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Better Learning Through Chemistry?

worm in an apple
Credit: G. Grullón/Science

Among the Twelve Steps that have helped countless people free themselves from addiction, a crucial one is step four, "a searching and fearless moral inventory." People—and, as I recently came to realize, institutions—cannot change addictive behavior without thoughtfully and honestly considering who has been hurt and which values ought to guide action.

What brought this observation to mind was not a psychological or philosophical treatise, or the struggles of someone I know with substance abuse, but a document that might appear an unlikely inspiration for a moral reflection about addiction: a report from a presidential commission of the American Chemical Society (ACS). I've already briefly praised this admirable study, Advancing Graduate Education in the Chemical Sciences, on the Science Careers blog. Earlier this month, Science Careers writer Michael Price also wrote about it. It merits much greater attention, however, because of the deep, critical—and, yes, moral—look it takes at a crucial issue in higher education today: universities' pervasive and extremely damaging addiction to the cheap, highly skilled labor of graduate students and postdocs.

Departments should give thoughtful attention to maintaining a sustainable relationship between the availability of new graduates at all degree levels and genuine opportunities for them. Replication in excess is wasteful of resources and does injustice to the investment made by students and society.

—ACS Presidential Commission

The report doesn't use the term "addiction," but the similarity between uncontrolled dependence on an addictive substance and academe's dependence on underpaid and overly numerous graduate students and postdocs makes the word apt in this context. Equally apt is the conviction inherent in the Twelve Steps that addiction invariably damages innocents close to the addict. Those harmed in this case are aspiring young people and the national scientific enterprise. The harm includes constricting the career opportunities available to young researchers, failing to prepare them for the opportunities that do exist, and destroying incentives that have traditionally attracted talented domestic students to science careers. Changing this behavior, the report suggests, is both a moral imperative and practical necessity.

Guiding purposes

My dictionary defines "moral" as "concerned with the principles of right and wrong behavior," and the ACS report certainly meets that description. Other worthy and thoughtful studies have recently scrutinized academic science and proposed reforms similar to several suggested in Advancing Graduate Education. Only this study, however, begins its discussion with a bottom-up examination of graduate education's fundamental purposes, rather than focusing on the needs of academic science or the national research enterprise. Only this report speaks unequivocally of "injustice to … students and society." This tilts the analysis toward the usually almost invisible viewpoint of young people and toward what universities, departments, and professors owe to those who constitute—at least theoretically and rhetorically—higher learning's raison d'être.

The report splits education's purposes into those "transcending" and those "focused on" the individual student. Because the categories conflict and overlap, the report also lists principles for "addressing societal needs as well as the needs and aspirations of graduate students." The authors define the chemical sciences as encompassing all fields "that focus on molecules, chemical reactions, and chemical properties," including "chemistry, chemical engineering, biochemistry, molecular biology, materials science, polymer science, [and] nanoscience," so they intend for their conclusions to cover a wide swath of science.

The transcendent purposes mentioned in the report emphasize developing well-trained scientists and engineers of all degree levels to work in research, innovation, and industry and to "help the nation toward wise choices in an increasingly technology-dependent, globalized society." The individually focused purposes emphasize fostering scientific and technical competence, but also "fearlessness in approaching new technical areas and new operational challenges … curiosity, joy of discovery, openness to new ideas, ... desire for lifelong learning." And "[t]o develop — experientially, to the greatest practical extent — personal and professional skills needed to compete in an evolving interdisciplinary and global environment." Nowhere does the report suggest the purpose of providing universities a low-cost labor pool for grant-supported research or teaching undergraduates.

Graduate programs, the report unequivocally argues, should first and foremost serve the professional development of students. Academe's obligations also reach beyond the campus to include ensuring "that excellent opportunities exist for the most able students, whose careers are likely to contribute extraordinarily to national technical advancement and productivity." Doing this is nothing less than "[a] strategic imperative for the nation." Today's apparently "permanently restructured employment market for PhDs" appears to have rendered desirable career opportunities "insufficient to accommodate those qualified for and desiring entry. Left unaddressed, an imbalance will likely be highly damaging to the talent level and traditional academic strength in the chemical sciences."

