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Rush Holt: The Interview

Rep. Rush Holt

As policymakers warn that the United States is not training enough scientists to meet future needs, scientists in a variety of disciplines continue to struggle to start independent careers. The budget of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) has stagnated, and increases in the budget of the National Science Foundation (NSF), although promised, have not materialized. What's going on, and what can we do to fix things? We asked Representative Rush Holt (D-NJ), a scientist and one of Congress's champions of science, to share his views.

Holt, a physicist and one of a few scientists in the U.S. Congress, has served in the House of Representatives for almost 8 years. Before that, he worked as a Congressional Science Fellow, an arms-control expert for the U.S. State Department, and as the assistant director of the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory. He serves on the House Committee for Education and the Workforce and recently introduced two bills in the House that would provide scholarship support for undergraduate students to study science and engineering (H.R. 5142) and to increase the number of math and science teachers (H.R. 5141). Holt's remarks have been edited for clarity and brevity. Several studies over the last few years have suggested that the United States is not training enough scientists, in particular U.S.-born scientists and engineers, to meet future needs. I was wondering what you see in these trends.

Rush Holt: I guess I would say I see a lot of questionable numbers about how many scientists we're producing and what constitutes a scientist and an engineer compared with China and other countries. But I think it is clear that we are producing far fewer scientists and engineers than we can use productively, and that we can absorb and use in our economy. Put another way, you never have too many scientists and engineers. You hear from scientists sometimes that there [is] a glut of scientists and 'I had to work outside my chosen field.' Gee, I don't see that as a tragedy. It's true that there [is] sometimes a glut of scientists in one subfield or another. But I don't think at any point that we have produced too many scientists.

What I think we need is better support for graduate students, but that's a little more complicated, a little harder to figure out what the right thing to do is. Postdocs--even harder still, to figure out the right thing. How do we get the sponsoring agencies and the supervising group leaders to treat postdocs like full-fledged professionals? How do we then funnel the right number of students into the right number of graduate programs? As I know you are aware, getting a graduate degree in the sciences is a huge time investment and an investment in resources, too.

R.H.: I know, and I wish I had a better answer for you. There are market forces, and they work to a large extent. The problem is that there's a lag time of 3 or 5 years, and it makes for an inefficient allocation of people. I'm from an era where it was possible to shift subfields. I would like to believe that's still true. How do you think we might help facilitate that sort of flexibility?

R.H. I don't know. I don't have legislation to suggest or directives for the NIH and NSF and NASA and NOAA [the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration] and so forth. It is something that I am wrestling with and that I hope to be able to produce some policy suggestions. What do you think is the impact of foreign scientists on the job market for U.S. scientists?

R.H.: There certainly is a lot of competition now, more than ever. Generally speaking, I think we as a nation do better if we are not protectionists. I think it was Pat Schroeder who said, 'You win the Indianapolis 500 not by spreading nails on [the] track but by building faster cars.' I think the protectionistic view and jingoistic view is not the most productive.

We should not make it as hard as we are now making it for students to study here. By discouraging study for foreign students here--it's hard to get visas, that kind of thing--we have created institutions in other parts of the world that are just [as] attractive as the institutions in the U.S. used to be. So we've kind of fed the competition by some of our restrictions. In fairness, a lot of those restrictions are easing, but a lot of damage has been done. There are people out there clearly with the protectionist viewpoint that foreign scientists who are willing to work for lower wages are limiting opportunities for U.S. scientists. What's your feeling on that?

R.H.: That there certainly is some of that, but we can't stop other countries from producing scientists. What are you going to do? We're just going to have to do better, that's all--continually do better as we have over the years. Traditionally, science in the United States has bested the competition. That's not to say that there haven't been good scientists and good research institutes in other countries both in Europe and in the developing world. But traditionally, over the decades, the United States has done better. It's easy to say, but we'll just have to continue to do better. I think that is the right prescription. There's no way that we can punish the other countries for producing competition in science and technology. Do you have any ideas on what we can do to keep our edge?

