Educated Woman, The Grad-School Adventures of Micella Phoenix DeWhyse Chapter 43: Where is the Love?



Hello folks, back for another installment. Well, it's been quite a trip so far, and I am about to start my *fifth* year of this stuff, and I've had enough.

I want to be out now, but before I can escape, I have to find a place to escape to. If you've read the last few installments, there have been musings on what I could do with the degree when I finish (that's in Chapter 38), my self-discovery ( Chapter 39), ponderings on which sector I might want to enter professionally ( Chapter 40), and just how stinking terrified I am about all of it ( Chapter 41 and Chapter 42).

Before I crawl out of my little hole, I've realized, it would be a good idea to peak my head out and look around. Our individual predicaments, I've realized, are closely related to the context we exist in--our society's scientific big-picture--and that context is not as science-friendly as it once was. And that matters for all of us who are seeking to enter--or even just care about--science.

Today, the scientific landscape is a lot different than it was 20 years ago, and it's dramatically different than it was in America's scientific heyday in the years after we lost the first round of the space race. America's place in the scientific universe is different, as is the way science and scientists are perceived by the society we work within.

* First a question: Why aren't scientists and engineers more respected in the United States? To be so educated and to have taken so much time and invested so much in our education, why aren't scientists, their techniques, and their opinions respected in this country like they are in other places? And why aren't we paid better? See this CNN Money article.

* Here's one possible answer: We're not at the top of the dog pile anymore. See this recent Washington Post article. America is no longer way out in front when it comes to technological innovation, and Americans are used to being the top dog, no matter what the dogs are fighting over. Baseball was America's game until about the time we started losing to the Cubans. Then the NBA was ascendant until our superstar-studded teams started losing in the Olympics to Kazakhstan or Lithuania or whoever it was.

* No science job left behind. We're doing a lousy job educating the masses in science, but we still do a great job educating scientists at the highest level. We educate so many of them, in fact, that most of many end up spending too many years in low-paying temporary postdoc jobs, science's sweatshops. Do we really need to produce more Ph.D. level scientists, as some maintain (in the United States and many other countries?) Or, do we just need to treat the ones that we produce with a little dignity? See a Next Wave article on the topic.

Take a look at NIH. They doubled their budget over 5 years in the early 2000s, and in the process they trained--at the graduate and postdoc level--a lot more scientists. But all that did was increase the number of poorly compensated postdocs waiting to get that rare tenure-track position. Why is the median age for getting a faculty appointment for biomedical researchers now 36? Why is the median age for becoming an independent (biomedical) investigator now 41? Why do we wait until our scientists develop Alzheimer's before we give them the opportunity to try and cure it?

When many doctors, lawyers, and MBAs have finished their training and have good jobs and six-figure incomes by the time they turn 30, is it reasonable to expect basic scientists--whose work, I would argue, is more important, have to wait until they're nearly 40 to get a decent job . . . and even then only the successful ones? Why are we requiring people to languish and delay their lives when they've invested so much time in their education and have so much to offer society?

* I only need to see what's directly in front of me; who cares about 20 years from now. We're losing our vision. We--society, industry, government, and academe--don't seem to be looking down the road 20 years from now and really thinking about what our society could and should look like. We only seem to work to create a stopgap--one after the other. And even many gaps are going un-stopped. When is the last time you heard about a vision for our society in 2020? Has anyone asked you what you think? Do you even have an opinion?

* How many legislators have scientific backgrounds? Thomas Jefferson dabbled in scientific pursuits, as did Benjamin Franklin. At present, less than 1% of the entire U.S. Congress (539 members) has a science or engineering background. Many more are lawyers and businessmen; there are even a few medical doctors in there. (Could this be because those professions pay better?) The body that legislates and appropriates the supply of funds that academic scientists--and long-term economic growth--depend on does not understand what it means to perform research. Many of them, clearly, don't even believe in science.

* What are we--you and me--doing to change things? How long will we be content to remain in the shadows? And what are we all doing about it? Did scientists all somehow assume that because we were smart, someone would value that and want to take care of us? Did we think that the science and the data would speak for themselves and require no delivery, no packaging, no PR?

We scientists and engineers tend to stay to ourselves, speak to each other in our own language. We avoid engaging in even the most minimal outreach efforts aimed at affecting change beyond our narrow professional realm. We seem to value purity, intelligence, and pontification over informed action. Are we making ourselves obsolete?

Anytime I tell someone what I study or what I do, their immediate reaction is usually "wow, that's hard.? I don't like this reaction. I don't get an ego boost from being able to solve equations that others can't, and I don't take pride in knowing something that other's don't. I don't feel like a member of the scientific elite, and I don't look down upon the masses and deem them inept or incapable. This sort of reaction just makes me feel as if I exist outside our society. I feel excluded. We cannot continue to live this way.

As Next Wave enters its tenth year, I challenge you, dear readers, to make yourselves visible. Don't be the scientist that sits in the lab and says nothing. Stop being so quiet and well behaved.

How connected are you to your scientific society? Do they have a branch that lobbies Congress? Are they working to build coalitions with other scientific societies so that collectively we have a voice? Stop sitting by idly while the legislature cuts funding and meddles in the granting process. Stop accepting the status quo.

And don't just lobby for the interests of science; think hard about the ways the interests of YOUNG scientists differ from the agenda of the professional societies. Let them know--both the scientific establishment and society at large--that tomorrow's scientists are a force to be reckoned with. Think beyond your own grant money and graduation date. Think about how exciting science is for you, how exciting it should be for all of us, and how important it is for our nation's future. Think, and then do something (suggestions appreciated, but I'll look for things to report back). The world is getting flatter and we're racing to stay on top of our little hill.

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