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This summer, I had the good fortune to attend three (or was it four?) conferences on science education. One of the most inspirational conferences was one on Vision and Change in Biology Education. This conference was co-sponsored by the National Science Foundation and the AAAS. It was a call to action for biology educators and many of the points and findings resonated deep in my bones.

Then, I read the press release from the AAAS.

And right there in the middle, I found this statement from the AAAS CEO, Alan Leshner.

Leshner said the goal of undergraduate education should be to give students a “fundamental knowledge of what science is, and what it is not, along with some key concepts.”

He also cautioned the conference participants not to fall into the trap of shifting the goal toward developing a scientific workforce, but, rather, remaining concerned with science for all undergraduates.

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He gave a great talk, and I was in awe, until I read the press release.

I know it’s unfair to jump on one sentence, but after that point, all I could think about, is that the man must be completely clueless and out of touch with the reality of both the needs of students and the life science industry. Statements that imply that workforce doesn’t matter and that biology educators should avoid “falling into the trap” also imply that biology is only for those wealthy students that won’t need to find jobs after college.

I have heard this from other college faculty before.  Apparently you shouldn’t consider a college education, and certainly, not an education in life science to be some kind of ticket to employment.  SCIENCE (all of you fall down on your hands and knees, okay?)  is only for those with independent means or those who plan to go to medical school.

I mean, it must be nice to just go to school and not be concerned about learning any sort of marketable skill. Unfortunately, while Leshner compliments college biology teachers for ignoring notions about job preparation, students are the ones who will pay the price.  Even those who go on to graduate school, eventually have to learn bench skills.

Maybe it’s my background in post-baccaluaureate education (i.e. community college teaching), but I simply do not see why preparing students for jobs is a bad thing. We expect engineering majors to know how to go out and be engineers. We expect mathematicians to do math and software engineers to write programs.

Are we biologists somehow more pure than engineers and mathematicians?  Why can’t we expect biology majors to know some of the skills that might be helpful for the life science workforce? Why ask them to go on and take another year of classes at a community college so that they can be prepared for a job?

Why would Leschner’s statement help limit diversity and restrict science to the upper-class?

Because some people need more assurances that their education will lead to a job.

My community college colleagues have taught me some new things this summer. First, the people from the NSF-funded MATE ATE center found that people from lower socioeconomic groups look at salaries first when they visit career web sites. I interpret that finding to mean that they care about salaries. Second, the people I know who’ve had success in getting students from lower socioeconomic groups into scientific careers found that one of the major obstacles they had to struggle against was the negative perception of science on the part of students’ families.

Why would students’ families think studying science is a waste of time?

Perhaps it’s those families heard the kinds of messages that Dr. Leshner has shared: 

Science is for people who don’t need jobs. Science instructors at four colleges and universities do not care about helping you prepare for a job.

They hear those messages loud and clear and those message says: if you need a job after college, science isn’t for you.

I disagree.  I think biology faculty have a responsibility to learn something about the
outside world and share that knowledge with their students.

We will never increase diversity in science unless we can show students a more tangible reward.  I know knowledge is great for it’s own sake, but sometimes people need to eat.

Comments

  1. #1 Epicanis
    September 3, 2009

    I can understand what he’s trying to say, though – a relevant example might be lab exercises that either accidentally or on purpose are more about training in using the “BrandName MiniPro 3000″ kit rather than actually understanding what is actually happening and why when you mix the components in. Often you can’t even find OUT what the components ARE, because they’re “proprietary”.
    It’s much the same when dealing with computer-related subjects. One doesn’t find classes on computer-aided presentations, one finds vocational training on “Microsoft® Powerpoint® 2008″. GIS classes (as far as I could tell when I looked) similarly don’t seem to be about using a computer as a mapping tool as much as “what buttons to push when using ArcGIS®”. I think actual understanding of what is being studied is harmed by the “vocational training” trend.

