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It’s the Money, Stupid

What’s Really Wrong with American Science

Law, medicine, research science. The first two pay. SOURCE: SP It isn’t a scientist shortage or a poor public education system. It’s the lack of decent-paying, tenured job opportunities for young graduate and postgraduate research scientists.

According to a continuing stream of reports and white papers from eminent think tanks and government agencies across the country, the United States faces a shortage of technical talent that threatens our future competitiveness. This shortage, they say, arises largely from inadequate public school Kindergarten through 12th grade education in science, technology, engineering and math, the so-called STEM curriculum. But this perception of dearth and mediocrity, though widespread and widely accepted in political and policy circles, ignores the real flaws in U.S. science. Reforms are urgently needed, but not the ones that shortage proponents suggest.

Prominent labor economists who have examined the problem from a different perspective argue that poor STEM education isn’t the problem at all. In fact, they believe there are far too many qualified student-scientists. Rather, it’s the perverse financial incentives that American society (and specifically the U.S. government) provide wannabe American scientists that lie at the heart of our nation’s science and technology competitiveness crisis.

At first glance, though, the scientist-shortage supporters make some valid points. It’s true that fewer top students from the demographic that long provided the bulk the nation’s technical and research professionals—native-born white males—are pursuing graduate studies in science. Ditto that a growing percentage of the scientists-in-training at the nation’s universities are foreign-born.[1] And the average performance of U.S. K- 12 students on international standards is indeed undistinguished.

It’s the perverse financial incentives that American society (and specifically the U.S. government) provide wannabe American scientists that lie at the heart of our nation’s science and technology competitiveness crisis.

But these facts do not add up to the crises that critics describe. Rather, according to a number of distinguished economists, they reveal a labor market gone seriously awry. In the first place, average test scores tell nothing about the supply of students capable of becoming scientists. Such youngsters are not average for their age group, but outstanding, and the U.S. produces them in large numbers. One frequently cited international comparison, for example, shows that the United States had far more top-performing science students than any other nation tested, as well as a big lead in the number of top-performing readers, according to Hal Salzman of the Urban Institute and B. Lindsay Lowell of Georgetown University.[2] Americans also came second only to Japan in the number of top scorers in math.

What pulled down the U.S. average was not any overall deficit but the very poor performance of the students at the bottom, largely products of inferior schools serving poor minority communities. These disparities are a national disgrace that must be ended, which in turn would result in an even more qualified and more diverse pool of talent to improve our nation’s competitiveness. But our poor test scores say nothing about the quality of America’s best schools, which rank among the world’s finest.

An Enticing Promise, An Elusive Goal

The top performers from those excellent schools then proceed to study at some of the world’s best universities, also conveniently located here. Professors at these universities encourage the most promising to continue on for science PhDs, in preparation for careers as academic researchers. The students who take this advice hope for satisfying careers resembling those their senior professors have enjoyed, pursuing their best ideas as independent researchers, heading labs amply supported by federal funding, and enjoying job stability and comfortable upper-middle class incomes as faculty members in secure tenured positions.

But the world that nurtured today’s senior professors, with PhDs earned in four years and appointments as faculty members and lab heads in their 20s, has vanished. What the great majority of today’s young scientists find instead is a penurious decade or more working in university labs, first as graduate students and then as postdoctoral researchers earning a “trainee” wage comparable to what a new liberal arts BA graduate makes.[3]

Their search for the faculty post essential to starting their own academic research careers overwhelmingly ends in frustration, as they futilely compete for every advertised faculty opening against hundreds of other qualified applicants—all of whom sport good degrees and lists of publications from their graduate and postdoc years. The odds that a young PhD will ever land a faculty job at any four-year institution are now less than 25 percent, and at the kind of research university where big-deal science is done, well under 15 percent.[4]

Across the United States, therefore, professors are bemoaning the choice by many of their brightest undergraduates to eschew science graduate study in favor of medical, law, or business school. These students don’t reject science because they’re bad at math, but because they’re good at it. Anyone bright enough to get a science PhD is bright enough to run the numbers showing that an average of seven years of graduate school, followed by five or more postdoc years, followed by long odds against getting the job one was ostensibly preparing for, add up to a lousy investment.

For foreigners, however, especially those from developing countries, grad school or a postdoc in America is exceedingly enticing. Why? Because the virtually unlimited visas that universities can supply make such training an otherwise largely unobtainable ticket into the country.

