THE BLOG

Where Have All the (American) Scientists Gone?

12/20/2007 12:48 pm ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

President Bush recently signed a $41 billion "America Competes" bill designed in part to produce more mathematicians and scientists. The question Bush should have asked is: what will the country do with them?

About 18 months ago, I wrote a piece for the Washington Post, "Heard the One about the 600,000 Chinese Engineers?" (not my title). After it appeared, I received numerous emails from engineers who pointed out a) there was no shortage of engineers in this country and b) engineering didn't pay very well. About 25% of those with engineering degrees became real estate agents, financial advisors, etc. If engineering paid as well as doctoring or lawyering, the engineering schools would be packed, my correspondents said.

This response echoed an earlier column for Phi Delta Kappan, "Where Have All the Physics Majors Gone?" (January, 1999). Then, they had gone to majors that had better job prospects and gave out higher grades.

Two recent articles in the Chronicle of Higher Education imply that the situation has gotten worse. In the September 21 issue, Chronicle science writer, Richard Monastersky observed that it takes a half year longer to get a doctorate now than in 1987; that doctorates in science in England take about 3.5 years to acquire while it's double that here; that nearly 70 percent of new physics Ph.D.'s take temporary positions now compared to 43 percent in 2000; that the number of scientists in tenure-track positions in biomedicine has not increased in 20 years despite a doubling of the number of doctorates granted in that period; and that while the National Institute of Health's budget has doubled since 1998, the chances of a young scientist getting a major research grant has decreased.

Scientists now spend much more time writing grant applications and getting them turned down, says Monastersky. A number of older scientists are retiring early in frustration. The situation moved the highly respected journal, Nature, to call the situation of young scientists "Indentured Servitude." The only happy aspect is that the glut of bright young scientists gives established scientists a bigger pool of smart people from which to choose low-paid assistants.

Undergrads in science see the warning signals -- professors who can't get grants, postdocs who can't get tenure -- and head elsewhere. This opens space for a lot of talented foreigners, but physicist D. S. Hsu at the University of Oregon says, "In the long run it's bad for the nation. It will become a peripheral thought in the minds of Americans that science is a career path." Hsu might not be old enough to recall that a science career was a "peripheral thought" in this nation until Sputnik orbited in1957. The most-used adjective to describe scientists then was "odd." In the post-Sputnik years money flowed from Washington, science was in the spotlight and people came to see science as exciting.

Part of the problem is that the traditional model of graduate training is obsolete. Traditionally, a student is mentored by a single professor. "Only the American bedroom has more privacy associated with it than the relationship between the faculty member and the Ph.D. student," says George Walker of Florida International University. Students now need multiple mentors and need to learn workplace skills other than those appropriate to becoming a professor -- since many of them won't.

Back in the Sixties, I defined a university professor as a person who advocated revolutionary change in every social institution except the university. And it is still true that professors resist change. When professor Hsu brings some of his former students in to talk about their jobs in finance or in the software industry, it rankles a lot of his colleagues.

In the December 17 issue of the Chronicle, longtime freelance science writer, Dan Greenberg, asks why so many science jobs are filled by foreigners. It's the same reason that our lettuce field and apple orchard jobs are -- long hours, low wages, and miserable working conditions that only foreigners could see as a step up. We're headed for a new academic title, says Greenberg, "Postdoc Emeritus."

"No amount of improved high school science is going to fix this problem, which is essentially economic. A doubling of salaries and improved conditions for getting ahead in a scientific career would bring in many more American recruits. But that's not going to happen. Despite the glorification of science, the marketplace sets the value and the price. Which is why foreigners flock to our schools and labs while Americans seek their fortunes in other fields."

But the people who bash public schools with images of the U. S. being crushed by China and India will continue to scream for more scientists and mathematicians. The marketplace might set the value and the price, but it does not set the rhetoric.