    I do have to agree that being able to actually do a job competently at the end is important, and shouldn’t be dismissed. It might be even more important if anybody was actually hiring for scientific fields around here…

    I’ve gotten quite cynical about that lately. I’m still doing computer-nerd work rather than, say, biotech although to be fair my education was a factor in getting a job with a nice work environment even if the pay isn’t that impressive. My wife’s geophysics job that we moved down here for, though, disappeared without warning in February. 7 months and over 200 (and counting…) job applications later, still no replacement job to be found anywhere in the US. I’m pretty sure lack of vocational training is not the issue here. Anyone getting into science primarily to get a job is probably up the creek without a plunger – the job market is saturated with both domestic and imported scientists, and it’s not going to help to have a bunch more people on the market who aren’t interested in the science other than the minimum needed to get a paycheck.

    (I’m realizing I’m more frustrated lately over this than I realized… What I’m TRYING to get at is that the problem isn’t lack of job training, but lack of jobs, and encouraging a whole lot of people to get into science for jobs is only going to make the problem even worse until the market starts valuing scientists again enough to make jobs available.)

  2. #2 Sigmund
    September 3, 2009

    I wrote something along the same lines as Epicanis earlier but it doesn’t seem to have got through. I’ll try again.
    The biggest block to diversity in science is the fact that the job market is completely saturated. Someone from a poor background faces an enormous uphill task to gain tenure in science with the overwhelming likelihood of failure. Going into regular professions like medicine or law is an obvious safe choice, particularly if you want to have a family or live in a single place for a long time (something the cast majority of other professions take for granted).
    Leshner may have said things that are uncomfortable for science professionals to hear but the underlying facts are important to face. Far too many science graduates are being produced compared to the number of jobs available. The competition for the small number of jobs means wages and conditions are far below what a comparable professional can expect. The idea that science is something for those with independent means is actually nothing new. That’s essentially where it came from in the first place – look at Darwin, for instance. Unfortunately it looks like that may be where its heading again.

  3. #3 Sandra Porter
    September 3, 2009

    Sigmund & Epicanis: You’re missing the point. There are jobs for life science majors, it’s just that those jobs are probably not PhD level jobs and they are probably not in academia.

    And, as I stated, many biology professors don’t know that those jobs exist and if they do, then they often don’t know what people do in those jobs.

    In the areas where biotech is big, the number of jobs has grown. In fact, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that employment in the Bay area, in life sciences and pharma, grew 32 percent between 2001 and 2008. (Genomeweb). This is not a saturated job market.

    As far as vocational training, we may be defining this in different ways. Vocational training is just the opposite of what you describe. The people that I know who train technicians do something far different. In biotechnician training programs, students learn how to make their own media and buffers, calibrate pH meters, prepare solutions, and do experiments from start to finish. This is very different from a typical undergraduate course, where, as you say, everything is done from a kit.

  4. #4 Sigmund
    September 3, 2009

    Sandra, I guess it depends on the region you are talking about. In my experience biotech takes far fewer qualified scientists than are being churned out by universities. Academic science takes most scientists but only on low wages and short term contracts – and that is if the graduate is lucky.
    We obviously disagree about the situation on the ground and I would be interested in hearing whether others have better news – maybe my location is just bad for career opportunities.

  5. #5 Sandra Porter
    September 3, 2009

    Hi Sigmund,

    I agree on the regional differences. It’s also important to be aware that there are different kinds of jobs in life sciences.

    I agree that the numbers of Ph.D. level jobs might be small. However, the number of non-Ph.D. level jobs is much higher, and we need to acknowledge it.

    Most of the jobs in biotech are jobs for technicians, not Ph.D. scientists. These jobs require either a community college degree in biotechnology or a bachelor’s degree, often with some community college training, since the students at many four-year schools don’t always get much hands-on practice.

    We need to stop thinking about science as a vocation that only suits Ph.D. scientists. There are jobs for people at many educational levels.

  6. #6 Ric
    September 3, 2009

    Sandra,
    I too attended the V&C meeting and shared your view of the talk. Without attempting to speak for Dr. Leshner, I can offer that I’ve heard him engage the issue before and think that his point is different than you draw from the press release.

    His concern, I believe, is that too often science faculty have made the determination that the only students who matter are those who aspire to science careers (the workforce of which he speaks in the quoted sentence). For example, too few science faculty wish to teach the non-majors and too few are recognized for doing so well.

