Mike the Mad Biologist

Ever since I was a wee Mad Biologist, I’ve been told by Very Senior People that ‘in five years, there’s going to be a massive wave a retirement of older faculty.’ This, in my mind, ranks up there with the Friedman Unit (in the next six months, we’ll know if we have to leave Iraq, and six months later, we need another six months to know this), and the Samuelson Unit (the length of time to the ULTIMATE DOOOMMM!!! of Social Security is always 30-38 years from the time of prediction). Consequently, we will have a ‘science gap’ since not enough U.S. students know TEH SCIENTISMZ!!, even though the supply of students has remained steady for the last thirty years.

So, a couple months ago (I’m a little behind), this post from the Science Insider about this paper (pdf) argued that the non-existent ‘science gap’ is due to something other than educational failure of the STEM pipeline. What might that possibly be?

However, the highest-performing students in the pipeline are opting out of science and engineering in greater numbers than in the past, suggesting that the threat to American economic competitiveness comes not from inadequate science training in school and college but from a lack incentives that would make science and technology careers attractive.

You don’t say? But there’s nothing like wage suppression, is there? (boldface mine; italics original)

The researchers–led by Lowell and Harold Salzman, a sociologist at the Urban Institute and Rutgers University, New Brunswick–argue that boosting the STEM pipeline may end up hurting the United States in the long-term.

This happens, they say, by depressing wages in S&T fields and turning potential science and technology innovators into management professionals and hedge fund managers.

The way to promote US competitiveness in STEM fields is to “put more emphasis on the demand side,” says Lowell, noting that U.S. colleges and universities produce three times more STEM graduates every year than the number of STEM jobs available. Cranking out even more STEM graduates, he says, does not give corporations any incentive to boost wages for STEM jobs, which would be one way to retain the highest-performing students in STEM….

The authors say those findings square with anecdotal evidence of STEM graduates being drawn to careers in management and finance careers starting in the early 1990s. “Maybe the competition rather than being with the East,” Salzman says, referring to emerging economic powers like India and China, “is between different sectors of industry; with Wall Street.”

You’ll be shocked to learn that policies which lower science-related wages haven’t been extensively studied–I know I am (italics mine):

The conversation about the STEM gap “hasn’t been grounded in a sufficient body of evidence,” Salzman says. Michael Teitelbaum of the Sloan Foundation, which funded the study, adds that claims of shortage are “often issued by parties of interest” such as employer associations. In the past, some U.S. businesses have been accused of using the shortage argument to justify outsourcing and hiring of foreign workers.

Like many other things in life, you get what you pay for (if you’re lucky). As long as financial ‘engineering’ is more lucrative than actual engineering (and other disciplines)–both in terms of pre- and post-tax salary–and has better job security, many students, particularly when too many graduate with tens of thousands of dollars of student loan debt, will choose to do something other than science.

Until we create more science-related opportunities, in the private, public, and non-profit sectors, we are just creating an over-qualified, underpaid workforce.

Comments

  1. #1 Katharine
    December 30, 2009

    I’m tempted to say something to the effect of ‘how about we make it a policy to give preference to American citizens who are STEM professionals rather than immigrants who are non-naturalized’, because I think that to some extent is part of the problem: that non-citizen immigrants are cheaper to hire.

    However, I think the greater problem is cultural. There needs to be a shift away from focus on business and more of a focus on development: remember the economic boom that took place during the Cold War? We just need to engineer that without the scare tactic of a war.

    I’m planning to move abroad to do my science, and I think it’s probably much easier for me to do well there.

  2. #2 Bruce
    December 30, 2009

    More funding for ecological surveys would be nice, thanks. I miss being insect bitten while counting the diggings of echidna. Or measuring the species diversity of invertebrates under the leaf litter of native scrub.

    Incidentally, “they” were telling me that there would be a huge wave of retirement in high school teaching, which apparently didn’t happen either.

  3. #3 JohnV
    December 30, 2009

    More jobs plz :p More scientists will just result in post-doc salaries being even more embarrassing than they currently are.

