Postdocs, Post-9/11 (Part I)

M. R. C. Greenwood gave the keynote address at the Third Annual Meeting convened by Next Wave's Postdoc Network. A renowned scientist and chancellor of the University of California, Santa Cruz, Greenwood is also chair of the NRC Office of Science and Engineering Policy Advisory Board, serves on the board of Joint Venture Silicon Valley, served as a board member of the National Association of State Universities and Land-Grant Colleges, and was an Associate Director for Science at the Office of Science and Technology Policy. This article is extracted from the first part of her address on 16 March 2003; Part 2 will be published on 15 August.

The postdoc issue sometimes gets cast as an employment issue or a mentoring issue. But from my point of view, that is not the real issue facing the United States today. The bigger issue is preserving and enhancing the research creativity of the nation's young researchers.

All of the postdocs in this room, and your successors in the next decade and longer, represent the research creativity, the innovation, if you will, the brain trust of this country. Without that brain trust, everything else we're doing with respect to national security is a momentary tactical response, not a long-term strategic response, for this nation.

So what do I mean by national security? I think the definitions that we came up with in Science in the National Interest are pertinent as we think about the future of the country and why postdoctoral scholars, graduate students, and our research enterprise are so incredibly important. National security in its broader context means health security through understanding, treating, and preventing disease and ensuring an adequate, safe, and nutritious food supply. It means economic security and prosperity based on technological superiority, bred of a scientific and engineering innovation and a strategic commitment to both breadth and excellence in basic research. Environmental security is another aspect of national security; it requires a better understanding of these incredibly complex inter-relationships between the biosphere, human activities, and the world around us. Finally, there is personal security, which is demonstrated through improved quality of life, through culture, inspiration, and full participation in democratic processes.

The only thing I would add to this list from this time would be that I think that we also need a cultural competency security, that we need to be sure in this nation that we are training individuals who not only understand the technological basic research but who also have experiences with multiple languages and understand the cultural norms and cultural expectations of the international environment in which all of this work in science, technology, and elsewhere will be done. So we need to ensure that postdoctoral scholars are encouraged, and that they are prepared, to take on the creative roles that are needed in each of these areas.

The world has changed. Since I received my Ph.D., the postdoctoral experience has changed dramatically. In 1973, a postdoctoral scholarship was considered a nice thing to do. Many graduate students were going into academic positions with their dissertation just finished, in some cases even before the dissertation was finished.

You know, it has been the case for a very long time that the vast majority of people who receive Ph.D.s in this country don't go into academic positions. The field in which this has been particularly clear for a very long time is chemistry. Sixty to seventy percent of people who have gotten their Ph.D.s in chemistry in the United States, from way back in the '50s, have gone on to industrial or other kinds of positions. And [a postdoctoral position] was a 1- or 2-year commitment.

In my case, I was a postdoc for a year, and then I moved on to a very quasi-assistant professor position in a medical school institute. The institute was attached to a department in which I was exceedingly unlikely to get tenure, but in which they told me they would want to consider me for tenure. So, you know, I had a very productive 6 or 7 years at Columbia University. I did a lot of research, became chair of the Ph.D. program, and did a lot of interesting work, but then as soon as I received my first Career Development Award, I moved into another institution.

I became a professor at Vassar College, a 4-year institution. You might consider that a most odd move, and in fact, considering where I've ended up in my career, it was an extraordinarily odd move. But I had, as so many people do, made decisions partly on personal preferences, things that are important to you--raising your children in a certain environment, or giving back to an institution. In my case, that was the reason. I had been an undergraduate student at Vassar College. I was a very young mother, and I ended up being a single mother while I was doing my undergraduate education. Vassar had given me a chance to get my undergraduate education and had prepared me to be a successful graduate student at the Rockefeller University, and an assistant professor. So when my mentor at Vassar had cardiac problems and had to retire, and they wanted to recruit a more senior person, on an endowed chair, much to the shock and surprise of many of my research colleagues I decided I was going to do this because I wanted to teach undergraduates. But I didn't want my lab to die.

I was fortunate, because I had this very tight collaboration between the Rockefeller University, Columbia University, and Vassar, which was bounded by a major NIH Obesity Research Center grant, and Vassar ran a major core. So, although I didn't have some of the research colleagues, I did have 3000 square feet of space, control of the animal facility, and good collaborations with people.

After about 10 years there it became clear to me that my lab was losing out. I mean, I had several postdoctoral fellows, I had graduate students from Columbia who were still working with me, and I had dozens and dozens of undergraduates, very, very bright undergraduate students who did master's- and almost Ph.D.-quality work. So my lab did fine, and I got to do what I wanted to do, pay back the institution. Except that I did wake up one morning and say, "You know, we're falling behind in molecular biology; the lab's got to move." And I need to consider a career change in order to do that. That is when I came to California. ...