    One consequence of undervaluing the science education of those not aspiring to science careers is a national/global workforce and citizenry that is scientifically illiterate. We see the implications of this approach in the kind of push back we experience related to climate change and evolution (as national policy and as school curriculum).

    I believe Leshner would say that “science for all” at the K-12 and undergraduate level is critical – fundamental knowledge and skills for all students without regard to career aspiration. Science knowledge and skills are required to be culturally competent and successful in an increasingly technologically complex global society. Assuming that only those who aspire to become scientists need (or can) learn science is a mistake, a big mistake.

    Hope this helps clarify a bit.

  7. #7 Sandra Porter
    September 3, 2009

    Thanks Ric,

    I agree with your point that science is important for everyone and your suggestion that the press release may have misrepresented Dr. Leshner’s views. When I think about “workforce training,” I tend to think about training technicians–not Ph.D.s.

    You stated that many science faculty have decided that the only students who matter are those that aspire to science careers. I would go even further and say that many faculty (at four year colleges) limit their definition of science careers to medical school and graduate school.

    There are many jobs in science for those who do not aspire to become “scientists.” Those students are not well served by curriculum that fails to equip them with hands-on lab skills like making buffers, doing dilutions, or using the autoclave.

  8. #8 Sigmund
    September 3, 2009

    “There are many jobs in science for those who do not aspire to become “scientists.”
    I think we can agree on that one. The problem exists with the sort of individual who was a high achiever in school – perhaps top of their class, talented in science and interested in a career in that subject at a reasonably involved level. There is really only one option if you want to be at the cutting edge of science – if you want to ‘discover’ something, and that is to do a PhD in you subject of interest. I think the problem at this level is something that eventually comes as a nasty shock to the aspiring science students who qualify.

  9. #9 Epicanis
    September 3, 2009

    I hate being persistently cynical[1] but…the fact that the Bay Area and Boston do seem to still have reasonably healthy biotech sectors doesn’t much help people elsewhere in the country or who are considering other scientific fields of education.

    I’m also having some trouble finding figures for entry-level bachelor’s-degree job salaries in (for example) the Bay Area – do they pay enough to cover the cost of living out there plus paying off student loans and whatnot? A lot of the job postings also seem to be for “Senior (whatever)” or require additional medical certifications and/or several years of experience – not much help for a recent graduate even in the biological sciences.

    I’d also be willing to bet that all of the jobs get swamped with applications…

    I do get your point that it’s a bad idea to promote the notion that you can only study science out of love, unsullied by the desire to actually make a living, and that it disproportionately discourages less wealthy and privileged folks from taking up science. (If it’s not obvious, I also agree that this would be a bad thing).

    It doesn’t change the fact that right now, reassuring people that they’re getting science-job skills isn’t going to help much when they graduate and find out how little science hiring is going on and how much competition there is for what little is available. Why would an employer hire a recent college graduate when they can get a starving and desperate Masters or PhD holder willing to work for the same wage just to have an income and some healthcare?

    “We will never increase diversity in science unless we can show students a more tangible reward.  I know knowledge is great for it’s own sake, but sometimes people need to eat.”

    I (and I think everyone else that’s commented so far) completely agree. I know *I* at least also agree completely that practical scientific skills (“vocational training”) should definitely be included in the curriculum, though I personally think this because I think it improves the understanding of the actual science and not just because it’s a useful job skill.

    It’s just that the “tangible reward” – a stable job – seems to be very hard to find right now and probably for a while yet. Until that’s fixed, the situation doesn’t seem likely to improve.

    [1] Not just a figure of speech, I really DO hate being cynical – I’m usually at least OPTIMISTICALLY cynical most of the time. When it comes to the job market for scientists, though, I’m having a hard time maintaining optimism in the face of what I’m seeing this year…

  10. #10 Sandra Porter
    September 3, 2009

    Hi Epicanis,

    For job numbers, I didn’t look very hard, but I found a 2007 Department of Labor page with some statistics. It looks like California, New Jersey, and Maryland are at the top of the list.

