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
By RICHARD MONASTERSKY
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.