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Change Young Scientists Can Believe In

Time to Finance A New Generation of Researchers

chalkboard with equation: scientists plus funding equals discoveries plus more scientists SOURCE: iStockphoto, SP Increased federal funding of basic research must be accompanied by thoroughgoing reform of the grant process to create a new generation of American researchers.

Across the nation, scientists ought to be cheering. With his Inaugural pledge to “restore science to its rightful place,” President Obama ended the conservative embrace of ideology over empirical findings. His top appointments include world-class scientific talent, and the science and technology plan he issued during the campaign promises even more to come—an administration that will base its decisions on the best available evidence, inspire a new generation of Americans to excel in, and embrace science and engineering, and provide hefty funding boosts for research, science education, graduate fellowships, technological infrastructure, and more.

Plaudits from a galaxy of research luminaries indicate that there’s a lot in the new administration’s statements and actions for senior scientists to like. But the strains of “Happy Days Are Here Again” are harder to hear among the people who do most of the actual labor of American science—the poorly paid post-doctoral researchers and graduate students putting in years of 70-hour-weeks at the bench. Despite the change in administrations, their future still looks bleak. The reason: Channeling substantially more money—as much as 100 percent more over the next 10 years—through the existing university-based research structure ignores the fact that in certain crucial respects this structure is severely dysfunctional.

This mismatch between effort and outcome is, according to leading labor force economists, the central obstacle discouraging many of America’s most talented young people from pursuing advanced scientific studies.

Labor market experts agree that without major structural reforms in how research is organized, additional funding will not remedy—and could substantially worsen—a central failing of the nation’s scientific enterprise. That failing is the dismal and worsening career prospects of young Americans who want to spend their lives doing scientific research. Like other students with the talent and drive to excel at rigorous studies, the scientifically gifted hope for a profession that will afford them at least a comfortable middle-class lifestyle and reasonable financial security. The current university-based research structure severely inhibits that quest.

Training as a research scientist takes a demanding decade and starting a real career today generally requires landing a faculty position. Such openings are so painfully few, however, and each one available already draws hundreds of qualified applicants. These days, therefore, the investment of time, effort and opportunity needed to prepare for a research career very rarely pays off in the desired result.

This mismatch between effort and outcome is, according to leading labor force economists, the central obstacle discouraging many of America’s most talented young people from pursuing advanced scientific studies. This problem is so grave and so intrinsic to the way America’s academic research system is now organized that fundamental reform is needed to fix it. Simply providing more funding for basic scientific research won’t solve this fundamental problem.

A Decisive Choice

For several decades now, the United States has in fact pursued policies that systematically destroy the incentives that could draw America’s best—and very plentiful—homegrown talent into research careers. Despite claims of a shortage of Americans capable of doing topflight science, education statistics clearly show that the nation produces an abundance of young people with the ability to do science and math at the very highest levels. But, in the words of a foreign postdoc who has spent years working in American university labs on a temporary visa, “no American in his [or] her right state of mind would get into a career in academia. You can end up very easily in your 40s without a future ahead of you.”

Today’s crisis is not accidental. It grew out of decisions made, with little thought about labor force consequences, in the years after World War II.

Bright undergraduates at the nation’s universities see the grad students and postdocs laboring in their professors’ labs and the lives of penury, toil, and insecurity that await those who follow in their footsteps. In response, many of our best math and science students chose medicine, law, finance, or other careers over scientific research. Rebuilding the incentives that can once again make research a career of choice for Americans with the potential to do outstanding science is essential to assuring the nation’s future as the leader in innovation.

Today’s crisis is not accidental. It grew out of decisions made, with little thought about labor force consequences, in the years after World War II. In that dawn of massive federal research budgets, policymakers chose to finance science by awarding grants for specific projects to university professors who would use their students and, eventually, their postdocs, to provide the labor. This system worked well for a while.

But it had a hidden—and ultimately fatal—flaw that in the end turned it into an intellectual pyramid scheme. In addition to a stream of new findings, these “self-replicating” professors also produce a constant stream of new PhDs seeking to start research careers of their own. As American higher education expanded rapidly through the mid-1960s, young scientists could generally find the opportunities they sought. But when the growth in faculty openings drastically slowed, the production of new PhDs did not. Universities continued to give fellowships and postdoc appointments based on the amount of research money they received, not on the career opportunities awaiting their graduates.