    As far as salaries, I Googled “salaries in biotech” and found a page with some info. Salary.com lists the median pay for a Level I Research Associate in Biotech at $41,195. That would be a starting position with a community college biotech or bachelor’s degree position. I don’t know how this varies across the US. A level I Manufacturing technician starts at $28,158. You might think these salaries are low but I’m sure they’re better than working at WalMart.

    Your last question is the easiest to answer:

    Why would an employer hire a recent college graduate when they can get a starving and desperate Masters or PhD holder willing to work for the same wage just to have an income and some healthcare?

    Because a desperate Masters or PhD holder probably wouldn’t be qualified for the job and if they were, they wouldn’t be happy doing it and the turnover would be too high. Did you learn about SOPs, GMPs, or GLPs in graduate school? I bet the answer is no.

    Training new employees is expensive and so companies want to avoid turnover as much as they can. Companies, like Genentech, have actually done studies on this and found that hiring PhDs for technician positions just isn’t cost effective.

  11. #11 Sigmund
    September 3, 2009

    So to sum up, if you are interested in a science job then your best bet is to aim to for a technician job in a biotech or pharmaceutical firm, where the wages are slightly better than WalMart.
    I think you should have an urgent word with Matt Nisbet.
    To be serious and less cynical for a second, I still wonder about those who have gone to the trouble of getting a PhD. What are their options?
    If you are one of the 19 out of 20 who doesn’t look like you are going to get tenure, what are your options in science?

  12. #12 Sandra Porter
    September 3, 2009

    Sigmund:

    Perhaps I didn’t stress this enough, the $28,000 a year salary figure came from a 5 minute Google search. Take it with a grain of salt. I agree, it would good to search for better data. When I last surveyed my students (community college biotech grads), this was in 1999, they often started at salaries between 25-35 K per year and then advanced upward. To put this in perspective, a starting salary for a K12 teacher was 26K per year.

    This is funny, though. Apparently, it’s not just people from lower socioeconomic groups that are concerned with salaries.

    I’ll see what I can do about finding better salary numbers.

    As far as options for people with Ph.D.s, that’s a complicated question. Chad has been writing about some of the pathways that people pursue. I’ll think a bit more about this, and write on this later.

  13. #13 Epicanis
    September 3, 2009

    “if you are interested in a science job then your best bet is to aim to for a technician job in a biotech or pharmaceutical firm, where the wages are slightly better than WalMart.”
    …in places like Boston or San Francisco where the cost of living is substantially higher than average (which is really where I was going with the salary question – $40,000 isn’t bad in most of the country, but the biotech jobs seem to be concentrated around more expensive places.)

    And now I’m kinda depressed at the thought that a graduate degree in science has become a liability on the job market (“Sorry, you’re overqualified…go starve somewhere.”).

    On a more optimistic note, I would actually quibble a bit with the previous comment that “There is really only one option if you want to be at the cutting edge of science – if you want to ‘discover’ something, and that is to do a PhD in you subject of interest.“. There’s also the possibility of becoming a Wealthy Industrialist™ with your own lab to do research in. (But then I suppose we’re back to Real Science only being for the wealthy and privileged…).

    Actually, I’m curious, do you know of companies that allow non-senior, non-PhD employees to do independent research? I recall 3M did something like that (and of course, Google).

  14. #14 Sigmund
    September 3, 2009

    Sandra, apart from the obvious point that its quite good to be able to eat, I don’t think salary levels are any way near the top priority for science PhDs in my experience. Most of us accept that we’ll get much lower salaries than most comparable professions (the ones that require 10 or more year to qualify). The big problem is job stability – temporary short term contracts – the requirement to frequently move locations etc.

  15. #15 Sandra Porter
    September 3, 2009

    Sigmund: As it turns out, I found some data and people with PhD’s in science generally do pretty well compared to most other professions (if employed, of course).

    Epicanis: A graduate degree is only a liability for some kinds of jobs at some kinds of places. If you wanted to work as a technician or senior staff person at a University or research institute, a PhD would most likely be an asset.