Toward solutions

The commission's five main conclusions suggest solutions:

• "Current educational opportunities for graduate students, viewed on balance as a system, do not provide sufficient preparation for their careers after graduate school." (Emphasis in original.) With relatively few graduates finding careers in academe, students need a wider range of skills than the Ph.D. has traditionally offered, including communication, teamwork, project management, ethics, and significantly, a "bone deep" familiarity with safety culture. While maintaining a "focus on mastery" of a scientific discipline, "refreshed" programs should also offer "better-designed opportunities … for the development of critical professional skills."

• "The system for the financial support of graduate students, as currently operated by private, institutional, state, and federal funds, is no longer optimal for national needs." In fact, supporting students primarily through faculty members' research grants "involves serious conflicts between the education of graduate students and the needs for productivity and accountability in grant-supported research." These "intrinsic conflicts of interest," furthermore, "have intensified and have become harder to manage." Training grants or fellowships awarded directly to students do not tie them to particular professors and their projects and permit aspiring scientists to pursue their own interests and fulfill their own needs. Such funding would also allow students to complete the Ph.D. within a reasonable period of about 4 years.

• "Academic chemical laboratories must adopt best safety practices. Such practices have led to a remarkably good record of safety in the chemical industry and should be leveraged." Besides meeting a moral obligation to keep people as safe as possible, high safety standards "would better prepare students to meet the natural expectations of their future colleagues and employers" in industry. The report highlights the "demonstrated, strong correlation between occupational safety and operating performance." In industry, safety is "powerfully coupled" with "productivity." Firms are "committed" to safety not "just because a safety culture reduces their exposure to liability, but … because workers who consistently think carefully about what they are doing perform better." In academe, "the Commission urges that safety as a culture must be consistently led by example in all graduate programs in the chemical sciences."

• "Departments should give thoughtful attention to maintaining a sustainable relationship between the availability of new graduates at all degree levels and genuine opportunities for them. Replication in excess is wasteful of resources and does injustice to the investment made by students and society." In planning academic programs, "careful estimates of genuinely attractive opportunities for graduates should become the starting point, and the paramount consideration." This is a "matter of stewardship," but also "a matter of institutional self-interest" because a university cannot "sustain the flow of real talent into the program unless its graduates have reasonable access to good opportunities." Programs may include "the best international students" as long as "there is an active recruiting for qualified domestic students." Departmental needs for instructors or lab workers, however, should never lead to enrollment "beyond what attractive opportunities for graduates can justify." Departments should hire "other professional appointees" to fulfill any additional needs.

• "Postdoctoral training and education is an extension of graduate education that is important for success in a variety of career paths, particularly for faculty appointments. Postdoctoral associates should be treated as the professional scientists and engineers they are. A postdoctoral appointment should be a period of accelerated professional growth that, by design, enhances scientific independence and future career opportunities." Many postdoc appointments serve instead as "a buffer zone in the ebb and flow of the job market." But "[a] better solution to market fluctuations would be to control the entrance of students into PhD programs."

Numerous additional recommendations accompany these main conclusions. Carrying them out "will require modifications to the reward structure for faculty members participating in doctoral programs. … The community needs to engage seriously in exploration of alternatives."


This outstanding document represents an excellent first step. Even the best intentions, however, mean little without real follow-through. As Price, our colleague, recently reported, recommendations of two committees chaired by Princeton University's president, molecular biologist Shirley Tilghman—once in 1998 and then again in 2012—urged very similar reforms. Thus far they have resulted in "big hopes [but] small changes for biomedical training," Price writes in the headline of his article. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) declined last month to follow the Tilghman committee's strong recommendation to begin altering the financial incentives that maintain the current system. Instead, NIH chose merely to "encourage" and "recommend" that universities change. This drove Tilghman "back to [her] cynicism," she says in Price's article. "Unless you have a stick, [change] won't happen."

"Changes will not come simply or easily," the ACS report concurs, "but lack of adjustment to sclerosis and to new realities will inevitably enervate our enterprise and diminish American capabilities in science and industry." By engaging both morality and the nation's—and the research enterprise's—own long-term self-interest, perhaps ACS can succeed in sparking desperately needed reform. Until that happens, American academic science's self-defeating addiction to cheap labor will continue.