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Another Scientist Shortage?

In an Op-Ed piece published 11 October on the Web site of the National Academies, Jerome H. Grossman, a member of the Government-University-Industry Research Roundtable of the National Academies and a senior fellow at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, claims that the pool of science and technology talent in the United States is inadequate. "As the country struggles to contain terrorism and strengthen the economy," he begins, "there's a growing awareness that these campaigns rely largely on a dangerously scarce resource: U.S. scientists and engineers." The essay ends on a similar note: "The nation's pool of scientific talent hasn't been this shallow in decades ... America's scientific, economic, and social well-being is at stake."

In a similar vein, the National Science Foundation's (NSF's) Task Force on National Workforce Policies for Science and Engineering (NWP) is expected to present a draft report to the National Science Board (NSB) in November that includes recommendations to "guide national policy toward the goal of drawing more U.S. citizens into careers in science and engineering, while continuing to compete globally for scientific talent," according to the minutes of the October NSB meeting.

Grossman's and the NWP task force's shared assumption--that America has a shortage of scientists--is likely to come as a surprise to many of today's young scientists who, having patched together contingent lives through several years of itinerant positions, have yet to find a permanent job. It is also likely to come as a surprise to the roughly 80% of young biomedical faculty whose grant proposals last year were rejected by the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

Measured on the scale of national and international need, there can be little doubt that more science is needed--and, by extension, more scientists. One need only think of all the diseases that need curing, the energy sources that need finding and refining, the as-yet-undiscovered technologies needed to protect the U.S. and its allies against manifold threats to its national security. Except for a radical fringe that sees anything scientific as bad, few would argue this point.

But once we have more scientists, where do we intend to put them?

Grossman and the others who advocate expanding the U.S. S&T workforce are fond of pointing out that S&T is a major driver of economic expansion. But they usually fail to note that the science-economy linkage works both ways: Science surely helps expand the economy, but an expanding economy is itself a precondition for the expansion of any (adequately employed) scientific workforce. The age of the gentleman scientist is--happily--over; scientists today need to be paid.

The last 30 years or so have seen many predictions of S&T labor shortages, but with rather few exceptions those predictions have proved wrong or, at best, exaggerated. NSF's own numbers predict modest growth in the coming years in every scientific field save one: computer science. One study that predicted shortages, written by Richard Atkinson and published in Science in 1990, has been repudiated, and is often passed around by postdocs to demonstrate this phenomenon of false prediction--and, some argue, the cynicism of those who continue to call for expansion despite evidence that today's scientists are widely underemployed.

The system we have now seems to be producing at least as many well-qualified scientists as the most obvious part of our S&T enterprise can absorb, and the energy, knowledge, and skill of those scientists is as high as it has ever been, or higher. Every new faculty position at a research institution draws hundreds of applications from experienced scientists. Even postdoctoral fellowships are highly competitive. Typical new faculty members in biomedical science are well over 35 when they're hired, largely because they have spent so long in postdoc holding patterns. In his recent Next Wave essay "Thanks for the Postdoc Bargain," Richard Freeman of Harvard's National Bureau of Economic Research thanks postdocs--huzzah, huzzah!--for their selfless contribution to the greater good as they continue to work the scientific trenches for peanuts, well after the promise of their traditional reward--a permanent job doing science--has dried up. The imminent formation of a national postdoc association is evidence that postdocs aren't likely to comply with Freeman's tongue-in-cheek recommendation that they continue to go along and do nothing to improve their plight.

Even if these most visible science positions are swamped, perhaps there is a great demand elsewhere. The pharmaceutical industry, after all, provides excellent jobs for a few of the best organic chemistry graduates. Many young scientists are employed in a variety of high-tech start-ups--although many of these small companies have fallen on hard times. Some scientists become teachers. A few of us have even become writers and editors. Next Wave's monthly career features have pointed out many niches in which scientists find rewarding work. No question: A lot of jobs become visible when you probe below the surface. But are their numbers growing?

No one knows what employment conditions will be like 10 years from now, but state education budgets and university endowments are shrinking. A vast expansion of private- and public-sector science jobs seems unlikely in the near future. We can hope for a rapid economic recovery, but hope seems to be a tenuous foundation on which to build an expansionist national S&T labor policy.

Even if all the new scientists do find work, who will support their research? In the final stages of a massive 5-year expansion, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) is now working hard to engineer a soft landing. NIH is likely to struggle in the coming years to meet its current obligations while avoiding a decline in opportunities for young biomedical scientists; arguably, NIH didn't do all that well supporting young scientists even in the midst of the rapid expansion. With a 5-year term for research grants and a competitive renewal rate of about 53%, supporting an expanded scientific workforce is a tall order for NIH, even as the research budget continues to grow at a modest pace. Members of Congress recently proposed doubling NSF's research budget over the next 5 years, but NSF--or, anyway, its director--wrote a letter to the committee in which she supported President George W. Bush's smaller budget request. The endowments of major philanthropic organizations have also taken a serious hit in recent months as a result of the shrinking stock market; smaller endowments mean less money to support research. Without an expanding economy and an expanding federal budget for scientific research, an expanding research workforce cannot be supported.

Even if the jobs are out there, with a few exceptions--such as the pharmaceuticals industry--those jobs are not on the radar of most scientists-in-training, despite our ( Next Wave's) best efforts. If, indeed, the predictions have merit, policy-makers must, at the very least, make the case to the young scientists that these policies are likely to impact. And if the predicted new jobs are not in traditional fields, policy-makers owe it to young scientists to fund training programs to help prepare them for--and inform them about--alternatives.

The discussion of national S&T workforce policy needs to include the voices of young scientists. It is, after all, their ranks that would be expanded, and such a thoughtful, intelligent, and increasingly well-informed crowd is unlikely to sit by as their betters make decisions that will have a profound (and possibly negative) affect on their futures. It is in the interest of policy-makers to, at a minimum, make their best case to young scientists and to listen to the voices that respond. We are encouraged by the words of John Marburger in his address earlier this year to the national meeting of the Postdoc Network: "I will include postdoc issues in the workforce agenda of OSTP [Office of Science and Technology Policy]." Thanks to the hard work of the Postdoc Network's Laure Haak and the leaders of the national postdoc movement, young scientists are, at least, on the radar screen of some policy-makers. And we at Next Wave are happy to continue to provide a public platform for a discussion of these issues.

A gulf has opened between science-workforce policy-makers and the mass of young scientists whose ranks they seek to expand. Whether or not one believes that the U.S. needs more scientists, this gulf is a potentially serious problem, and it will continue to widen unless a diligent effort is made to bridge it.