Built-in Perversity

Labor economists including Paula Stephan of Georgia State University and Richard Freeman of Harvard University believe this excess of young American scientists unable to start their academic careers results from “the perverse funding structure of science graduate education,” as fellow labor economist Michael Teitelbaum of the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation put it in congressional testimony last November.[5] Stephan adds that we “staff our labs primarily with graduate students and postdocs” who as a condition of participating in their educational programs, do the overwhelming bulk of the labor needed for the academic research that the federal government funds to the tune of more than $70 billion a year.[6]

Research grants to individual professors from the National Institutes of Health, National Science Foundation, and other agencies finance the great bulk of graduate students and postdocs. To get the grants and renewals needed to keep their labs going, professors must produce steady streams of journal articles. That, in turn, encourages them to have as many grad students and postdocs as they can possibly afford to do the bench work. This highly skilled cheap labor makes American research very economical, but produces as a byproduct “so much pressure on the system to absorb the continual new cohort” into mostly nonexistent jobs, Stephan says. “We haven’t had much luck in absorbing it.”

Shortage proponents counter that low unemployment among early career scientists proves there is no glut. But in fact the postdoc pool, now numbering possibly 90,000, is more than half foreign-born (the actual numbers are unknown),[7] and functions as disguised unemployment, holding “trainees” off the market. The United States, meanwhile, annually produces 30,000 new science and engineering PhDs, about 18,000 of them American-born, although faculty openings at research universities in the most glutted fields number probably in the hundreds (again, the number is unknown).

The tiny minority who do land research-based faculty jobs have spent so much time “training” that, in biomedical science, for example, they average 42 years of age when they finally launch their independent research careers by winning their first competitive federal grant.[8] At that age, scientists of previous generations—Albert Einstein, Marshall Nirenberg, Thomas Cech—were collecting Nobel Prizes for discoveries made in their 20s.

“I try to keep my best undergraduates away from my postdocs,” one professor confided, because meeting them would reveal what really lies ahead on the grad school track. But talented young Americans would flock to science study if it offered them the kind of career opportunities that previous generations enjoyed. Instead of a needless general overhaul of K -12 education, or an increase in graduate fellowships, which would only make things worse, the United States needs to overhaul what Brown University biochemistry chair Susan Gerbi calls the “pyramid paradigm.”

Instead of paying universities to use grad students and postdocs as very smart migrant laborers, the U.S. government needs a funding structure that provides large numbers of them a solid career ladder into the life that so many were implicitly promised. The jobs on that ladder need not compete financially with corporate law, medical specialization, or investment banking, because science offers intellectual riches so much more dazzling than money that they long enticed the ablest young Americans to accept more modest remuneration in exchange for the chance to do great research. But the futures we provide to the young people we ask to devote their lives and talents to learning and doing science must match those other careers in providing at least a reasonable likelihood that hard work and devotion can attain their goal.

At present, the United States does not give them that opportunity. One way to start doing so could be to structure funding to encourage universities and lab chiefs to create jobs for permanent staff scientists who receive professional-level salaries, benefits, and status within the university and employ them rather than grad students and postdocs. Another could be requiring universities to limit the graduate student and postdoc positions they create to the number of people who could reasonably be expected to find career-level employment after they leave their professors’ labs. Another could be requiring universities and lab chiefs to track their grad school and postdoc alumni and report on their employment experience to new applicants, as professional and business schools routinely do.

When the nation once again provides its young scientists a decent shot at the life they hope for, our best youth will race to answer science’s call.

Washington, D.C. science journalist Beryl Lieff Benderly contributes the monthly “Taken for Granted” column on labor force and early career issues to the website of Science magazine and articles to other major magazines and websites.

Notes

[1] National Science Board, “Science Indicators 2008” (Arlington, VA: National Science Foundation, 2008).

[2]H. Salzman and L. Lowell, “Making the Grade,” Nature 543 (2008): 28-30.

[3] G. Davis, “Doctors without orders,” American Scientist 93 (2005) (3, supplement), available at http://postdoc.sigmaxi.org/results/.

[4] National Science Board.

[5] Michael Teitelbaum, Testimony before the House Committee on Science and Technology Subcommittee on Technology and Innovation, Committee, November 6, 2007, available at http://democrats.science.house.gov/Media/File/Commdocs/hearings/2007/tech/06nov/Teitelbaum_testimony.pdf.

[6] Intersociety Working Group, American Association for the Advancement of Science, AAAS Report XXXIII: Research and Development FY 2009 (Washington, D.C., 2008).

[7] National Science Board.

[8] Committee on Bridges to Independence: Identifying Opportunities for and Challenges to Fostering the Independence of Young Investigators in the Life Sciences, Board on Life Sciences, National Research Council of the National Academies, Bridges to Independence: Fostering the Independence of New Investigators in Biomedical Research (Washington, D.C.: National Academies Press, 2005).

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