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Fraying ties among academia, industry, and government hurt scientists and science

Ph.D.s hoping to find nonacademic careers—a group that, in the long run, comprises the overwhelming majority of doctorate recipients—must navigate the transition to industry or government, often with only minimal help from their professors and institutions. This challenge is just one symptom of what organizers and speakers at a conference held in November by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine described as a growing disconnect between academe and those other sectors of society. As a discussion paper included in the event’s program booklet states, “the compact between education, research, and industry established over the past 150 years is being eroded.” With that erosion come significant implications for the output of the U.S. research enterprise—and the career opportunities available to current trainees and early-career researchers.

I attended the daylong “National Convocation on Revitalizing the University-Industry-Government Partnership in Support of Research in Science, Engineering, and Medicine” in hopes of learning about initiatives to help students and postdocs who are preparing to leave academe and find careers in those other, unfamiliar sectors. But as Laurie Leshin, president of Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts, noted during a panel on “Key Issues and Opportunities,” very little of the day’s attention focused on students. Graduate students and postdocs in fact lacked any formal representation in the program, and their concerns came up only fleetingly in audience questions and comments. The discussion focused on the Ph.D. career crisis more as a structural issue of “overproduction” than as a calamity for tens of thousands of talented and dedicated aspiring scientists who have invested crucial years of their lives in the hope of taking their place among those advancing the nation’s scientific enterprise.

One speaker who did raise issues important to the plight of early-career scientists was National Academy of Sciences President Marcia McNutt. During welcoming remarks, she posed several questions, including whether universities are educating a workforce with the skills required to succeed in today’s and tomorrow’s competitive job market and whether business and industry can better support training, internships, and other initiatives to prepare students for work and life. Although she did not focus her questions specifically on Ph.Ds., some answers concerning them did emerge.

A worn-out model

As far as Ph.D.s are concerned, various speakers’ comments made clear that McNutt’s first question—whether university training is preparing students to succeed in a variety of careers—gets a resounding “no.” Graduate schools generally concentrate so exclusively on university-based grant-funded research that exposure to the skills and knowledge needed outside academe is often scarce to nonexistent. This singular focus on research arises from a longstanding funding model that uses students and postdocs as inexpensive labor on professors’ grant projects while neglecting their own professional development, which leads to another question McNutt posed: Should federal and state governments consider new models for financing research? The answer to this question emerged as a hearty “yes.”

Today's funding system, adopted by the federal government in the wake of World War II, initially focused both on educating scientists to meet the nation’s needs in an era when faculty openings were plentiful, and on encouraging faculty members to perform fundamental research. Over time, however, the emphasis shifted away from preparing future scientists and strongly toward performing federally funded grant research using the labor of trainees. Meanwhile, the pool of faculty openings for new Ph.D. recipients shrank and shrank. In recent years, furthermore, dropping state and federal support have put universities dependent on government funding under increasing financial stress.

Among the outcomes are a glutted academic labor market and competition for grants so intense that grant-dependent faculty members spend inordinate time writing proposals and eschew risky research. Put simply, the funding model “did not work out as planned,” Rush Holt, who is the CEO of AAAS (which publishes Science Careers), a former member of Congress, and a physicist who served as assistant director of a national laboratory, told the gathering.

New funding approaches allowing greater attention to young scientists’ career needs are clearly a pressing need—and collaborations among academia, government, and industry offer appealing potential for exploring novel mutually beneficial options. For example, Leshin, who leads an institution with a strong “project orientation” at the undergraduate level, explained how cooperation with industry and government helps students do team-based solving of real-world problems. Students gain real-life experience and skills, and communities benefit from the practical solutions that emerge. Richard Miller, president of Olin College of Engineering in Needham, Massachusetts—which similarly emphasizes real-world, team-based problem solving—echoed her belief in the benefits of these types of collaborative models. 

One promising example in doctoral training is the PhD Innovation Program at Dartmouth College’s Thayer School of Engineering, whose doctoral students do research dissertations and also learn industry and business practices, Miller noted. But overall, graduate education—where problem solving involving nonuniversity partners is unusual—badly needs reform, Leshin continued. As we’ve reported in this space, some European countries have rethought the Ph.D. to provide students deep experience with industrial-style problem solving. Collaboration with industry could very likely produce similar programs here.

Complicating potential collaboration with industry and government that could contribute to change, however, are cultural and conceptual differences and diverging interests. Each sector approaches science from its own perspective, noted William Kirwan, president emeritus of the University System of Maryland. Academics want to pursue curiosity-driven basic research, while government labs are oriented toward their particular missions, and companies focus on profitability. Even agreeing on how to frame questions thus becomes difficult, let alone cooperating to address more basic problems. So, although speakers agreed that the need for new approaches to graduate education is pressing, effective reform to prepare students for existing nonacademic opportunities will take strong action by entities that are currently finding it hard to work together.

Is reform possible?

The process that made U.S. universities “the best did not happen by accident,” James Duderstadt, president emeritus of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, reminded the gathering. It represented a “policy choice,” and one strongly supported by the academy, the government, and a range of other interests. Holt reviewed the history and results of policy choices involving active university, industry, and government collaboration, including the 19th-century Morrill Act that built the land-grant universities and supported research and technological development; the World War II partnership of academe, industry, and government that speeded victory through development of the atomic bomb, radar, and other crucial technologies; and the postwar drive that brought U.S. research universities to world preeminence.

But how likely are such policies today? Congress’s attitude has undergone “a great change” in recent years, leading to a drop in “real commitment to scientific research,” said Representative Daniel Lipinski (D-IL), the ranking member of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology’s research and technology subcommittee and one of a dozen trained engineers in Congress. “All federal spending is under attack,” including that for research and education. Members of Congress, he added, generally have little understanding of universities, as symbolized by the proposed tax on supposedly “lucrative” graduate tuition benefits.

By day’s end, it was obvious that grad students and postdocs should not count on universities, industry, and government to team up and address their concerns any time soon. This rather dispiriting conclusion means that their own initiative in seeking out resources and allies to broaden their experience and expand their skills is paramount. Although government, industry, and academic commitment to cooperation has more than once proved to be a powerful force for science and scientists, if and when it might return is the biggest question of all.

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