students so far, and none of them have ended up securing their desired jobs in theoretical physics. After fruitless attempts trying to find academic posts, they took positions in finance and in the software industry, where Mr. Hsu has connections. "They often ask themselves," he says, "Why did I wait so long to leave? Why did I do that second or third postdoc?" By and large, he says, the students are doing pretty well but are behind their peers in terms of establishing careers and families.

The job crunch makes science less appealing for bright Americans, and physics departments often find their applications for graduate slots dominated by foreign students who are in many cases more talented than the homegrown ones. "In the long run, I think it's bad for the nation," he says. "It will become a peripheral thought in the minds of Americans, that science is a career path."

Melinda Maris also sees hints of that dark future at the Johns Hopkins University. Ms. Maris, assistant director of the office of preprofessional programs and advising, says the brightest undergrads often work in labs where they can spot the warning signs: Professors can't get grants, and postdocs can't get tenure-track jobs.

Such undergraduates, she says, "are really weighing their professional options and realize that they're not going to be in a strong financial position until really their mid-30s." In particular, those dim prospects drive away Americans with fewer financial resources, including many minority students.

...Almost every project aimed at improving graduate education suggests that departments should expose students to the breadth of jobs beyond academe, but faculty members still resist. When Mr. Hsu, the University of Oregon physicist, brings his former students back to talk about their jobs in finance or the software industry, it rankles some other professors.

Doctoral students pick up on that bias. "It was kind of a taboo topic," says Ms. Maris, the career adviser at Johns Hopkins, who recently earned a Ph.D. in genetics at Emory University and did one year of a postdoc at Hopkins before she decided to leave research.

Bruce Alberts, a former president of the National Academy of Sciences, says universities and the nation must take better care of young scientists. Now a professor of biochemistry at the University of California at San Francisco, Mr. Alberts says the current system of demoralized and underemployed Ph.D.'s cannot be sustained. "We need to wake up to what the true situation is."

Students may be quietly starting to lead the way — to recognize that they need to look beyond traditional ways of using their Ph.D.'s. When Mr. Alberts's colleagues polled second-year doctoral students last year, a full quarter of them expressed interest in jobs such as patent law, journalism, and government — jobs that their professors would not consider "science."

Of course, students might not be willing to share those desires yet with their mentors. The poll was anonymous.


Anonymous said...

I don't get it. The conclusion of the article seems to be that science departments need to "take better care" of their graduate students by training them more broadly. Isn't the real problem a lack of funding and scientific initiative from the government? It may be a bit idealistic to expect the government to swoop in and solve the problem by throwing money at it. But should we expect a physics department to realize that their "physics students" won't find jobs in physics, and start offering courses in quantitative finance and software engineering?

Anonymous said...

That WSJ picture is an awful concept. :)

Rather depressing facts, too.

jak: "Isn't the real problem a lack of funding and scientific initiative from the government?"

I don't think so. Scientists want exponential growth, and it just isn't possible (at the desired rate). If all the students got permanent jobs and all their students got permanent jobs, etc., in fifty years all Americans would be scientists. :)

From the government's perspective, I don't think the status quo is very bad. Let the graduate students and postdocs do their research and then drop out. What's important is that the research is being done, and at low cost.

"Mr. Alberts says the current system of demoralized and underemployed Ph.D.'s cannot be sustained."

Alberts is wrong on this.

Anonymous said...

I'm not sure what to read from the graph; for a very long time it's been assumed that in physics one needs a postdoc to get a faculty job. So that graph just reflects the *desires* of the the graduating student to stay "in the loop" or leave for a permanent position, which is in industry or a national lab.

I agree that things suck, but how is that graph relevant?

Unknown said...

How can basic physics research have so little expectation of ultimate cash value that professors can't get paid?

Weren't, e.g., transistors an outgrowth of pure research?

Is this a product of market stupidity or insight?

Anonymous said...

Anonymous said... Scientists want exponential growth, and it just isn't possible (at the desired rate).

Scientist do not want such a thing. They want sustainability.
Anonymous said... Let the graduate students and postdocs do their research and then drop out. What's important is that the research is being done, and at low cost.

That’s the way the system works right now. The perceived cost savings is the reason for the proliferation of graduate students and postdocs. Researchers and universities do not want to spend money and pay career technicians and research associates.

In your average University of (insert state), nearly all research is done by graduate students. Graduate students are cheap. The glut of foreign applicants (no offence to foreigners; I am one myself) eliminates any pressure to increase stipends. “Locals” are taught to look at things from the financial point of view and from the financial point of view graduate school in sciences makes no sense. As a result, graduate schools everywhere are full (50-70%) of foreign students.

Now, your typical professor would rather take in several cheap students for the price of a career technician or research associate. But, graduate students must be first taught before they can conduct any significant research projects. But by the time they are comfortable in the lab, it’s time for them to graduate. I suspect one reason it takes graduate students longer to graduate has to do with the conscious or unconscious desire of their professor-mentors to keep them longer in the lab after they gained sufficient expertise.

