The Real Science Gap
It's not insufficient schooling or a shortage of scientists. It's a lack of job opportunities. Americans need the reasonable hope that spending their youth preparing to do science will provide a satisfactory career.
For many decades, and especially since the United States attained undisputed pre-eminence in science during World War II, a parade of cutting-edge technologies has accounted for much of America's economic growth. Countless good jobs now ride on whether the Next Big Thing — and the several things after that — will be developed in America and not, as many fear, in China, India, the European Union, Japan, Korea or another of the powers now producing large numbers of scientists and engineers.
Brilliant advances and the industries they foster come from brilliant minds, and for generations the United States has produced or welcomed from abroad the bulk of the world's best scientists, engineers, inventors and innovators. But now, troubling indicators suggest that — unlike the days when the nation's best students flocked to the challenges of the space race, the war on cancer, the tech boom, and other frontiers of innovation — careers in science, engineering and technology hold less attraction for the most talented young Americans. With competitors rapidly increasing their own supplies of technically trained personnel and major American companies outsourcing some of their research work to lower-wage countries, an emerging threat to U.S. dominance becomes increasingly clear.
Congress and successive administrations have responded with steps they have been told will solve the problem. But some of the solutions they have adopted and hope to continue — in particular, large increases in funding for research and graduate training — will, experts in the scientific labor market believe, have the opposite effect, ultimately discouraging high-achieving Americans from committing their working lives to scientific innovation. The solutions that will attract the nation's brightest young people back to science, these experts argue, are not even on the table.
The current approach — trying to improve the students or schools — will not produce the desired result, the experts predict, because the forces driving bright young Americans away from technical careers arise elsewhere, in the very structure of the U.S. research establishment. For generations, that establishment served as the world's nimblest and most productive source of great science and outstanding young scientists. Because of long-ignored internal contradictions, however, the American research enterprise has become so severely dysfunctional that it actively prevents the great majority of the young Americans aspiring to do research from realizing their dreams.
To remain competitive against rising rivals, the nation must reconstruct this system so it once again guides the best of America's large supply of young scientific ability into research and innovation. This process, experts contend, begins with identifying the real reason that scientifically gifted young Americans are increasingly unable and unwilling to pursue scientific careers. It is not, as many believe, that the nation is producing too few scientists, but, paradoxically, just the opposite.
"There is no scientist shortage," declares Harvard economics professor Richard Freeman, a pre-eminent authority on the scientific work force. Michael Teitelbaum of the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, a leading demographer who is also a national authority on science training, cites the "profound irony" of crying shortage — as have many business leaders, including Microsoft founder Bill Gates — while scores of thousands of young Ph.D.s labor in the nation's university labs as low-paid, temporary workers, ostensibly training for permanent faculty positions that will never exist.
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Back when today's senior-most professors were young, Ph.D.s routinely became tenure-track assistant professors, complete with labs of their own, in their late 20s. But today, in many fields, faculty openings routinely draw hundreds of qualified applicants. The tiny fraction who do manage to land their first faculty post are generally in their late 30s or early 40s by the time they get their research careers under way. Today's large surplus of scientists began in the life sciences but is now apparent in fields as diverse as astronomy, meteorology and high-energy physics. These surpluses, Teitelbaum notes, hardly constitute "market indicators signaling shortages."
The shortage theorists and the glut proponents, however, do agree on two things: First, something serious is wrong with America's scientific labor supply. A prime symptom noted by all: a growing aversion of America's top students — especially the native-born white males who once formed the backbone of the nation's research and technical community — to enter scientific careers. Increasingly, foreign-born technical and scientific personnel on temporary visas staff America's university labs and high-tech industries.
The second point of agreement is that, unless the underlying problem is fixed, it will seriously impair the nation's ability to recruit top-flight homegrown talent — both for domestic innovation and for the high-level, classified, technical work vital for national security.
But disagreement rages about causes and cures. Is the influx of foreigners a cause of high-achieving Americans' reluctance to become scientists, as the labor force experts assert, or an effect, as the industry interests insist? Once all the political rhetoric and verbiage of blue-ribbon panels is cleared away, the data clearly support those arguing for the existence of a glut of aspiring scientists.
America's schools, it turns out, consistently produce large numbers of world-class science and math students, according to studies by Harold Salzman of the Heldrich Center for Workforce Development at Rutgers University and his co-author, B. Lindsay Lowell, director of policy studies for the Institute for the Study of International Migration at Georgetown University. But the incentives that once reliably delivered many of those high scorers into scientific and technical careers have gone seriously awry.