So that's enough of my personal story. I just wanted to point out that while you might think that you might get submerged at a place like Vassar, it didn't stop my career. I managed. I did a lot of my most important work at Vassar. That work was the basis on which I was elected to the Institute of Medicine. So, you know, you can create an environment for yourself if you are determined that you are going to do that.

Today, of course, postdoctoral education is considered an absolute necessity in most fields if you're interested in the academic career path, and in many other areas as well. And it has become, particularly in the biological sciences, at least a 4- to 5-year commitment. And as you heard this morning, this does constrain people's personal choices. This issue was taken seriously by the National Academies, and Enhancing the Post-Doctoral Experience does a pretty good job, I think, of summarizing the issues and the potential solutions that we should be focusing on.

Now, I want to go through just a little bit of the background information, because I believe that we are facing some very interesting dilemmas. This may not be exactly what you came this morning to hear me say, and I'll get to some of what you expected me to say, but I want to talk a little bit about where we are in this country right now with respect to doctoral education and postdoctoral education, and why I believe that given some of the current policies that we're facing, we may be headed for a substantial long-term crisis for the country.

Now, Ph.D. production. ... If you look first at the early run-up from 1957 to the leveling-off point there [in the 1980s], that is pretty much just the impact of the post-Sputnik era. You know, those of you who are substantially younger than me probably know this only as an historical note, but if you ask your professors, or administrators, how many of them went to college, went to graduate school, and then went into careers in academic institutions because of the National Defense Education Act, you're going to find 60% or 70% of them are going to raise their hands. I am also an NDEA baby. There's no way, with the family responsibilities I had, that I had I could have conceivably managed to go to graduate schools and to do other things without something like the NDEA. I used their loan program. I also had a fellowship. But because of this forgiveness program, you had to do a service requirement to get loan forgiveness. Now, as we're facing some new challenges for the future, I'd like to see some of these programs re-invigorated. I believe that there is a need for a new NDEA, or something like it.

The great impact of the post-Sputnik era leveled off through a period of time here and started to grow again around 1990. Nonetheless, Ph.D. production in this country has not changed that dramatically since 1973. It was about 35,000 then, and in 2001 it was about 40,000. So you would think that an addition of 5000 or so highly talented, well-trained professionals would not present any kind of dilemma in terms of job availability, etc. But what has really changed, as you all know, is the composition of the graduate postdoc population. The biggest change is in the number of science and engineering degrees earned by international students.

In the doctoral education area, almost 50% of engineering degrees are earned by international students. It's pretty comparable in mathematics, although you begin to see some differences in the natural sciences and the social and behavioral sciences degrees. The participation of international students is very much heavier at the doctoral and master's level and relatively smaller with respect to the associate and bachelor's degrees.

So why is this happening? Why are so many American students stopping after the bachelor's degree? This has made a lot of people wonder about the quality of the baccalaureate degree, in particular with respect to its ability to inspire students to want to go on to graduate and postgraduate careers, and to contribute to society at the postdoctoral level. The participation of international students in United States universities has been quite critical to our Ph.D. production, with large numbers of students choosing to stay in the United States after they have finished their doctoral degrees. Given the changes that are happening at this moment in national policy with respect to the welcoming or not-welcoming environment that international students are facing, we can anticipate that just by a chilly climate or by actual action, students will make different choices.

Now this becomes increasingly important for the nation when you look at what is happening to the number of doctoral degrees that are being produced in other parts of the world. In 1975, the United States was producing two to three times the amount of Ph.D.s as the combined European countries or the Asian countries. Our European cohort is now producing a larger number of Ph.D.s than the United States by about 15%. And the Asian countries have surpassed the United States with high-quality, well-trained doctoral students.

This poses a tremendous dilemma for the country, and one which I believe is related to our national security. I had the privilege of testifying in front of the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology several months ago. As it happened, the people testifying before me were from IBM and Hewlett-Packard. Their human resources vice presidents were there, and what they effectively said was that 5 years ago some of our economic security--our jobs--was moving offshore because of the manufacturing capacity in other countries. Today, they're moving R&D offshore because there's a talented, higher-level workforce over there. Today, international students don't have to come to the United States any more in order to get a very high quality Ph.D. And if we push students away--as we seem to be doing today--they'll just go to Europe, or they'll go to Asia. Smart people will go where there are other smart people, and where there are programs that they can be trained in.

Furthermore, our own graduate students and postdoctoral fellows are going to find opportunities of high quality in other countries. And the brain drain that we have been the recipient of for a long time could reverse itself. We could start losing some of our most talented people.

So, the whole issue of how we value our postdoctoral students, how we value our graduate students, what we are trying to do to stabilize their employment environments, what we are trying to do to ensure that they have opportunities for the future, is not, in my view, a simple issue of whether scholars are being well-treated. It is the message that we are giving in the national and international environment of how we value intellectual talent, and whether we, as a nation, as institutions, are prepared to do something to ensure that young scientists are successful here, and want to be here.

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