Taken for Granted: Stormy Weather

CREDIT: NOAA's National Weather Service Collection, U.S. Department of Commerce

What lies ahead for American science and, especially, for young scientists? Financial constraints and rising foreign competition contribute to a general forecast that looks mixed at best and threatening at worst; those are the conclusions of a pair of reports recently released by the National Academies. Another academies study, scheduled for release later this year, is examining the prospects of America’s research universities.

If labor costs that are higher than corporations wish to pay indicate a labor shortage, then "de facto there can no longer be domestic shortages of scientists and engineers," the report says, because those corporations will export the work.

The concerns of early-career scientists got considerable attention at public sessions that the committee working on the forthcoming universities report held in Washington, D.C., in November. A focus group on human capital aired a wide range of informed opinions on doctoral, postdoctoral, and career issues. A plenary presentation on postdoc concerns by one of the few members of the young generation in attendance -- Stacy Gelhaus, chair of the board of directors of the National Postdoctoral Association (until her term ended last week) -- received thoughtful and sympathetic consideration from the much more senior figures on the panel. But a big question hangs over their deliberations: Can the needs of relatively powerless young researchers hold their own against the large economic and political interests at stake for far more potent elements of the university system?

A paradox for postdocs?

Meanwhile, a report issued in September, Rising Above the Gathering Storm, Revisited, suggests a bleak overall outlook for young American researchers. The original and extremely influential Gathering Storm report of 2005 was notable for spreading a highly controversial alarm about a supposed scientist shortage in the United States and introducing corny meteorological metaphors to the national science-policy discussion. The sequel, subtitled Rapidly Approaching Category 5, follows in its predecessor's meteorological tradition, but, despite its ominous subtitle, has attracted far less attention than the original report.

The Gathering Storm reports do not focus on science per se but on competitiveness broadly defined. Revisited presents a view of scientific labor force issues that is at once equivocal and revealing. Citing "a paradox ... in the debate" over the existence of a scientist shortage, the report states that "most business leaders maintain" that a shortage exists, but it presents no buttressing documentation despite the many footnotes studding its pages.

"Members of the Gathering Storm committee," the report says elsewhere, "have collectively participated in thousands of [corporate] board meetings," some of them resulting in "the decision made, usually very reluctantly," to send work -- including scientific and technical tasks -- to countries with lower labor costs than the United States. Management has "little latitude ... to stray beyond the economic interests of a publicly owned firm’s shareholders when making decisions," the text explains.

Then, strikingly, the report declares that such cost cutting "at the expense of those seeking employment here at home ... represents a major dislocation of interests and loyalties that has as yet not been widely addressed or in many cases even recognized." "What is good for America’s global corporations is no longer necessarily good for the American people," says a corporate executive quoted in the report, echoing a point made forcefully this summer in an article by technology pioneer Andy Grove.

Credit: Kelly Krause, AAAS

The impact of these developments on the future of scientific employment, says Storm, Revisited, is potentially profound. If labor costs that are higher than corporations wish to pay indicate a labor shortage, then "de facto there can no longer be domestic shortages of scientists and engineers," the report says, because those corporations will export the work. So scientists and engineers in such fields cannot expect to ever experience benefits of a shortage, such as increased income and bargaining power. Furthermore, if academe considers "the sole purpose of a Ph.D. in science ... to be to prepare future educators in science, a surplus of scientists (often evidenced as a surplus of Post-Doctorate researchers) seems inevitable."

Studying strategy

Having outlined conditions that imply a permanent surplus, which inevitably implies deteriorating opportunities and compensation, the report nonetheless repeats the recommendations of the original Gathering Storm report to greatly expand this already overcrowded workforce. The proposed steps include "encouraging more United States citizens to pursue careers in mathematics, science, and engineering" via tens of thousands of fellowships and "introducing reforms in the nation’s ... immigration ... policies" to admit more technically trained people from abroad.

The report’s "highest priority recommendation," a doubling of federal research funding, could create a "commensurate increase in the demand for researchers." But unless it also includes measures to assure the creation of good jobs, which the report does not recommend, that would simply repeat the disastrous effects on young scientists of the doubling of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) budget between 1998 and 2003. And in any case, budget constraints make so big an increase unlikely.

* * *

A more nuanced look at competitive factors emerges from S&T Strategies of Six Countries: Implications for the United States, which was issued in November. This report closely inspects the cultural, economic, political, and other factors affecting the scientific and technological potential of Brazil, China, India, Japan, Russia, and Singapore, all of which "either have undergone or are undergoing remarkable growth in their S&T capabilities." It reveals the specific strengths and weaknesses arising from each country’s particular history, culture, economy, geography, and natural resources.