    As far as biotech companies, I have had former students (with 2 year degrees) doing independent research projects at companies. I’m not sure if that’s still the case or long that sweet state will last.

  16. #16 Epicanis
    September 3, 2009

    Sorry for the repeated posts, but it’s occurred to me what’s making the discussion confusing:

    I’m having trouble imagining why someone would subject themselves to the trouble and expense of going to college to get a science job if they didn’t aspire to actually participate in the science (whether public or private), as opposed to being a professional support technician for most of their career?

    That’s like getting a four-year degree in mechanical engineering because you aspire to be an assemblyline worker in an automobile factory. Though I guess if the factory is requiring the degrees for the jobs there’s not much choice.

  17. #17 Sandra Porter
    September 3, 2009

    I would argue that a person with a life sciences degree working as a biotechnician is equivalent to a person with an engineering degree working as an engineer.

    They are scientific professionals working in a professional career.

  18. #18 MPL
    September 3, 2009

    He also cautioned the conference participants not to fall into the trap of shifting the goal toward developing a scientific workforce, but, rather, remaining concerned with science for all undergraduates.

    I don’t think (though I might be wrong) that he meant biology majors should not be prepared for jobs. I think he meant that the focus of the conference should be on students who are not science majors at all. From earlier in the press release:

    Seeking to transform and improve undergraduate biology education, especially for non-majors whose introductory course serves as their only college exposure to science

    What I suspect he was thinking was something like this: every specialty is very dedicated to figuring out how to teach people who wish to enter their specialty. However, most specialties are not so good at trying to teach something of their basics to outsiders. The “trap” is making biology classes only for biologists, and not for business majors, who deserve some attention too.

    At least, I think that’s what he meant.

  19. #19 Sigmund
    September 4, 2009

    The reality of going down the PhD route was the topic of a joke on ‘The Simpsons’.
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x8MBDeWmMho

  20. #20 JohnV
    September 4, 2009

    At my present employer (a non-profit in the dc metro area) starting technicians are paid anywhere from 15-30% higher than a post-doc (with fewer responsibilities but more drudgery).

    It’s also higher than the $41,000 number from above, and as an added bonus post docs are paid below the nih payscale.

    We still live and die by grants so everyone’s job stability is only as long as the grant(s) they’re supported by. In theory this even includes the PIs.

    Sigmund’s comments about, essentially, getting a science degree so you can actually be involved in the science is a fair one. Depending on the research group, the PI, and the work that’s being done, some of the technicians here don’t participate in the science and some function like graduate students.

    In terms of job availability, our company specifically and the area in general, seems to always have openings for technicians. Positions for PhD-level scientists are less frequently observed.

  21. #21 symball
    September 4, 2009

    I guess that most of the commenters here arguing against job training in degree’s are based in academia. I would say that the little job based training I got in my degree has been far more useful to my career than most of the general science I was taught.

    I think this is especially important now with the increase in academic involvement in applied research and product development. where skill sets more applicable to ‘technicians’ working in industry are far more important than the traditional skill sets used in pure research.

  22. #22 Sandra Porter
    September 4, 2009

    MPL – I suspect you’re right about Dr. Leshner’s intentions and that the press release just used an unfortunate choice of words.

    Sigmund: Thanks for the video! I love the Simpsons!

    JohnV: I don’t agree. While it’s true that technicians don’t run academic labs, it’s not fair to say that they’re not doing science.

    Symball: I agree.

  23. #23 JohnV
    September 5, 2009

    I’m speaking specifically of technicians where I work. Some of them, for lack of a better term, are scientific assembly line workers. They get an SOP to follow and they’re do the specific tasks way better than I do for that matter. But that’s all they do, and I don’t consider that being a scientist. For a comparison, when I worked on an actual assembly line for several summers, I wasn’t an engineer.

    Others have their own projects and have duties much the same as a grad student would have (except better hours and pay :P) and are at least as much a scientist as I am considering the amount of time I spend doing manager junk.

