Are We Training Too Many Scientists?

It?s time to come to grips with how we?re misleading and hurting young aspiring researchers.

By | September 1, 2006

"Many mentors seem to feel that anything other than an academic research career represents a failure, or a waste of the investment in training," FASEB?s Carrie Wolinetz wrote in these pages last year. She?s right. Why do so many senior academic scientists imbue their trainees with the idea that academic careers are the only worthwhile ones? Many leading researchers have a stake in biotech companies that they have helped found and yet this uppity mindset persists.

There are at least two good reasons to encourage smart young scientists to pursue careers outside of academia. One is that industry can provide an equally challenging and worthwhile career, with greater financial reward. The other is that opportunities in academia are rarer than hen?s teeth.

Industry already absorbs a large number of newly minted PhDs - who often require radical retraining before they become useful - yet a stark problem remains: overproduction.

From 1983 to 2003, the number of doctorates earned in the life sciences almost doubled, from 4,777 to 8,163, with nothing close to a similar rise in the number of faculty positions available. Postdocs are getting longer - witness the 9-year (and counting) struggle by Marguerite Evans-Galea on page 46 to find a job - and postdocs are getting older.

The bald fact is that we are training too many scientists, an issue explored in our feature on page 42. One serious hurdle is that the research community has not yet acknowledged the problem. Robert Tai, an assistant professor of science education at the University of Virginia, told our contributor Bijal Trivedi that lots of scientists must be trained, since "you never know which one of those minds out there is going to come out with the next big thing. It?s basically a horse race ? and every now and then you have a horse that you didn?t think was going to do it." This is discomforting, especially for those "horses" that we are encouraging to enter the race, without being honest with them about the odds of winning.

And where there is acknowledgement, it is laid at the feet of budget cuts. I?m sorry, but as much as I resent the decreases in science funding by the current administration, they are not the major cause of the overproduction of scientists. NIH funding levels have dropped by 0.1% in 2006. Why are just 10% of R01 grants being approved, down from about 20%?

The fact is, senior scientists are training more and more postdocs for reasons that have nothing to do with these burgeoning scientists? future careers. They are to benefit the careers of the mentors. Essentially, young scientists are being kept in indentured servitude for longer and longer periods.

We need to be more honest with our trainees, and we need to start balancing their needs with our own quests for laboratory empires. That means:

? A rethink of the system that uses postdocs as lab slaves

? More independent positions

? A separate track that trains scientists for a career in industry

? A focus on quality of training

? Opportunities to combine PhD research with study in other areas, such as business, administration, and the arts.

We?ve taken up many of these issues in our pages, and we?ll continue to do so. We invite your input. If we don?t stop to think about how many scientists we really need, we?re going to end up with an awful lot of underemployed, disgruntled scientists, and that?s not good for anyone, or for science.


Avatar of: lon bordin

lon bordin

Posts: 2

September 8, 2006

The last two issues of The Scientist have illuminated deep problems with our University research system. ?Are we training too many scientists? and ?The Inequality of Science? are well-documented articles that clearly show the faults of the current system. However, the articles also show a possible solution to both problems. Create more opportunities to become faculty through equitable funding of our current institutions. Capping grant funds that any one Principal Investigator (PI) can receive as well as the number of Post-Docs that answer to a single PI are straightforward ways to create more faculty positions. The one exception to the cap might be for ?equipment? grants, just as long as the grant is for equipment and not personnel. If the idea is huge and worthwhile, then finding several PI?s to band together to meet a larger goal should be simple enough. While this step should expand the tenure-track ranks overnight and solve the ?too many scientists? problem it is not enough. There should also be regulation to level the field, as far as funds go, between the have and the have-not institutions. There are many models to follow in setting institutional caps. Which one should be followed I do not know, but I do know in the end there would be true competition instead of the near-monopoly that exists today. Therefore, in the situation I propose I suspect many institutions would finally find viability and competition thereby allowing them to grow and hire even more PI?s. My proposal would also foster more collaboration between PI?s that should lead to new possibilities and more collegiality. The biggest winners in all this would be ?We, The People? as more researchers doing quality work in more communities will expand our knowledge economy and maybe even make the world a better place, which should be the goal of all education.

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