S&T Strategies issues no generalized alarm. Rather, it considers each country's strengths and weaknesses. Analyzing China, for example, the report balances that country's centralized planning and financial strength against countervailing factors such as its "endemic" corruption, repressive political structure, opaque legal system, and insistence that, in return for access to its vast market, foreign companies surrender proprietary intellectual property. The report observes that India benefits from large numbers of energetic English speakers and "strong" legal and financial systems but notes that many of the country’s numerous science and engineering graduates have had only "limited access to first-tier [science and technology] education." These detailed observations yield insight not just into those countries but also into the enormous scientific strengths possessed by the United States, which prominently include its peerless array of great research universities.

The academic forecast

Suggesting ways to "maintain the excellence" of those institutions is the university study committee’s task, an important component of which must be confronting the daunting issues raised in Gelhaus’s presentation. Postdocs, she noted, are the "lowest paid class of terminal degree" holders despite their central role in academic research: 43% of first authors of articles in Science are postdocs, she observed. But the system postdocs work in nourishes neither their independent ideas nor their future prospects, she continued. Unlike the professors who supervise them, postdocs give their career prospects very high priority. Given the paucity of academic openings and most universities’ perplexing reluctance to bring their own, presumably well-trained, postdocs into their tenured ranks, there is thus a pressing need for professional-development training to equip postdocs for opportunities beyond the campus. Professors largely lack the skills and knowledge to provide this training, so the responsibility must rest with the universities, Gelhaus said, adding that university-run postdoctoral offices have proven an effective vehicle for serving postdocs.

Furthermore, universities rarely track postdocs’ experiences after departing the campus, Gelhaus continued. Nor do they consider the tasks of supervising and training postdocs part of the institution’s or faculty members’ scholarly output -- comparable, for example, to supervising Ph.D. training. Thus, professors often have little knowledge of or sense of responsibility for their postdocs’ subsequent careers. The funding agencies that define the metrics of researchers’ success have the power to motivate change in this treatment, she said.

Gelhaus called for a number of changes to improve postdocs’ situations. Universities that lack postdoctoral offices should establish them, she said. Institutions should be required to track their postdoc "alumni" and document their subsequent careers. Universities should provide postdocs a sense of community and access to facilities and resources on the same basis as others working or studying on campus. Funders should provide more independent funding for postdocs to free at least some of them from dependence on professors’ grants, she added.

In the ensuing discussion, committee member John Hennessy, president of Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, observed that funding postdocs through independent grants would not truly go to the heart of the problem. What is needed, he said, is to create new career opportunities on a "professional track" for nonfaculty university researchers who would receive adequate compensation and routes for advancement without the necessity of a tenure-track job.

The current "corrupt" research system has accustomed principal investigators to using "migrant labor," observed committee member James Duderstadt, president emeritus of the University of Michigan. He added that the main resistance to previous academies recommendations on improving conditions for postdocs came from faculty members.

This reaction arises not from professorial malice but from operating rationally within a system of incentives created by federal research-funding practices, observed Michael Teitelbaum of the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation in New York City, the study’s sponsor. Federal grants to faculty members finance a "robust market for postdocs internal to universities" but unconnected to the glutted faculty job market or career opportunities outside of academe, he said. The "natural experiment" of the NIH doubling, he added, produced both "good results" for research and a "crisis" that was "negative for junior researchers." Change will not come quickly to today’s "stable" university system, he warned, but changing the incentives now can bring change over time.

How far will the committee go in recommending changes that benefit young scientists? Will they propose a thoroughgoing systemic reform like that envisioned by Hennessy? Will they suggest changes in incentives, such as requiring grant recipients and institutions to track and report on the progress of their postdoc "alumni" and to consider them part of the university’s and principal investigator’s scholarly production? Will they acknowledge a responsibility to prepare postdocs for -- and help them locate -- suitable career opportunities? Or will the committee push only for increased services, such as university postdoctoral offices, within the existing framework?

Of course, whatever the committee recommends may not be realized, especially in light of the current economic situation. But, as the first Gathering Storm report demonstrated, sometimes such suggestions can seriously influence the national conversation. To paraphrase the weather cliché often attributed to Mark Twain, one hopes that the committee will not just talk about the miserable situation of so many early-career academic researchers but will actually try to do something about it.

Beryl Lieff Benderly writes from Washington, D.C.

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