If the nation truly wants its ablest students to become scientists, Salzman says, it must undertake reforms — but not of the schools. Instead, it must reconstruct a career structure that will once again provide young Americans the reasonable hope that spending their youth preparing to do science will provide a satisfactory career.
"It's not an education story, it's a labor market story," Salzman says.
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No one designed the present system. It just happened," says Maxine Singer, a former president of the Carnegie Institution of Washington (now the Carnegie Institution for Science) and a researcher who, in the late 1950s, became an independent investigator heading her own lab at the National Institutes of Health at the age of 27. Indeed, the current system of funding scientific research arose, essentially by accident, from a set of choices made shortly after World War II.
Before the war, America's research enterprise had been small and sparsely funded. The struggle against Germany and Japan, however, showed Americans that science could be a mighty force for solving problems. The nation had witnessed the atomic bomb, developed in secret by a government program called the Manhattan Project, abruptly force Japanese surrender. Such wartime innovations as radar and penicillin also conspicuously saved American lives.
In November 1944, months before the war ended, President Franklin Roosevelt wrote to Vannevar Bush, a Ph.D. engineer who was instrumental in organizing the Manhattan Project and who directed the top secret Office of Scientific Research and Development, which coordinated the wartime research effort. "What," Roosevelt asked, "can the government do now and in the future to aid research activities by public and private organizations?"
Bush answered with a July 1945 report to Roosevelt's successor, President Harry Truman, titled Science, The Endless Frontier. In it, Bush outlined the basic structures of civilian research that remain to this day. Central to his scheme was a proposed National Research Foundation to organize and oversee funding across all fields of civilian science. In 1950, after several attempts, Congress created the National Science Foundation. As the war ended, furthermore, the National Institutes of Health, then a small agency, began its transformation into the world's largest funder of civilian research, with an annual budget exceeding $30 billion.
Bush's report listed "Five Fundamentals" that he believed must guide government support of civilian research. Congress has never fulfilled the first, which called for stable, predictable funding for science. It did, however, enact the other four: Research funds are awarded and administered by nonpartisan experts; civilian research is funded primarily "through contracts or grants to organizations outside the federal government"; the universities receiving grants control "policy, personnel, and the method and scope of the research"; and while the funding agencies retain "independence and freedom" in regard to the research carried on in institutions receiving public funds, they are responsible to the president and Congress."
Government-funded civilian research thus became largely the province of research universities, and that research is the major activity and income source on many campuses. In 2008, more than 700 universities and research institutes, and more than 50,000 grant-winning professors (called principal investigators or PIs), absorbed $16 billion in grants from NIH alone. The recent stimulus package devoted $10 billion to short-term NIH research grants to universities and colleges.
Bush's report also enunciated a federal responsibility for training scientists, initially to make up "the deficit of science and technology students who, but for the war, would have received … degrees." But, in a piece of advice that went unheeded, he advocated designing plans "to attract into science only that proportion of youthful talent appropriate to the needs of science. …"
The system devised after the war has proven efficient, economical and flexible, with principal investigators proposing and carrying out research projects and universities administering them and taking a portion of each grant as overhead. Government has come to depend on the universities for results and the universities on the government for a portion of their income. And the system didn't just advance science; it also supported education by employing graduate students in government-funded research, with the implicit assumption that after earning their degrees, doctorate-level scientists would generally become faculty members themselves, ultimately winning their own grants to support their own labs and graduate students.
All went well for a number of years because postwar American higher education expanded exponentially after the war, creating many new faculty jobs. First, the GI Bill flooded the campuses with millions of veterans-turned-students. Then, as the great veteran wave was ebbing, Sputnik launched a vast increase in funding for college-level science and math study. Colleges were also expanding their faculties and facilities to prepare for the enormous baby boom generation.
But the system had a basic flaw that was revealed only gradually, as the expansion of academe slowed in the early 1970s: The system's central feature — the "self-replicating" professor who produces a steady stream of new Ph.D.s as a byproduct of grant research — had no control over the job prospects for those graduates.
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Before the mid-1970s, U.S. science and engineering graduates could look forward not only to intellectual challenge and the excitement of doing important and admired work, but to security and, ultimately, an upper-middle-class income. Aspiring scientists could climb a clearly defined ladder from graduate school to stable and reasonably lucrative careers. Able students could finish a doctorate in four or five years, generally supported by a fellowship or assistantship.
