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Person of the Year: Michael S. Teitelbaum

Person of the Year
CREDIT: Mary Ellen Crowley/Shutterstock

Every December, Science Careers names a "Person of the Year" to honor an individual who has made an especially significant and sustained contribution to the welfare of early-career scientists. This year, we are delighted to salute Michael S. Teitelbaum, a distinguished demographer and visionary official at the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. Combining scholarship and policy analysis with practical action and judicious deployment of the foundation's resources, Teitelbaum has played major roles in numerous important advances that have enhanced the careers and lives of thousands of young scientists.

Among his significant accomplishments is helping to create the Professional Science Master's (PSM), an innovative degree now awarded by some 140 universities that integrates graduate science training with subjects such as management, finance, ethics, and regulatory affairs to prepare students for a wide range of nonacademic, science-based careers.

Unless science offers talented people rewarding intellectual work, appealing career paths, and compensation commensurate with their skills and the time and effort invested in their training, many individuals who are capable of making important scientific contributions will seek careers outside of science.

Teitelbaum was also instrumental in establishing the National Postdoctoral Association, the only national membership organization dedicated to the professional welfare and advancement of the nation's postdocs; before that he helped establish the Postdoc Network, a groundbreaking online community of postdoctoral scientists. (Created with a grant from the Sloan Foundation, the Postdoc Network was part of Science's Next Wave, the predecessor to Science Careers.) In addition, Teitelbaum has run the Sloan Research Fellowships program, which seeks out especially promising young investigators in a number of scientific fields and awards them 2 years of unrestricted grants.

Starting in the 1980s and building on previous work in demography, Teitelbaum became a nationally recognized expert on the demography and economics of science careers and the factors that affect young scientists' fortunes. Beyond his own influential research and writing, he has fostered studies by other excellent researchers that have increased understanding of what had previously been a relatively unstudied area. In addition, Teitelbaum frequently brings his expertise into the national policy arena through trenchant testimony at Congressional hearings and participation in other important public policy forums. His presentations consistently add a voice of reason—always bolstered by data—to discussions of the scientific labor force that too often are distorted by ideology and special interests.

From research to solutions

"Sloan is one of the few large foundations that has a long history of interest in science, engineering, mathematics, and economics," Teitelbaum tells Science Careers in an interview. From early in his time there, he focused on "the attractiveness of careers in science, engineering and mathematics" as an important factor in the success of the nation's research enterprise. Unless science offers talented people rewarding intellectual work, appealing career paths, and compensation commensurate with their skills and the time and effort invested in their training, many individuals who are capable of making important scientific contributions will seek careers outside of science, he concluded.

When Teitelbaum began to study the situation of young scientists after joining the Sloan Foundation in 1983, it became "pretty obvious to me in reading the literature—but possibly more importantly in going to meetings and talking to people—that there were some real problems," he says. Scientific career paths were showing signs of serious deterioration, and a cycle of alarms over supposed shortages of scientific talent, followed by booms in training and then busts in professional opportunity, was making it increasingly difficult for scientifically trained young people to establish satisfying careers.

Much of Teitelbaum's effectiveness derives from the exceptionally wide range of experience he brings to these issues. After earning his Ph.D. in demography, he spent a year as a postdoc—although, he says with a laugh, he didn't know he was a postdoc until years later, because his title was "faculty associate." (One of his early insights into the postdoc problem was that the plethora of job titles forms a major obstacle to developing sound data on postdocs.) After that, Teitelbaum moved into a standard academic career, first as an assistant professor at Princeton University and then as a lecturer—comparable to an assistant professor—at Oxford University.

In 1978, "an accident that occurred" took him in a completely unexpected direction. Congressman James Scheuer (D-NY) asked him to become staff director of the newly formed House Select Committee on Population. Select committees, Teitelbaum explains, do not deal with legislation but function "more like an internal think tank or study group for members of Congress who want to focus on an issue that cuts across many existing committees."

For the 2-year life of the select committee, Teitelbaum and a very able staff conducted a number of studies, allowing him "very broad" exposure to a wide range of issues, as well as to the workings of high-level government policy. When his position with the committee ended, Teitelbaum entered the foundation world, working at the Ford Foundation and the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace before joining the Sloan Foundation in 1983. During his time at the Sloan Foundation he has served on other important policy bodies, including as a commissioner, vice chair, and acting chair of the U.S. Commission on Immigration Reform between 1990 and 1997.

Michael S. Teitelbaum

Michael S. Teitelbaum

Courtesy of the Sloan Foundation

Teitelbaum's strong grasp of policy and research have made him particularly adept at transforming research into practical solutions. The PSM, for example, grew out of his insight "that there was a disconnect between the graduate education system—the production system if you will—and the demand for the graduates of the production system. … In the meantime, corporate employers were saying, 'We can't find the people that we really need.' " What was lacking wasn't Ph.D. scientists, those employers told him, but "graduate-educated scientists who also understand what it means to work in a large organization, a business. They have to meet deadlines [and] they have to work across disciplines; they can't say 'I'm going to work on my research project.' "

"I didn't invent the idea" of the PSM, he says. He credits it instead to a study by Sheila Tobias, Daryl Chubin, and Kevin Aylesworth. But he helped make it a reality. "Sloan decided this had a lot of possibilities," he says—and in 1997, grants to three universities underwrote the first PSM programs.

Moving ahead

In 2010, Teitelbaum became the Jacob Wertheim Fellow at the Harvard Law School's Labor and Worklife program while remaining part-time as a senior adviser at the foundation. Since then, he has completed a book, Falling Behind? Boom, Bust, and the Global Race for Scientific Talent, which examines the historic pattern of recurrent panics over supposed shortages of scientific talent; it will be released in March 2014. He plans to step down from the Sloan Foundation for good at the end of this year, while continuing on at Harvard.

As he wraps up 3 decades of dedicated, imaginative, and surpassingly effective work on behalf of early-career scientists, we are delighted to salute Michael S. Teitelbaum by naming him Science Careers' "Person of the Year" for 2013.