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What's Wrong With American Science?

One of the hottest new fields in American science appears to be figuring out what is wrong with American science and how to correct it. Numerous recent reports by high-level study groups have examined why the United States is losing ground to foreign competitors who are poised, say the studies' authors, to wrest away the undisputed scientific preeminence it has enjoyed since the end of World War II.

The latest of these efforts, a U.S. National Academies’ report titled Rising Above the Gathering Storm: Energizing and Employing America for a Brighter Economic Future, is also the best publicized of the recent studies and among the most ambitious. Its broad-ranging recommendations include policies that would affect the work lives and prospects of many early-career scientists, including postdocs and young faculty members. But, some dissenters argue, rather than helping the United States retain scientific dominance, some of its proposed changes would only make the situation worse.

Storm clouds over a “flat” world

The Gathering Storm escaped the obscurity that overtakes many such studies when, on 15 October, The New York Times’s Thomas L. Friedman, whose best-selling book on globalization famously proclaims that The World Is Flat, devoted a highly complimentary column to the report and its recommendations. In today’s “flat world,” Friedman writes in the column, computers and instantaneous communications eliminate many of America’s erstwhile advantages and allow technical workers in India, China, and Ireland to do jobs that Americans once held. Among the “most important” questions now facing the nation, he states, are why we are losing technical jobs, why our young people make a poor showing on international science and math tests, why “the world is racing us to the top, not the bottom, and why we are quietly falling behind.”

The report’s recommendations constitute “the new New Deal urgently called for by our times,” Friedman continues. Several of the most significant of those proposals concentrate on increasing the numbers and percentages of Americans getting scientific degrees, both of which have suffered recently compared to other countries. The proposals seek to improve American students’ performance in science and math and to encourage many more of them to earn undergraduate and graduate degrees in those fields. Among other changes, the report suggests establishing federal college scholarships to prepare 10,000 well-qualified new science teachers each year for the nation’s K-12 schools, helping existing teachers improve their math and science knowledge, and encouraging middle and high school students--with incentives including cash prizes--to take more challenging math and science courses. The report also calls for a 10% annual increase in federal funding for basic research.

The report’s proposals indicate that the authors believe poor preparation and lack of financial support to study science--not career prospects inferior to those of other professional fields--constitute major obstacles keeping many of America’s brightest young people from pursuing science degrees. The report does note that “postdoctoral salaries are relatively low” and that “graduate students are sometimes discouraged by a perceived mismatch between education and employment prospects in the academic sector.” It also cites unnamed “studies” purportedly showing that the “financial impact” of foreign Ph.D.s on the scientific job market “is minimal,” despite evidence in another recent academies’ study that foreign postdocs on average receive lower pay than their American counterparts. But salaries, the authors conclude, are not the point. Gathering Storm goes so far as to state that “public-policy decisions about the supply of scientists and engineers should not be guided by an attempt to provide a guaranteed high level of income for every recipient of an advanced degree.”

The report proposes to increase the number of scientists in the United States by providing an automatic extension of foreign-student visas to foreign Ph.D. recipients so that noncitizens who earn American Ph.D.s have a year after receiving their degrees to seek a job in the United States. Echoing the academies’ earlier Bridges to Independence report, it recommends a new program to award 5-year grants supporting independent research to 200 top early-career scientists each year. And finally, it calls for 25,000 new undergraduate scholarships and 5000 new graduate fellowships annually to support Americans seeking science degrees.

Dissenting voices

Yet it is precisely the nation’s overproduction of Ph.D. scientists, augmented by tens of thousands of foreign Ph.D.s already working as postdocs, that has made science careers less attractive than other careers the ablest young Americans aspire to, believe a number of informed observers. Howard H. Garrison of the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology in Bethesda, Maryland, Andrea L. Stith of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute in Chevy Chase, and Susan A. Gerbi of Brown University’s Division of Biology and Medicine, for example, argue in the current issue of The FASEB Journal that “over-reliance on a temporary workforce” of foreign scientists “may have far-reaching, negative consequences for our own research enterprise.” Rather than further increasing the supply of scientists, they suggest, “we need to begin the transition to a laboratory staffing model that is capable of attracting and retaining our brightest young scientists. New models should include ... ‘non-replicating’ staff scientists.” Without such changes, they warn, “the situation will deteriorate, and the U.S. scientist will become a dangerously scarce resource.”

Tom Cross, who is a software security researcher and co-developer of the MemeStreams social networking Web site, also disagrees that “if we want to improve America's scientific competitiveness, we need to increase the supply of technical workers, which will reduce their cost.” Gathering Storm, he believes, has “misdefined the problem, [which] is on the demand side and not the supply side.”

“Technological competitiveness is not about how much technology you are doing but what kind,” he states. “You don't want to lead the world in having development sweatshops where people grind out code for hours at low wages. ... You want to lead the world in creating new innovations.”

“Doing great science and engineering is hard,” he continues. “It requires people [who] are not just well-educated but really smart. … Flooding the market with additional workers ... is going to make engineering even less attractive as a field than it already is. ... The smart ones will be even more likely to opt for a career in law, medicine, or management. You'll end up being really good at making software cheap and not very good at all at figuring out what software ought to be made. They should be focusing instead on how to incent [sic] the best and brightest to pursue graduate science and engineering educations by increasing the opportunities that exist for those people once they graduate.”

That something is wrong with the American scientific enterprise is beyond dispute. But the storm of debate about how to set it right appears to be just gathering.

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