  24. #24 todd
    September 21, 2009

    i think you’re misinterpreting the statement. There are many people who won’t want jobs in the life science industry. focusing on the students already interested in such a career by focusing on training them would not do that which needs to be done: promote scientific awareness and ability among EVERYONE from the english major and artist to the engineer and physician. and i see MPL already expressed this. your point about limiting science to the upper class is well-taken.

  25. #25 Mike
    October 5, 2009

    Bay area not a saturated job market? You’ve looked for a job in biotech in the Bay area? I have. Yeah, its saturated.

    I fully appreciate and agree with Leshner’s statements from two prespectives, and wish more people of influence emphasized the same points. First, despite cycles of alarm about a supposed deficient of students entering the biological sciences, there has always been more graduates – at every level – than there are jobs for. The only concern of these occasional campaigns is to get more cheap labor -graduate students – with higher qualifications. After they graduate all, except the lucky few who are selected to be groomed for a career, are thrown to the wolves without a hint of guilt.

    Second, we have a huge problem. The majority of the population hasn’t a clue of what science is, and what to make of the latest science news bytes. The fault is entirely that of the secondary education system, and university professors. Leshner’s point is that there is a crisis in science education for non-majors. Much more so than for the majority of the 20th century, the present reality is that the general population has ultimate control of the advancement of science and technology, and, for the most part, they’re clueless. The average voter needs to know how science is done, how to recognize authentic science news, and know what the limitations are on what to expect from it.

    So, biotech workforce: a crisis of unemployed qualified graduates.
    Educated voters: a severe lack of them.
    Leshner needs to be praised.

  26. #26 Sandra Porter
    October 5, 2009

    Thanks for your comments Mike and Todd.

    Mike: I do understand your concerns about graduating too many people with Ph.D.s in life sciences. Unfortunately, there are few incentives in University labs to tie research projects to job skills, and that compounds the problem. You can easily graduate with a biology PhD and few clues about the world beyond the academic labs.

    Further, much of the job growth is at the technician level. And, there is data to say that the biotech companies often struggle to find enough qualified people.

    Second, I agree that there’s a problem getting science across to the non-majors.

    Many non-science majors see science as a dead end. And, we’ve found they get this impression from their parents. We’ve heard stories about parents telling kids not to go into science, that they should go to nursing school or medical school because parents understand those kinds of jobs.

    If we want to win over the non-majors, we have to be able to answer the age-old question: “what’s in it for me?

  27. #27 Mike
    October 6, 2009

    And, there is data to say that the biotech companies often struggle to find enough qualified people.

    I happen to know that the out of work PhD’s beg for those jobs. The buzz about “not having enough qualified people” is a cynical/stupid ploy to get green cards for cheap overseas workers. “Stupid” because I would take a low paying job with no guarantee of advancement, and my bibliography proves that I can do the work. The MBAs just got it firmly embedded in their pointy heads that all PhDs want a large salary and a Nobel prize, and therefore can’t be trusted with a tech job.

    The thing is that there’s very good reason to warn young people away from a career in science UNLESS they feel a definitive calling for the work, and are willing to take the risk of being unemployed. And I do. I teach, and I feel morally obligated to do everything I can to correct the self-serving propaganda that there’s a lack of science researchers and workers.

  28. #28 Sandra Porter
    October 6, 2009

    Unfortunately, just having a Ph.D. doesn’t mean that you’d be qualified for all kinds of jobs in biotech. Many positions require some kind of specialized knowledge that usually isn’t part of a Ph.D. research program.

    This is why I think some elements of workforce training should be part of a standard biology education program and part of the reason why I disagree with the statement from Alan Leshner. If students had better information about careers and the kinds of skills and training needed for those careers, there might be fewer disillusioned people with Ph.D.s.

  29. #29 Lianna
    November 28, 2009

    When I read the press release sentence “remaining concerned with science for all undergraduates”, I responded in a totally different way. I think what Leshner may have been referring to was undergraduates as citizens, not all of whom are going to become scientists, PhDs, technicians, or medical practitioners. I believe that we need to teach sound scientific reasoning, and the ability to be critical of information about science that winds up on the internet or in print (often not science at all). Look at all the problems we are facing today because the general public can’t tell the difference between biological evolution and “intelligent” design.

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