R.H.: We are underinvesting in research and development in just about every sector, whether it's transportation or telecommunications or energy, in both the public sector and the private sector. We need to encourage both. To a large extent, I think private-sector investment in R&D follows public-sector investment, so one of the most direct things we can do is double the NSF research [budget], get NIH back on a growth path. …

And then we have to do things in [the] private sector that encourage investment in R&D. The R&D tax credit is always dangled out there in front of businesses. I think it's become a political fundraising gimmick more than anything; it's dangled out there and never actually made permanent. There are things that we can and should be doing to encourage R&D spending in the private sector here in the U.S., where it's badly underfunded in just about every sector with the possible exception of pharmaceuticals. ... It's hard to think of another sector, another subfield, where we are doing enough in R&D, making enough of an investment in R&D. Are there ways to directly encourage private-sector investment?

R.H.: As I say, private-sector investment tends to track public-sector investment. As public-sector investment grows, the private sector sees research opportunities that are generated by this public-sector investment. There are specific things that can be done like the R&D tax credits. For small businesses, it might make sense to have a tradable tax credit. It makes sense to encourage entrepreneurs--that is, small businesses--that are based on research.

Part of a problem is that it's hard to tell a company that for their own good they should be investing in more research. It's true, but it's difficult to tell them that. Companies have chosen not to. And, you know, these are smart, hardheaded business people who have made those choices. I think it's been bad for the individual companies. Certainly it has been bad collectively for all our economy, because in many cases we are living off the research that was done 3 or 4 decades ago. More and more U.S. scientists are spending long years in graduate training and additional years in low-paying postdoctoral positions. The life sciences are an incredible example, where it's typical for someone training in the life sciences ...

R.H.: Yeah--to spend 6 to 8 years getting a Ph.D. and then another 6 to 8 years bouncing around postdocs ... And of course the average age for an independent researcher's first NIH grant is now over 40.

R.H.: Is that right? The first as a principal investigator? As a principal investigator.

R.H.: I didn't realize it was that bad. So how do we keep from having it take 15 years to get an independent position?

R.H.: Of course, part of the problem there is the NIH budget is such that I think there are very few new grants given this year. And so that's obviously going to shift or that's going to concentrate the grant money then on the established people and therefore the more senior people. You know, I don't really know the answer. I made this kind of passing comment earlier--that I think the funding agencies and the companies have to treat postdocs as true professionals--but I don't even quite know what I meant by it. Sure, in some senses they are still learning the techniques of the trade, and I'm not quite sure what I mean by that. Are you thinking of elevating the position of a postdoc?

R.H.: I think I am saying that, both in salary and prestige. But I'm not quite sure how that's done. For NIH, it could be [a] salary scale for postdocs [that] is higher than it is now, or something like that. But I'm not really sure ... how we would do that, even if we found the money. I know that Congress has been discussing doubling the NSF budget over the next 10 years.

R.H.: That was authorized a few years ago that NSF would be put on a doubling path. That hasn't happened yet. I'm pleased that the president and his Administration have a newfound love for NSF and for science funding. I say, 'Great, it's about time.' Because NSF is not a very large fraction of our budget, there have been ample opportunities to fund it on this doubling path, and the leadership, both the president in his proposed budget and the appropriations leadership in Congress, have passed on that. And so I'll be first to applaud them if and when it actually happens. Any hope for NIH?

R.H.: Health sciences are always an easier sell in Congress. Now, still, that raises the question of why has NIH leveled off in recent years or actually dipped a little bit in real terms. I'm not exactly sure why, but I expect that if there is a national commitment to science like the president is talking about, that NIH will benefit as well. I'll admit to some cynicism about this, because in the 7 ½ years that I've been vigorously ... I guess I'd say shouting for increased support for science and for science education, I don't think the argument has changed much. So it's hard to know why things would be different now, but let's hope they are.

Sarah Webb has a Ph.D. in bioorganic chemistry. She writes from Jersey City, New Jersey.

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