    No matter how many scientists the USA manages to produce, China and India can produce 2-4 times as many. If job numbers/growth stay as they are, and immigration and hiring practices stay as they are, training more scientists (in my estimation) will be a disaster if the goal is to produce and retain US scientists.

  4. #4 "GrrlScientist"
    December 30, 2009

    this american-born and -educated scientist is sick and tired of poverty-level wages, no benefits, no job security, and long, looong periods of unemployment. i packed up my parrots and left america one month ago and with any luck, i’ll never EVER return, except to visit. being an american scientist who is not independently wealthy is as bad as being homeless (which i’ve also done).

  5. #5 JohnV
    December 30, 2009

    I failed to include that while any given European country doesn’t have a population approaching that of the China or India or the USA, as a whole Europe can probably produce twice as many scientists as well.

  6. #6 Kevin Z
    December 30, 2009

    I second the comments here, especially Grrl’s. I’m going back to get my PhD next year because I have a clear set of goals for myself. Those goals don’t necessarily include staying in the US post-PhD. I have PhD offer in Ireland, which I probably won’t take because the better career move for me is still in the US. But I have worked in research for several years now and it is hard and scary to live in fear of grant not being renewed or rejected. I have benefits, but they still cost me 1/7 of my monthly paycheck. Increase wages improve job security are the two things that would make me happy.

    My wife and I are tired of moving every couple years to the next opportunity. A masters level biology/genetics researcher should at least make in the 40k’s IMO. I would love to put my kids in preschool, but we can’t afford it. There needs to be a recognition that scientists are also people with lives and families outside of their work :(

  7. #7 Sarah
    December 30, 2009

    These are part of my biggest fears and reluctance to go back for a PhD. I make much more now as a biologist-turned-software-engineer (still working in academic research) than I could hope to make until many many years out of grad school and I know I can always find a job. Not so sure I could do that with the PhD I’d like to get. :(

  8. #8 Andy
    December 30, 2009

    This is more or less the ugly place I’m sitting at now. I have a biology degree I haven’t even been able to use for wont of finding someplace actually hiring, and I can’t afford to relocate on my pitiful savings. Which leaves me staring down graduate school applications (for things not biological in nature) in the vague hope that I can defer my loans again and put off the impending doom for a few more years. It’s a piss-poor reason to go to graduate school, but what the hell else are we meant to do at this point?

  9. #9 Interrobang
    December 30, 2009

    The “Train now! Everyone will be retiring in five years!” thing is not restricted to scientists, nor to the United States. I heard it said about the fields the MA I took trains for (technical and professional writing) when I was doing my Master’s in Ontario, Canada.

    Six years after I graduated, Ontario abolished mandatory retirement. The mass retirement now isn’t going to happen until all the Baby Boomers fall over in the traces, by which time people my age will be entirely too old to take advantage of it. Shortly thereafter, my cohort will hit that magic “you’d better have a job, because you’re too old to get another one” age. People who are teenagers now are going to think the labour market opportunities they have are the greatest thing since running water, though, assuming they don’t just take them for granted because of course they’re entitled to them and shut up, that’s why.

    Personally, having heard various people say the exact same thing about at least five different professions, and having heard professional HR people pissing and moaning about a “labour shortage” while there was still 7% unemployment locally, I have come to the conclusion that that rhetorical ploy is a way for an interested party to dupe a trusting naif into making a career choice. Some people seem oddly interested in evangelising others into their careers, largely so that they can spread the misery, I think.

  10. #10 Silversurfer
    December 31, 2009

    Science is owned by corporate interests, plain and simple. How and when will this change? Perhaps the same “think globally act locally” will apply here. Science got us to where we are now, and it can move us to a better place. We can use the tools of computers and electronics to facilitate grass roots projects. Laws that protect corporate interests need to be changed to laws that protect individual rights. (Patents on genes ought to be revoked!)

    Science and art drive our culture, not money, even if it looks as though money does.

    Vote with your wallet, no matter how little there is to vote with. It will make a difference.

  11. #11 Bob
    December 31, 2009

    “They” sure have been around a long time. Back in the early Eighties they told us that if we could just hold on ’til the early Nineties there’d be lots of jobs opening up due to retirements. Maybe The’re vampires.