A handful of the most talented new Ph.D.s might then spend a year or two as postdoctoral fellows, generally following a particularly promising line of inquiry in the lab of a prominent professor. Marked as rising talents, they would proceed to especially prestigious assistant professorships. Postdocs, as such researchers are still called, would work on projects of their own devising under the guidance of some of their field's leading figures; it was considered not quite proper for professors to involve such fellows in their own research. More commonly, however, new Ph.D.s would move directly from grad school into permanent posts, whether on a university's tenure track, as a researcher in a government scientific agency, or in the research laboratory of a large corporation.
Today, only a handful of young scientists — the few lucky or gifted enough to win famous fellowships or score outstanding publications that identify them early on as "stars" — can look forward to such a future. For the great majority, becoming a scientist now entails a penurious decade or more of graduate school and postdoc positions before joining the multitude vainly vying for the few available faculty-level openings. Earning a doctorate now consumes an average of about seven years. In many fields, up to five more years as a postdoc now constitute, in the words of Trevor Penning, who formerly headed postdoctoral programs at the University of Pennsylvania, the "terminal de facto credential" required for faculty-level posts.
And today's postdocs rarely pursue their own ideas or work with the greats of their field. Nearly every faculty member with a research grant — and that is just about every tenure-track or tenured member of a science department at any of several hundred universities — now uses postdocs to do the bench work for the project. Paid out of the grant, these highly skilled employees might earn $40,000 a year for 60 or more hours a week in the lab. A lucky few will eventually land faculty posts, but even most of those won't get traditional permanent spots with the potential of tenure protection. The majority of today's new faculty hires are "soft money" jobs with titles like "research assistant professor" and an employment term lasting only as long as the specific grant that supports it.
Many young Americans bright enough to do the math therefore conclude that instead of gambling 12 years on the small chance of becoming an assistant professor, they can invest that time in becoming a neurosurgeon, or a quarter of it in becoming a lawyer or a sixth in earning an MBA. And many who do earn doctorates in math-based subjects opt to use their skills devising mathematical models on Wall Street, rather than solving scientific puzzles in university labs, hoping a professorship opens up.
For scientifically trained young people from abroad, though — especially those from low-wage countries like China and India — the calculus of opportunity is different. For them, postdoc work in the U.S. is an almost unbeatable opportunity. Besides the experience and prestige of working in the world's leading scientific power, a postdoc research position is likely to pay many times more than a job at home would. Beyond that, many foreign postdocs erroneously believe that the temporary H-1B visa that admits them to the U.S. will eventually lead to permanent residency. These drastically different opportunity structures explain why more than half of what the National Science Board has estimated as 93,000 postdocs in the U.S. are now foreigners on short-term visas.
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To be sure, this predicament — the reality that a once-desirable career path for the best U.S. scientific talent has become a route to penury, frustration and disappointment — is not the dominant cultural narrative. For decades, America has been worried that it will fall behind in the technology race because of a looming shortage of scientific researchers. "Pronouncements of shortages in American science and engineering have a long history," the Sloan Foundation's Teitelbaum writes. "They date at least to the late 1950s, around the time the [USSR] launched Sputnik." Stunned that its nuclear-armed archenemy had apparently grabbed the lead in missile technology and space flight, America leapt to the false conclusion that its science was inadequate. Federal money swiftly poured into science and engineering scholarships and so successfully attracted students that, by the early 1970s, the market for young scientists and engineers was flooded.
Shortage predictions surfaced again in the 1980s, when a policy office in the National Science Foundation produced a flawed demographic analysis predicting a shortfall of technical talent. Testifying before Congress about that study in 1995, NSF Director Neal Lane stated that "there was really no basis to predict a shortage." Nonetheless, the dot-com boom of the 1990s brought another round of dire forecasts that were advanced by an industry group, the Information Technology Association of America, but harshly criticized on methodological grounds by the U.S. General Accounting Office.
The shortage scenario's most recent incarnation is Rising Above the Gathering Storm: Energizing and Employing America for a Brighter Economic Future, a highly influential report published by the National Academies in 2005. Touted by New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, Gathering Storm immediately attracted media attention far beyond what the usual wonkish Academies offering receives. Written in response to a congressional request for proposals to bolster the nation's competitiveness against the rising scientific prowess of India and, especially, China, Storm claimed U.S. science education was not keeping pace with the nation's needs; the report became the basis of the America COMPETES Act of 2007 (technically the America Creating Opportunities to Meaningfully Promote Excellence in Technology, Education, and Science Act of 2007). This law seeks to increase the nation's competitiveness by increasing investment in research and raising the number of students at all levels studying science. (Congress was debating a reauthorization of the law as this article went to press.)