By the mid-1970s, PhDs seeking faculty jobs far outnumbered the available career opportunities. Where once scientists had generally moved into faculty posts by age 30, now they went in large numbers into low-paid, temporary, postdoctoral “training” positions while they searched for assistant professorships. Before long, five or more years as a postdoc became “normal” in many fields. But even as the typical postdoc period grew, the chances of getting that faculty post shrank and labor force observers began calling extended postdoc training “disguised unemployment.”

Smart undergraduates began noticing the poor professional and financial payoff from science graduate study, and their professors began importing large numbers of PhDs and graduate students from abroad to provide the highly skilled but low-paid labor that keeping their grants required. Today, the majority of the nation’s estimated 60,000 or more postdocs are foreigners on temporary visas.

A New Ladder Needed

Pouring more money into this same dysfunctional system will obviously do nothing to attract more young Americans to careers in science. It will only, as our foreign postdoc puts it,  “create more postdoctoral training jobs when we have thousands and thousands of people who have already been trained for many years under the present system” who can’t start careers. But don’t get me wrong. The nation needs increased research funding to meet our ambitious goals in health care, energy independence, green energy, and more. Doubling expenditures over a decade makes excellent sense.

But how the we spend that money is as important for the nation’s future as how much we spend. The last sharp hike in research funding, when the National Institutes of Health budget doubled between 1998 and 2003, produced some excellent research. But it also did real damage to countless careers because it led to a large number of new researchers who cannot get permanent jobs or grant funding.

This time, we must spend the increased funds in a way that builds, not destroys, long-term career opportunities for scientifically talented young Americans. Instead of the failed strategy of simply giving professors more money to pay more postdocs and grad students, we need to start constructing new career ladders that provide appealing long-term opportunities for large numbers of gifted young scientists. Small programs that provide special grants to a few hundred handpicked young investigators will not suffice, because the odds of winning them are too low to motivate people who have many options to persevere through a decade or more of demanding training.

Instead, we need to break from the present system of tying career opportunities in research to winning one of the tiny number of faculty openings available each year—a number that appears to be shrinking even further as today’s cash-strapped universities impose budget cuts and hiring freezes. In place of the old, counterproductive job structure, the nation needs a new one with plenty of solid, professional, career opportunities that offer young PhDs salaries, status, security, and chances for advancement that befit their long training and specialized skills. These jobs need not carry the title “professor” or to be at universities, but they must provide talented young Americans who choose graduate school in science, and hope to spend their lives doing research, a reliable chance of realizing their dreams.

Experts suggest various of ways of accomplishing this, all of which involve dismantling the current pyramid scheme. Instead of depending for labor on a constant stream of cheap, temporary students and postdoc “trainees,” labs need to establish many long-term positions that offer workers a realistic income commensurate with their education and experience as well as opportunities for advancement within predictable career tracks. A model that many experts favor is staffing labs primarily with bachelors- or masters-level career technicians and PhD-level permanent staff scientists while using much smaller percentages of grad students and postdocs.

Because these new-style labs would not depend on student labor, they would not need to be in universities. Rather than continuing to limit competitive research funding largely to university-based professors, major U.S. funding agencies would, like many European countries, encourage the development of freestanding research institutions based not around the teacher-and-disciple academic model, but around a staff of career scientists and technicians. The legendary Bell Laboratories, for example, supported for decades by the monopoly profits of the regulated U.S. telephone industry, worked on such a model and produced some of the 20th century’s major technological advances, as well as six Nobel Prizes for basic research.

In our own time, Janelia Farm, the Howard Hughes Research Institute’s innovative new research facility in Ashburn, Virginia, eschews university-style hierarchy and places a strong emphasis on employing long-term PhD staff scientists. These are only two of the possible arrangements that America should consider, experts say.

Building this new career structure will take bold thinking and strong leadership, but anything less cannot achieve President Obama’s goal of keeping American science pre-eminent in the 21st century. Our nation must do more than satisfy the clamor of today’s senior scientists for additional money for their labs. The time is overdue for the nation to recognize and take seriously the vital long-term challenge of ensuring the career opportunities that will motivate our best young people to make the commitment needed to do the great science of the future.

Beryl Lieff Benderly, a Washington journalist, writes the monthly “Taken for Granted” column on science labor force issues on the website of Science.

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