  12. #12 Stephen
    December 31, 2009

    Why are recent promising graduates avoiding a career in science? One reason is that our graduate training program is broken. Students seeking their doctorate can spend over 8 years in the pursuit, especially if they have an incompetent, over burdened, or just plain malicious research adviser – something that is far more common than is presumed. During this time, grad students are paid next to nothing considering the work they are investing into the field only to be promised a postdoctoral position that will pay a little more. The postdoc may last up to 4 years. Doing the math, students will earn next to nothing for upwards of 11 years until they get a ‘real’ job. In that real job, say at a university, the pay isn’t that great, and most of it will probably come from soft money. This creates for a very stressful environment for the young investigator who must now teach courses, apply for grants (which have maybe a 10% chance of getting funded), write papers, advise students, be on many administrative committees, analyze data, and run experiments. Scientists do science because they love science, but given the above, I can definitely understand the decision of young sciences to enter industry. I don’t know how to solve the problem, but one place to start would be go provide more academic oversight over a graduate students career – taking some power away from the research adviser and setting clear guidelines for the requirements for graduation (Ph.D. advisory committees are supposed to do this, but in practice, they kowtow to the adviser).

  13. #13 DF
    December 31, 2009

    Filling postdoctoral (and not only) positions with non-immigrants is of serious concern. I am in a large academic institution where 60%-65% of the postdoc fellows hold a J1 or H1B visa! US citizen scientists start to challenge H1B visas, probably more aggressively in the future, as the recession continues…

  14. #14 wuy3
    December 31, 2009

    Your right that there just aren’t that many jobs available for science PhDs. This in turn causes low wages and lack of interest in the sciences. The immigrant part only comes into play because foreign students are willing to work at poverty wages (which to them seem like a fortune especially if they are sending money back to the mother country) and Americans are not. This leads to our current observable situation but I don’t think there is that inherent demand for science PhD’s out there. The job hierarchy structure is like a pyramid (in terms of number of positions needed) and scientists are at the top.

  15. #15 CG
    December 31, 2009

    There is a massive oversupply of PhD scientists in the US market, and has been for decades. Hence the terrible work conditions and low wages. What surprises me is how rarely this information is transmitted to grad students. In my experience the “impending labor shortage” arguments often start with education professionals raising the alarm in order to justify their own research (and grants). Senior academic scientists buy into the doomsday scenario and promulgate it, oblivious to how poorly they pay their own trainees because it was so much worse to be a student or postdoc back in their day.

  16. #16 JF
    December 31, 2009

    “Six years after I graduated, Ontario abolished mandatory retirement.”

    I expect something similar will happen in the U.S. mainly because the boomers haven’t saved enough to retire on, are living longer past retirement age (65) and will simply have to keep working to keep a roof over their heads.

  17. #17 Zephir
    December 31, 2009

    My answer is yes – but definitely not for things, like the LHC research.

    Such research could be employed in time horizon of more then fifty years and it’s probable, after fifty years we could handle it in much easier and safer way. Now it’s just a dangerous useless waste of money, while we are ignoring cold fusion research under gradual destruction of life environment.

  18. #18 Peggy
    January 1, 2010

    Interesting report, although I’d like to see the data broken down – I’m not sure “STEM” is a useful category in this context. It should be no surprise students with high ACT scores in math are choosing to work on wall street – that’s why IT people with a grounding in science are in high demand and are paid relatively well. And if non-STEM majors are increasing employed in STEM careers, are they really STEM careers? Per the subplot: don’t forget, foreign and mediocre domestic students pay tuition – it’s a huge income stream for colleges & universities in the US.