The Academies published another report on the science labor force in 2005, Bridges to Independence: Fostering the Independence of New Researchers in Biological Research, but it went essentially uncovered outside the science press. Bridges examined the ominous "crisis of expectation" among the thousands of frustrated young scientists unable to move into suitable career employment. The report was motivated by an alarming fact: The average age of scientists winning their first independent NIH grants — a major career milestone that once tended to come in a researcher's late 20s or early 30s — had risen to 42, well past the period widely considered a researcher's most creative. "Current career structures and opportunities," Bridges noted, "… adversely affect the future of the biomedical research workforce as well as the success, productivity and research directions of individuals who do pursue such careers."
But in the national arena, Storm's outsized influence drowned out Bridges' message. Storm pushes for more Americans earning undergraduate and graduate degrees in what it calls the science and math "areas of national need," without ever specifying which specific fields those areas may encompass. Storm also states that "the number of people with doctorates in the sciences, mathematics and engineering awarded by U.S. institutions each year has not kept pace with the increasing importance of science and technology to a nation's prosperity." But the report provides no metric to judge that importance or the numbers of scientists or engineers needed to serve prosperity.
Storm does acknowledge "much debate in recent years about whether the United States is facing a looming shortage of scientists and engineers … [but] there is not a crisis at the moment. …" Still, Storm urges upgrading K-12 science and math instruction because "the domestic and world economies depend more and more on science and engineering. But our primary and secondary schools do not seem able to produce enough students with the interest, motivation, knowledge and skills they will need to compete and prosper in such a world."
This claim, however, is "largely inconsistent with the facts," Teitelbaum declared in 2007 congressional testimony about Storm and another similar report. In reality, he said, "students emerging from the oft-criticized K-12 system appear to be studying science and math subjects more, and performing better in them, over time. … Nor are U.S. secondary school students lagging far behind comparable students in economically-competitive countries, as is oft-asserted."
In fact, three times as many Americans earn degrees in science and engineering each year as can find work in those fields, Science & Engineering Indicators 2008, a publication of the National Science Board, reports. The number of science and engineering Ph.D.s awarded annually in the U.S. rose by nearly 60 percent in the last two decades, from about 19,000 to 30,000, the report says. The number of people under 35 in the U.S. holding doctorates in biomedical sciences, Indicators notes, rose by 59.4 percent — from about 12,000 to about 19,000 — between 1993 and 2001, but the number of under-35s holding the tenure-track positions rose by just 6.7 percent, remaining under 2,000.
Storm does make one criticism of American education that hits the mark: American students on average make mediocre showings in international comparisons. Closer analysis, however, reveals no threat to the supply of potential scientists, who come not from the average but the top scorers. In this regard, "the U.S. is not at any particular disadvantage compared to most nations, and the supply of [science and engineering] graduates is large and ranks among the best internationally," write Salzman and Lowell in a rejoinder to Gathering Storm pointedly titled Into the Eye of the Storm: Assessing the Evidence on Science and Engineering Education, Quality and Workforce Demand. "The notion that the United States trails the world in educational performance misrepresents the actual test results and reaches conclusions that are quite unfounded," they continue.
On the widely cited Trends in International Math and Science Study test, for example, the national rankings of fourth- and eighth-grade students fail to take account of the size of the differences separating the scores of various countries. "The U.S.'s 5th place in 2003 is statistically identical to 4th and 3rd places," Salzman and Lowell note. Although "the U.S. has not taken first place in math or science," it is "one of the few countries that does consistently perform above the international average." In addition, internal analysis reveals that American TIMSS scores have been improving over time, a feat duplicated by only two other countries.
Much attention has also centered on the apparently poor showing of American 12th-graders in math and science testing. But, Lowell and Salzman note, the TIMSS "high school" exam did not test students of a particular age or grade, but rather those in their final year of secondary school — 12th grade in the U.S., but up to three or more years later in some other countries. "The U.S. has not performed 'poorly' in a statistical sense," University of Pennsylvania education professor Erling Boe and co-author Sujie Shin write in an analysis in the Phi Delta Kappan education journal. The math and science results, they conclude, don't separate the U.S. from other developed countries, but Western countries from Japan, Korea and Hong Kong. "The U.S. is quite comparable to other Western nations," none of which matches the East Asians, they write.
