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The Scientific Workforce

Science and technology raise standards of living by increasing productivity in key areas, and by providing solutions to problems that societies face. Scientific innovation also provides an important comparative advantage to the economies that do science best.

Like most good things, science has its undesirable consequences--e.g., nuclear proliferation--but few would argue that we'd be better off keeping the genie bottled up. The discovery of new knowledge through science, or the creation of it, if you prefer, raises up and ennobles humankind, if anything can perform that difficult feat.

Of all the basic inputs into scientific innovation--funding, time, lab space, and technology--the most important, and the hardest to get right, is the people who do the work. Scientists, after all, are economic inputs, but they're much more than that. And in science these other qualities--creativity, among other human virtues--are more important than in many other pursuits. It might be possible to operate a successful diamond mine, cotton plantation, or sock factory by treating employees as automatons and ignoring their basic needs, but that doesn't work for scientists. For a nation to do science well, it has to attract the best and brightest, train them very well, and give them the space they need to create something new and the opportunity to lead fulfilling lives.

Just as science serves a dual role, ennobling society while also enriching it, our workforce policy must consider not only economics, but also the inherent nobility of science and scientists. Otherwise we'll fail to extract their full value, economic and otherwise.

In future weeks we will consider, among other topics, ethnicity, culture, and career choice. We'll also consider the experiences of scientific immigrants. But we start off this week with what is, perhaps, the central science-policy issue of our age: the increasingly international character of the scientific workforce and its collision with domestic labor economies.

Native Brazilian Carmen 'Kika' Sucharov passed up a faculty position back home so that she could continue as a postdoc in Colorado. Despite the colder weather, she has no regrets.

Brazil's Marcia Triunfol left her favorite beach in her native Brazil in order to study science in the U.S. She ended up staying, but leaving the bench behind.

What is Beatrijs Lodde , a Dutch medical researcher doing working long hours in the States? Aren't the working hours and terms much better in her small European country? Well, yes, but working in the 'states has its advantages.

As a working mother, writes Germany's Carola Laue , the support and opportunities available here make coming to America are almost like returning to her native East Germany.

Cancer researcher Valentine Andela of Cameroon fights cancer in the U.S. and Africa by blurring the lines between nations and disciplines.

Tawanda Zidenga of Zimbabwe has often found himself swimming against the tide. But, he notes, it seems that the only thing you need in order to get what you want is the help and support of other people.

For physician Hui Fang and her husband, moving from China to Canada meant starting over. But you won't find her complaining.

Working and studying abroad can be a great experience, writes UK's Pamela Hamill , but there is no lack of practical hurdles (e.g., expenses, and bureaucracies) to overcome.

Professor Verstegen of Wageningen University and his wife work as a team to welcome foreign PhD-students and support them and their families. Terry Vrijenhoek describes how their caring approach makes the students feel at home.

Researchers in German universities and publicly funded research institutes are only allowed to work for a total of 12 years on temporary contracts, including the doctoral period. If they don't have a permanent position by then, they have to leave home or find a new line of work. Anne Forde investigates this major German workforce issue--one that could result in a major loss of scientific talent.

In carving out a career as a scientist while also raising a child on her own, Takita Felder has learned a lot about science, but even more about life.

Despite some obstacles, Canada's Keli Agama has found his experiences as a scientist of color to be, on the whole, positive.

When it comes to diversity in the science and engineering workforce, industry is well ahead of academia in some respects. Next Wave's Clinton Parks explains how both sectors still have plenty of work to do.

Lack of role models and a cultural bias towards professions such as medicine and law mean Asians are few and far between in UK labs, but Chandrika Nath argues Britain can't afford to miss out on their talents.

Mosaic is the first Dutch research funding programme focusing on young immigrant scientists. Next Wave's Terry Vrijenhoek says interest for this new NWO programme was overwhelming and seems to have rung a bell at Dutch universities. The original Dutch-language article is by Hanne Obbink .

Ruth Kirschstein of the National Institutes of Health has been involved in the training of biomedical scientists for decades, so much so that NIH named its fellowships after her. Along with colleagues at NIH and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, Kirschstein asks , who will do science in the 21st century, and where and how will they do it?

Most young scientists-in-training envision a career in academia, perhaps because that's the only kind of scientific career they know. Yet many more scientists work in industry than in academe. Regrettably, those who wish to join today's industrial workforce may find themselves lacking key skills, writes Clifford Mintz , despite their impressive scientific credentials. Why? Because our universities don't teach them the skills they need.

Information Technology is a field that, historically, scientists have entered in considerable numbers. But what are the prospects for aspiring computing professionals? Next Wave's Alan Kotok reports on the state of the IT profession from a conference in suburban Washington, DC.

Many of the world's most serious scientific challenges affect areas that are least prepared to meet them. That's why the Howard Hughes Medical Institute funds scientific research, training, and infrastructure in the developing world via their international scholars program, which HHMI's Jill Conley describes .

George Langford is a member of the U.S. National Science Board (NSB) and vice chair of its Task Force on National Workforce Policies for Science and Engineering. In his essay for Next Wave, Langford focuses on the issue of domestic supply, arguing that America's economic well-being is placed at risk by its dependence on a large and unstable foreign science and engineering (S&E) labor force. The federal government and other stakeholders, Langford argues, must initiate efforts to increase the production of native-born U.S. scientists and engineers.

Richard Freeman, a labor economist at Harvard and the National Bureau of Economic Research, agrees that America's reliance on foreign scientists is economically dangerous. But, Freeman argues, efforts to directly increase supply are unlikely to be effective. Instead, we must use the leverage we have to make science a more rewarding and more lucrative career option for American scientists. That means raising federal fellowship stipends immediately and, over a longer term, restructuring the S&E enterprise so that it is more like professional athletics. Income and career opportunities, Freeman argues, should be front-loaded rather than back-loaded, with star scientists paid more like star athletes, senior scientists more like coaches.

Finland, meanwhile, can be viewed as a sort of test case for increasing scientist production. Over the last decade or so, Finland has succeeded in doing what the rest of Europe and North America now seem intent on doing: expanding its ranks of scientists. Anneli Pauli and Liisa Savunen of the Academy of Finland describe how they managed to dramatically increase Ph.D. production, how well it worked, and what the future holds for science and young scientists in Finland.

Minna Varis is still a Ph.D. student, in Finland. Inevitably, she sees things differently than the administrators and policymakers do, if only because she has no idea what her professional future holds. Varis is grateful for many of the new system's advantages. But she notes that it still has flaws, not the least of which is a dearth of long-term career opportunities at home for Finland's cohort of newly trained scientists.

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