Jobs in American science

From Beryl Lieff Benderly in Scientific American’s online content: “Does the U.S. Produce Too Many Scientists?”

This is a long and thoughtful article, which the author describes as a “working draft”. It includes many facts counter to the conventional wisdom about U.S. educational outcomes, and a frank discussion of strengths and weaknesses of the scientific funding system.

Through decisions made haphazardly 60 years ago, we chose as a country to staff our labs primarily with graduate students and postdocs and a few non-tenured staff people, while other countries have permanent ways of staffing their labs, often with PhD staff scientists in career positions, says Georgia State University economist Paula Stephan, an authority on the academic labor force. Under some of those other systems, research institutions employ many scientists as long-term, career staff members who have professional-level salaries and clear career paths potentially leading to greater responsibility and leadership.

A contributing factor:

Scientists write the grant proposals and do the research, but the grant, which often also provides at least part of the professors salary, is technically awarded to the university, which administers it and provides the facilities needed to do the research in return for overhead payments. The limiting factor on young scientists abilities to start academic research careers is thus the number of available faculty positions, which over recent decades has fallen farther and farther behind the number of scientists the system is producing.

Are there independent scientists who might do more with the roughly 50% overhead on each grant now given automatically by contract to university administrations?

Yes, yes, I know all you graduate students out there start having negative thoughts whenever I post this kind of stuff. To tell you the truth, I think the American system rewards a certain kind of science “entrepreneurship” that on the whole is a good thing. National funding agencies have too much power to dictate what kinds of science get done; we certainly don’t need to give them additional power to determine what kinds of job positions will be available.

But we have to realize that the system selects for a certain kind of scientist – the kind that works in “minimum publishable units”, who is willing to work more hours for a lower salary than people in any other field requiring comparable training.

A simple suggestion: If we’re going to wait to give people federal grants until age 42, can we make the grants contingent on past accomplishment instead of future promises?

This would reduce a lot of the friction on the demand side of the job market, because institutions would be better able to predict the funding prospects of their candidates. Existing labs could compete to attract young researchers likely to bring dollars back into the lab. That change to the funding structure would alter the job – instead of being a permanent PI of a small lab, the modal researcher would be a faculty trainer bringing her own funding into a larger lab with multiple workgroups. Senior scientists would succeed by administering larger workgroups; junior scientists could vote with their feet.