Very significantly, American students are by far the most diverse of any industrialized country, with a "substantial gap in the U.S. between the achievement scores of white students and those of black students … and Hispanic students," according to Boe and Shin. White Americans on average substantially outscored Europeans in math and science and came in second to the Japanese, but American black and Hispanic students on average significantly trailed all other groups. Raising America's average scores therefore doesn't require repairing an educational system that performs poorly overall, but boosting the performance of the students at the bottom, overwhelmingly from low-income and minority families.
And Americans' interest in math and science doesn't flag in college. "The proportion of all bachelor's degrees awarded in [science and engineering] has been relatively stable over time, as has the proportion of freshmen in [those majors]," Lowell and Salzman found. A new study, however, reveals an increasing share of the very best of those students opting not to pursue science careers after graduation. In regard to science- and math-based careers, Salzman says, "Everything shows that wages and working conditions and career prospects have … gotten worse."
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American universities still focus intensely on the academic research career as the highest and best ambition for science students. Opportunities do, of course, exist beyond the campus. For generations, most chemists have worked in industry. Biotech, computer technology and other emerging industries create other scientific jobs. For a variety of reasons, however, many Ph.D.s find the transition from academe to private business hard to accomplish. And at the university, "alternative careers" — that is, becoming anything other than a professor — generally get the lip service worthy of distant second choices.
This traditional value system does not persist only because of professorial cluelessness. In his recent book, Lives in Science, University of Georgia sociologist Joseph Hermanowicz documents the key role that this mythology plays in recruiting students for graduate programs. "Professors rely upon these people to carry out their work," he says, "and one way in which to get that accomplished is by training people in the ideals of science, which include these notions of success."
Back when today's senior scientists were starting their careers, this mythology formed part of an implicit bargain, labor force economist Paula Stephan of Georgia State University has pointed out. Academic science functioned as an apprenticeship system, with graduate students and postdocs accepting meager pay and long hours, knowing that their teachers took personal responsibility for launching their careers. Indeed, the success of senior scientists' students was an important measure of their professional standing, notes Vincent Mangematin of Grenoble Ecole de Management in France, an expert on scientific career trajectories.
Starting about three decades ago, however, this long-standing agreement began to unravel. In a number of fields, placing students in desirable faculty jobs became more and more difficult, and several years of postdoctoral "training" gradually became the norm for nearly everyone rather than, as formerly, a mark of special distinction. It was, in fact, a form of disguised unemployment. "Simply put, there are not enough tenure-track academic positions for the available pool of … researchers," the Bridges report says.
Whereas new Ph.D.s had formerly spent a year or so applying for perhaps three or four faculty openings before accepting a job, they now spent multiple years sending out scores of applications, often without success. Graduate students and postdoctoral "trainees" were less and less the protégés of mentors morally responsible for their futures, Mangematin points out. They morphed instead into highly skilled, highly motivated and invitingly inexpensive labor, doing the bench work needed for professors to keep their grants. Winning those grants gradually came to outweigh placing their students in good jobs as a major mark of professional stature.
The obstacles facing today's young scientists therefore don't constitute temporary aberrations but rather are structural features of a system that evolved over a period of 60 years and now meets the needs of major interest groups within the existing structure of law and regulation. Essentially, this system provides a continuing supply of exceptionally skilled labor at artificially low prices, permitting the federal government to finance research at low cost. Based on federal statutes, regulations and appropriations, the system can be fundamentally altered only by congressional action.
The groups that benefit from the science labor glut include senior professors, who receive the great bulk of federal grant funding, and the research universities that employ them (and the graduate students and postdocs) while receiving overhead payments from the grants. Change that could substantially relieve the plight of young scientists seems especially difficult to effect. The groups supporting the current situation are well organized, with strong and effective lobbies and are seen, both by themselves and by society at large, as representing major social goods: The established researchers and their scholarly associations claim to speak for "science," and thus for technological progress and the hope of cures for dread diseases. The universities represent education and opportunity.
Young scientists, meanwhile, are not only impecunious and unorganized for political action, but generally don't even view themselves as an interest group apart from the larger scientific community — despite having interests that are at odds in major ways with those of their professors and universities. The National Postdoctoral Association, which ostensibly speaks for postdocs, is a creature of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, a major representative of organized academic scientists. Postdoc unions exist on a handful of campuses, but they focus on local workplace conditions rather than national issues like the structure of careers.
