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Happy 15th Birthday to Us

Credit: NASA

Today marks the 15th birthday of Science's Next Wave (since renamed Science Careers), which I have edited for the past 5 years. In one of our earliest issues, physicist David Goodstein of the California Institute of Technology wrote:

"The period from 1950 to 1970 was a true golden age for American science. Young Ph.D.s could choose among excellent jobs, and anyone with a decent scientific idea could be sure of getting funds to pursue it. But, in retrospect, we can see that the golden age was merely the last 20 years of a long period of exponential growth in science that could not possibly be sustained."

Bad jobs do not attract good people.

Our publication was born into this post-golden age, a time when despite scientists' awesome skills, extraordinary training, and economic value, their professional success was not assured.

In the mid-1990s, when I was a postdoc, a senior colleague related his own golden-age experience. He had six offers right out of grad school, he told me, and many of his classmates shared a similar, happy fate. Contrast this to my own experience, in the same field, some 30 years later: One rejection letter thanked me for being part of " an outstanding cohort" of more than 1300 applicants. More than half of those in the top 1% of applicants for that post failed to get interviews. Times had definitely changed.

This is the age we continue to live in. In this age, it's not enough to have credentials. You must also have excellent career-management skills. And you must be flexible, because the careers most of us have aspired to -- as basic researchers heading up labs in academic institutions -- will pan out for only a minority. We must be willing to look for other opportunities, and we need guidance in developing professional skills, whether it's to compete for the few highly competitive faculty posts available or to seek alternatives. This is the need that Science Careers has endeavored to fill.

This imperative was not, the Science's Next Wave founders realized, merely for the benefit of a few disillusioned scientists. It was an issue of national interest. Scientific research was a -- or, as many argue, the -- foundation of America's geopolitical and economic success. Changes in the structure of the profession mean changes in the foundation of America's economy, and even in its national security.

During our 10th year, in 2005, the National Academies acknowledged the importance of science in a report, Rising Above the Gathering Storm: Energizing and Employing America for a Brighter Economic Future. Our country's dwindling scientific lead was a national crisis, the report's authors argued. They outlined steps for addressing it. Congress enacted important Gathering Storm proposals, though -- as a follow-up to that report issued last month explains -- many of those new initiatives were funded with one-time stimulus funds, putting those gains at risk.

The authors of the original Gathering Storm report -- all senior, established scientists or administrators -- framed their argument as a strategy to assure good jobs for Americans but, inexplicably, seemed to disparage the notion that the quality of scientific jobs should be a priority. "Public-policy decisions about the supply of scientists and engineers," they wrote, "should not be guided by an attempt to provide a guaranteed high level of income for every recipient of an advanced degree."

As a birthday gift, I offer a handful of proposals (which do not represent the views of AAAS or Science) on ways to address the storm that, the authors of the new report argue, is now approaching category 5. My proposals aren't so different from the ones proposed by the National Academies committee, but I add a new imperative: Any new policies must enhance, and not further degrade, the security and prestige of science as a profession -- as a career -- because, in contrast to, say, the manufacturing industry, one cannot improve science while injuring the people who do the work.

--Improve K–12 education. Just as Gathering Storm suggests, our society can never have too much scientific literacy or quantitative competency. But in accomplishing this policy objective, policymakers need to pay far more attention to restoring the prestige and professional rewards of the teaching profession. Let's make teaching math and science in the schools a good job for scientists with advanced degrees, as it is in some other countries. Unless you have very good educators, you cannot have good education, and bad jobs do not attract good people.

--Fund far more science. The new Gathering Storm report says that 2004 federal R&D spending was 60% lower than 1964 federal R&D spending as a proportion of the gross domestic product. If we spent far more on science, we could provide many more opportunities for scientists -- but only if my next proposal is followed.

--Create more good midlevel jobs in academic research. These days, if a principal investigator needs help in the lab and has a grant, she probably will hire a grad student or a postdoc. They're cheap, and you don't have to worry as much about the money running out. Instead, we need to create good, stable jobs for advanced-degreed scientists in those very same labs: jobs with benefits, status, salary commensurate to the expertise and training of the scientists who hold them, and with as much security as a system based on short-term grants permits. Funding agency rules and policies could encourage this. Sure, there are advantages to the constant churn that now occurs in academic laboratories -- fresh ideas and low costs, for example -- but a mix of trainees and experienced, well-trained staff members will offer still greater advantages.

--Seed endowed chairs for early-career faculty members. New federal funding programs should endow new faculty chairs for early-career scientists in areas of critical scientific need, supplemented by funding from state governments, university endowments, philanthropic foundations, for-profit businesses, and even individual donors.

--Incentivize scientific investment. The for-profit sector, too, is investing less in research and development than it did years ago; it must be inspired to do its share. Lawmakers must assemble a menu of strong incentives to encourage investment in scientific ideas.

The well-being of today's scientists, and especially tomorrow's, must be central to U.S. policy. Science careers cannot be treated as an afterthought if the nation's heritage of scientific excellence and leadership is to survive.

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