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Plight of the Postdoc

Is Modern American Science Strangling Its Young Talents In the Cradle?

Young Scientist in Lab SOURCE: AP Colleges and universities are graduating more science and engineering Ph.D.s, but diminishing opportunities are derailing young scientists from future careers as scientific leaders.

At first glance, it might seem that American science finds itself in a kind of golden age. According to the National Science Foundation, the United States is graduating more Ph.D.s in science and engineering than ever before, with 29,854 in 2006 representing an all time high. Meanwhile, we spend more on research, employ more scientists, and publish more peer-reviewed research than all competitor nations. There’s no end in sight, either: Just last week, the House of Representatives voted to boost the budgets of four key science agencies by $337 million.

Even the most promising young scientists, those with the natural ability and discipline to fulfill their potential and become tomorrow’s leaders in innovation—and eventually upon which the nation’s future depends—are struggling.

Appearances, though, can be deceiving. Mounting evidence suggests that looming institutional shortcomings are eroding the ability of the so-called “science pipeline” to produce a healthy future national science infrastructure—and unless we shift the traditional paradigm rapidly, the consequences could be dramatic. Two recent studies underscore this point: One, from the National Institutes of Health, reports that the current generation of young scientists may be turning away from careers in research due to funding issues and the need for institutional change. Concurrently, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences’ new report, “ARISE: Advancing Research In Science and Engineering,” concludes that early-career researchers face greater challenges today than ever. The continual and grueling search for funding, the Academy suggests, fosters overly conservative decisions about laboratory research directions, which in turn impede the impact of government-funded science and thwart the careers of younger talents.

It’s no secret that many young people who otherwise might nourish an interest in science—or in academia generally—get drawn away from the ivory towers to pursue private sector opportunities promising higher salaries and better possibilities for family and lifestyle. For those still hoping to advance in science, the practical barriers that our system currently creates are tremendous; and what’s more, all signs suggest they’re getting worse.

Science graduates intent on the journey to a professorship must first get through a postdoctoral appointment (or three), and sometimes a multiyear probationary period. In a 2005 survey, the average amount of time for holding a postdoctoral position was 3.8 years. All the while, salary is low and work hours are long. There is tremendous pressure to publish….or perish. And only then does the search for a faculty position begin—a search that keeps growing tougher.

The National Science Foundation reports that between 1972 and 2003, the share of recent doctorate holders hired into full-time faculty positions fell from 74 percent to 44 percent. During the same period, the number of science and engineering Ph.D.s in postdoctoral positions rose from 13percent to 34 percent. Even as we’re producing more advanced science graduates than ever, the traditional academic trajectory affords fewer and fewer options.

And that doesn’t even begin to address the difficulty of winning tenure. Between 1993 and 2003, the number of faculty-level jobs at research universities without the possibility of tenure increased from 55 percent to 70 percent. Most foreboding of all, the probability that a Ph.D. recipient under 35 years old will obtain a tenure-track job fell to 7 percent. In short, we’re shutting down opportunity for the vast majority of young American scientific talents.

And it’s not just happening because of a dearth of faculty positions, tenured or otherwise. Trends in the availability of research funding show a similar constriction of opportunity. Since 2003, the rate of funding for independent grants has fallen dramatically, and young scientists have been most affected. Today, less than three percent of the main independent research grants go to scientists under the age of 35, and the average age of first-time awardees is 43. And so at what should be the most productive period of their careers, new faculty must dedicate an enormous amount of time to submitting repeated grant applications. In fact, according to the ARISE report, new investigators are submitting twice as many proposals as established investigators and typically receive substantially smaller awards.

All of which means that at a time when they should focus on learning and honing their skills, young scientists must instead compete with senior scientists for funding. Indeed, given that an investigator’s scientific status derives in part from how many grants he or she obtains, it may not always in the best interest of mentors to pass on all their accumulated knowledge to students—for fear of losing future funding opportunities themselves.

In some cases, one can even single out an apparent hoarding of research funds. In 2007, two hundred scientists received six or more NIH grants, and a single investigator won 32 grants, while many others got close to ten. An NIH advisory panel has recommended that grant awardees devote at least 20 percent of their time to each, but these numbers show a clear disconnect between intentions and reality. These multiple awards are going to established investigators—who are certainly not spending one fifth of their time per study—while younger scientists would probably devote more energies to the work. Thus, laboratories around the country are fostering a “survival of the oldest” dynamic.

Particularly in the biomedical field, this opportunity gap between young and old is a quirk of politics. When NIH funding doubled between 1998 and 2003, many new Ph.D. positions were created, which in turn allowed established investigators with more students to submit better proposals. But then in 2003, NIH funding leveled off. Older scientists now had a successful history based on the funding boom, and fallout today reveals significantly more scientists over the age of 70 finding support compared to those under the age of 30. Perhaps the situation is best summed up by NIH Director Elias Zerhouni, who wrote in a recent Science magazine Policy Forum article, “Like farmers during difficult times, we should not ‘eat our seed corn,’ but protect it.”

Thus, the frustrating pursuit of funding in science severely constrains productivity and creative departures—and the United States will suffer from the loss of a healthy research enterprise if job market, tenure, and funding patterns continue to prevent innovative young researchers from pursuing their most daring ideas. While we obviously need to create some hurdles so as to identify the most gifted and dedicated minds, our current model goes far beyond a reasonable winnowing process. Even the most promising young scientists, those with the natural ability and discipline to fulfill their potential and become tomorrow’s leaders in innovation—and eventually upon which the nation’s future depends—are struggling.

Sheril Kirshenbaum is a marine biologist at the Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke. She blogs at The Intersection with Chris Mooney.

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