By the early 1970s, periodic surveys of the biomedical labor force by the National Academy of Sciences were noticing more and more new Ph.D.s accepting temporary postdoctoral appointments instead of proceeding to permanent jobs. Before long, the Academy's reports were calling this demoralizing trend disguised unemployment, and the pool continued to grow relentlessly for the next 30 years.
During the 1990s dot-com boom, as the market for information technology workers began to tighten and salaries to rise, information industry interests agitated in Congress for admitting more high-skilled foreign workers. According to Teitelbaum, lobbyists for the tech industry struck a deal with those of the research universities: If the universities would support a higher visa cap for industry, industry would support an unlimited supply of H-1B visas for nonprofit organizations, essentially giving universities the right to bring in as many foreign postdocs as they wished.
Since then, tens of thousands of Ph.D.s, primarily from China, have arrived to staff American university laboratories, and the information industry has padded its ranks with temporary workers who come largely from India. The transformation of postdocs from valued protégés to cost-effective labor force was complete.
Harvard economist George Borjas has documented that an influx of Ph.D.s from abroad reduces incomes of all comparable doctorates. Although some people argue that advanced education assures good career prospects, "the supply-demand textbook model is correct after all," Borjas says. It turns out to work as powerfully on molecular biologists and computer programmers as on gardeners and baby sitters.
The director of postdoctoral affairs at one stellar university, who requested anonymity to avoid career repercussions, puts it more acidly. The main difference between postdocs and migrant agricultural laborers, he jokes, is that the Ph.D.s don't pick fruit.
According to a recent post on the blog of a well-informed physicist, eight people have already accepted postdoc positions at Princeton in the field of particle physics for the coming year. That is one particle physicist shy of the total number in that field hired nationally as faculty members this year.
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So what can be done to rescue the American scientific labor market from self-destruction?
Obviously, the "pyramid paradigm can't continue forever," says Susan Gerbi, chair of molecular biology at Brown University and one of the relatively small number of scientists who have expressed serious concern about the situation. Like any Ponzi scheme, she fears, this one will collapse when it runs out of suckers — a stage that appears to be approaching. "We need to have solutions for some new steady-state model" that will limit the production of new scientists and offer them better career prospects, she adds. At this point, however, the policy options become slim. There has been relatively little attention given to possible solutions for the scientist glut — in no small part because the scientific establishment has been busy promoting the idea that the U.S. has a shortage of science students.
Any change in the science labor market would, of course, require dismantling the current system and erecting something that would value young scientists for their future potential as researchers and not just for their present ability to keep universities' grant mills humming. This would mean paying them more and exploiting them less. It would also mean limiting their numbers by both producing and importing fewer scientists, so incomes could rise to something commensurate with the investment in time and talent and the high-level skills of a Ph.D.
Assorted critics of the present system have suggested various models. Generally these involve staffing labs with permanent career employees, from technicians to Ph.D. senior scientists, on a long-term basis rather than depending on low-paid transients. Some institutions have used variants of this model. They include the Howard Hughes Medical Institution's Janelia Farm in Ashburn, Va., and the legendary, now essentially defunct, Bell Laboratories, which belonged to the monopoly telephone company and produced seven Nobel Prizes.
Scientists-in-training also need effective means of preparing themselves for the careers that exist outside the academy. This will require universities to provide resources and time during graduate school and postdoc years for learning unrelated to an ever-narrowing focus on a single research question.
But dismantling the current system would require overcoming the powerful vested interests that now benefit from the inequities and exploitation of young scientists. Well before that could happen, there would have to be an honest recognition of today's labor market realities, the forces that caused these distortions and the damage they are doing.
Whether the nation can overcome the interests of those who benefit from America's current policy of doing science on the cheap is not at all clear. Due to recession-related financial difficulties, Yale University recently announced small reductions in the number of graduate students it would admit. Science departments objected, according to the student newspaper. The Yale Daily News reported: "Professors in the Computer Science Department are conducting federally funded research projects — research that must be conducted with the help of graduate students, computer science chair Avi Silberschatz said. If these projects are not delivered, he said, it may be difficult to win future grants."
But unless the nation stops, as one Johns Hopkins professor put it, "burning its intellectual capital" by heedlessly using talented young people as cheap labor, the possibility of drawing the best of them back into careers as scientists will become increasingly remote. A nation that depends on innovation for its prosperity, that has unsurpassed universities and research centers, and that has long prided itself on the ingenuity and inventiveness of its technical elite, must devise ways of making solid careers in science once again both captivating and attainable. There's no shortage of American talent. What's in critically short supply are the ideas and determination to use that talent wisely.