After graduation, the better ones go on to positions in prestigious labs or universities as post docs. In post-doc labs, almost all research is done by postdocs. Again postdocs are still cheap and still motivated to work ungodly hours for some vague promise of a tenure-track position. 4-7 years later, the luckier ones manage to put together a -fundable- project and get an academic position, the rest drop out. That’s the meatgrinder of science.

Thus, had investigators hired more career research technicians and associates (and there are those in research units of medical schools – project heads), there would a lesser need for more graduate students and postdocs and there would more jobs in science.

Anonymous said...

What do you think should be the "optimal" number of PhDs coming out of physics labs per year, if they have to get absorbed in tenure track jobs/research labs etc?

If its low, is it worth having research programs that are not top- tier (most cutting edge work comes out the top 10 programs usually)?

Maybe the solution is to simply reduce the number of research universities and increase the funding to the few that remain.
Entry will be tough, but better than a PhD from University X and a bleak future......

Anonymous said...

Anonymous: "Scientist do not want such a thing. They want sustainability."

They have sustainability with the current system. But calling it a "crisis" sounds to me like they want something more.

Anonymous said...

Paraphrasing what I wrote before:

the problem is that the need for graduate students/postdocs greatly exceeds the need for PhDs. This is because graduate students/postdocs are the Mexicans (no offence to Mexicans) of science. The model in American science for the past 10-20 years has been to import cheap workforce to undermine stipends and in the great scheme of things, faculty salaries with eager foreign talent. In the end both “locals” and foreigners” are screwed (although each one erroneously believes that the other one gets a better deal). This model is just a particular expression of the same business model employed in the greater American economy. The present science model will fail or stand as the whole economy stands or fails.

So then, the science is in crisis to the same extent as the whole outsource/import cheap labour model and the whole US economy is in crisis.

Anonymous said...

That's a reasonable perspective. Do you think stipends and faculty salaries have actually been undermined, though, or do you more think that the faculty jobs have been undermined? I haven't seen any data that stipends have dropped versus inflation over the last 10-30 years.

Anonymous said...

MMm, the problem is too many graduate students accepted into grad programs. If there aren't that many jobs and not that much funding, departments need to stop accepting so many grad students. But they don't because they need the cheap labor to grade papers, teach labs, etc. Heaven forbid they hire benefit-eligible lecturers and people focused on teaching instead of admitting so many grad students into the dept when a huge percentage of them will never find a permanent job in academia.

Seth said...

"too many grad students admitted" ...

I disagree. This seems to tacitly assume that the selection process is infallible. What if the N+1st candidate is on a track to become a highly productive academician while the N-5th candidate will quite cheerfully chuck academics for Wall Street (or a buddhist monastery, or something else altogether)?

Why not let grad students enjoy some advanced studies, do some teaching and make their own adult judgment about whether to complete a degree or how to invest their life energies afterwards?

Anonymous said...

I tend to agree with sts in that limiting the number of PhD students is not a great idea.

My own experience in graduate school was that students arrived for a variety of reasons (ranging from very serious academic aspirations to not knowing what else to do). People left the standard academic track at various stages, many having learned that academic science is not what they want to do with their life. Others, of course, are asked to leave - either explicitly by failing out or implicitly by not being offered a job.

One could argue that the current process is set up (intentionally or not) to select the "best scientists" (whatever that means) and promote them to power within the academic community.

However, it can also be argued (see Lee Smolin's book, for example) that in order for this approach to work, we must have good metrics for discovering what "good scientists" are like. Lee argues (among other things) that the current arrangment favors research with short-term results and leaves little room for thinkers who require long time periods for their work. The classic example of work which would be left undone in today's system is that of Einstein during 1906-1914.

Thus perhaps the real question is not whether the current state of affairs is good for students, but is it good for science?

Yehuda Draiman said...

American economy in crises - a long time coming

Yehuda Draiman said...

American economy in crises - a long time coming

When a country and its society import more than they export for over a quarter of a century, it is bound to erod the economy to its primate state.

We have only ourselves to blame, what goods and products are we exporting, what goods and services are we exporting, the answer is very little.

In the past 50 years as our population has increased, technology advanced, we have become a nation that consumes enormous amounts of resources, we shop for competitive prices. Corporate America is constantly looking to increase the bottom line.

Most of the goods for and by Americans and its companies are produced overseas and in the past decade with the advancement of telecommunications, many of the services sector are also imported.

This economic activity has eroded our economy to its core. It seems that the situation is getting worse every year. American debts are increasing beyond our wildest dreams, endangering the future economic vitality of our future generation.

I hope it is not too late for our society to recognize the graveness of our economic predicament and its resolve to take appropriate action to stem the tide of our economic downturn.

Americans are a nation of great technology and knowhow. We must utilize that technology and our resources to find new means to regain our economic independence.

We must face and implement fiscal responsibility, both by the government and the population with its infrastructure of corporate America.

It is no longer an option, it is a must if we as a nation want to survive and retain our way of life and economic vitality.

Inflation, recession and financial crises are here. Let us take the bull by the horn, initiate immediate actions to minimize and hopefully reverse our economic crises.

Yehuda Draiman, Northridge, CA.

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