  19. #19 sciHopes
    January 4, 2010

    Preamble:
    I had “Sci Hopes” ever since I was a lad. I was always bright-especially in reading and very inquisitive. My aptitude tests suggested I could have been anything. Athletic, too. But, I wanted to do the “real science.” That was my passion–because it’s inherently exciting to uncover mysteries that are intrinsic to natural phenomena.
    X.
    I got the BS in Biology and got an MS in a specialty pathology degree. Since I always wanted to get the Ph.D I took the tests, and was accepted to one good but very small and extremely specialized (translation risky) program. I was too scared to do it (family was growing). I should insert here that I also had a passion for medicine (yes as a child and before I could fully comprehend how much they make relative to most professions) but my University grades prevented me from being a serious MD candidate because despite having an immaculate high school academic record, high ACT, and nice IQ of 145-155 (this means I was predicted to do very well), I couldn’t get much over a 3.0 at the University because: 1) worked full-time through college to pay the bills 2) was married and started a family relatively young 3) high competition at the University (okay, really I just didn’t study enough but give me a break here it really was shocking hard to do it all). Otherwise, I am certain I would be practicing medicine by now.
    Y.
    So instead I was lucky and got snatched up by a really good biotech company doing development (R&D but more D). I tried to do the Ph.D thing after a couple years in industry. Still too scared. Boss offered a raise to counter my academic zest. So, here I am, doing more and more management and less science every year I work (and more pay but by no means sky high). I don’t know the answer to all these macro science dearth v.s. oversupply accusations but I really do envy people that are independently wealthy. Not because I’m greedy but because they could do anything they want w/o too much fear of the economic realities….Thus, they can contribute to society in whatever way they like, following their passions, at least in theory.
    Z.
    Perhaps there will be a return to the “gentleman” scientist days of yore. We need more rich dudes to privately commission the scientists with the highest likelihood of breakthroughs (good luck trying to predict that). But if they were scientific rich dudes they could actually come up with a scientific way of selecting the recipients of their largesse. If the richest 10% of America gave a substantial portion of their money to research (give to the best scientist they know, invest soundly in the best scientific companies they know) would that make a difference in the “demand side?” I guess it comes around full-circle. Business does dominate everything. And, if we have more rich dudes that go into science college programs because it’s inherently interesting regardless of whether they become scientists in the classical sense, wouldn’t society as a whole make more scientific decisions in the future????? After all, applying the scientific method to government and policies could probably help humanity.

  20. #20 MattXIV
    January 4, 2010

    I entered college with the intent of pursuing a career in chemistry-related research in an academic setting, but by the time I finished my undergrad degree I decided to go for a IT job entirely unrelated to it rather than go to grad school. It wasn’t about the money – the grad school/post doc phase simply seemed absolutely miserable. The culture is very hierarchical and every lab I came contact with as an undergrad was incredibly mismanaged. I think this is due to the fact that the set of skills for good managers and good researchers don’t overlap very much, but the academic system doesn’t provide a good non-management career path or even consider management skills to be a serious indicator of whether someone should have grad students or post docs working under them. Tenure is a problem here too, since it takes some truly egregious behavior on the part of the professor before any effort is made by the higher ups to fix things. Consequently, it seemed like it didn’t weed people out based on research skills as much as willingness to work long hours under bosses with runaway egos who played favorites with their subordinates and alternated between micromanagement and inaccessibility – ie the people who stayed in the mismanaged labs did so because they didn’t have better prospects elsewhere. I’ve known people with a good aptitude for research who dropped out of grad school or took an MS instead of sticking around for a PhD just because they couldn’t handle the bullshit anymore. I could tolerate being poor if I loved my work, but when you get stuck working in a bad lab, even if you love the subject matter you still end up hating being there. On top of it, there’s no guarantee that you’ll be able to find a relevant job after all that time and effort. People who wouldn’t be happy doing anything other than science will still go for it, but smart people who would enjoy a career in science but would also be happy in business, law, or IT would be fools to go down that path. While I still see the appeal of doing serious research, 6 years out I definitely feel that I enjoy working in IT far more than I would have enjoyed grad school before even considering the pay.

  21. #21 John Peloquin
    January 5, 2010

    Years ago, in the early 80′s I was a postdoc at UC Berkeley working in an Ag-related scientific discipline. The pompous Ass who was at the time the head of UC’s experiment station came to give a talk. He ended the talk with a rhetorical question about “why are enrollments in science and agriculture declining?” I had just that week read a WSJ article about the miserable prospects for employment and pay for such graduates. So I stood up and related that as a likely cause. The speaker replied that he didn’t believe it.

