Thursday, July 14, 2016

So Many Research Scientists, So Few Openings as Professors

The United States is producing more research scientists than academia can handle.

We have been told time and again that the United States needs more scientists, but when it comes to some of the most desirable science jobs — tenure-track professorships at universities, where much of the exciting work is done — there is such a surplus of Ph.D.s that in the most popular fields, like biomedicine, fewer than one in six has a chance of joining the club in the foreseeable future.

While they try to get a foot in the door, many spend years after getting their Ph.D. as poorly paid foot soldiers in a system that can afford to exploit them. Even someone as brilliant as Emmanuelle Charpentier, who in 2015 became head of the Max Planck Institute for Infection Biology after a momentous discovery in gene editing, spent the previous 25 years moving through nine institutions in five countries.

The lure of a tenured job in academia is great — it means a secure, prestigious position directing a lab that does cutting-edge experiments, often carried out by underlings. Yet although many yearn for such jobs, fewer than half of those who earn science or engineering doctorates end up in the sort of academic positions that directly use what they were trained for.

Others, ending up in industry, business or other professions, do interesting work and earn lucrative salaries and can contribute enormously to society. But by the time many give up on academia — four to six years or more for a Ph.D., a decade or more as a postdoc, they are edging toward middle age, having spent their youth in temporary low-paying positions getting highly specialized training they do not need.

Now, as a new crop of graduate students receives Ph.D.s in science, researchers worry over the future of some of these dedicated people; they’re trained to be academics and are often led to believe that anything else is an admission of failure.

Every year the market grows tighter, and federal money for research grants, which support most of this research, remains flat. The journey of Dr. Charpentier, says Alexander Ommaya, acting chief scientific officer at the Association of American Medical Colleges, is not so unusual. “It happens,” he said. Job opportunities, he says, “are limited.”

But wait. Don’t we need more trained scientists — the people whose research can lead to new knowledge, new products, new cures for disease? Aren’t some companies importing STEM workers? (...)

“It used to be that the majority who got a Ph.D. in the biological sciences would go into an academic career,” said Dr. Michael Lauer, deputy director for extramural research at the National Institutes of Health. “Now,” he says, “that is very much the minority.”

Many spend years in a holding pattern as postdocs, which are temporary positions, working for a professor and being paid from the professor’s research grant. The average pay in 2016 for a beginning postdoc in the biomedical sciences is around $44,000, a figure that, adjusted for inflation, has not changed since 1998.

Why would any smart person work for so little? The goal for postdocs is to get grants of their own eventually, but the success rate for those applying has plunged.

In 2000, 32 percent of grant applications to the National Institutes of Health resulted in an award. Now it is just 18 percent. And the average age at which the lucky few actually get a grant has steadily increased — it is now 42, up from 35 in 1980, which means biomedical scientists in academia are essentially apprentices until middle age. And the tendency is for the grants to go to scientists who already have them, making it harder and harder to break into the system.

by Gina Kolata, NY Times |  Read more:
Image: Karsten Moran for The New York Times