    BTW, I’m now an industrial scientist working on something completely unrelated to my graduate degree and Academic career.

  22. #22 Douglas Watts
    January 6, 2010

    I think the concept of scientist as a paid career, with job security and pension, has been somewhat oversold.

    A scientist is not a job, or a pension, or a vacation with bennies.

    It’s a mode of thinking.

  23. #23 JMG
    January 6, 2010

    Ok, just to be a bit of a counterpoint, I’ll ask this question: can “more science jobs” (as you suggest) come into existence? There are only so many researchers that are needed in an economy, and lots more bricklayers and barristas are probably needed. I’m not saying that everyone should get a PhD, but where would these high-level science jobs come from? Universities and colleges are either stagnant or incredibly badly managed from a financial standpoint to produce these jobs. Maybe the private sector could provide them? I’m just curious, as some with a sort-of science- and research-based job (a very particular situation).

  24. #24 Anne Carpenter
    February 5, 2010

    I have a research laboratory at a non-profit research institute. My plan is to build my group with professional scientists (PhDs and non-PhDs) in permanent positions rather than the “cheap labor” of postdocs and graduate students. I fully believe that this group of individuals can make up for their higher cost with higher productivity, since they are more highly trained and focused. I was not aware, however, that reviewers of research grants would be biased against providing “real jobs” for scientists. A grant proposal of mine came back with the critique that there was no reason to hire professional scientists for the project and I should instead hire graduate students to do the work (implication: at lower cost). Aside from the practical issue that my institution is not degree-granting, I found this to be discouraging. It indicates that even if an institution and a laboratory head are interested in bucking the trend and providing “grown-up” jobs for scientists, the funding agencies and their reviewers need to get over their bias towards cheap labor. Otherwise the pyramid scheme continues.

  25. #25 Gill Walters
    March 11, 2010

    Dear All

    The situation is much the same across Europe, with various government’s and institutions bleating for more scientist’s and engineers but at the end of a higher degree there are no actual ‘real’ long term jobs to apply for, or there are that many immigrants from outside the EU that the wages have been driven down, particularly for science, to about a start pay of £18-20,000, for a PhD if your lucky! I know this because I’ve heard very similar comments from German, Dutch, French and Spanish scientists. To me it stems from a general lack of respect for STEM subjects by both business and academia, ‘scientist’s are ten a penny’ so valuing your staff individually isn’t necessary, just keep the numbers up!

    So moving this way, towards Europe, you will hit the same problems. The other problem we have is that many of the pharmaceutical companies have threatened to move operations to China or India. Not sure what to suggest to people, I wish I hadn’t followed my heart and studied chemistry, wished I’d done accounts instead. By the way accountants are the highest paid professional in most EU countries, perhaps we should all become accountants and flood that market instead and see how they like it!

  26. #26 BiologistGermany
    May 19, 2010

    Dear All,
    just read your very fantastic comments. I am really shocked about what I was reading. The problems are exactly the same in Germany with the exception that tuition fees used to be non-existent. But all the rest of the situation seems identical. I always thought that the solution to all of this problems was to turn my back to Germany after getting Master degree and do a PhD in the US or Canada where everything´s better and more result-oriented. The research quality is always cutting edge and the professor because of good connections will manage easily to get publications in high-ranking journals where he is friends with the editors and that he will have a spirit of mentorship. Afterwards come back and get the real chance to become professor since the experience abroad is so much accredited nowadays. Help I want to have a grown-up job!!

  27. #27 Rosa
    February 28, 2012

    Very interesting post and also the comments.
    It is in some way funny for me to read the bad situation of science in US and around the world because it is ever worst in other countries like mine, Mexico.
    If you get a research position in any Mexican university, forget any problem. You can do your work and receive a very good salary, even compared with other parts of the world.
    But this situation is almost impossible for new PhDs. You have to do posdocs around the world (meeting nice people of course!) but fitting agains prejudices of 3rd world people.
    And when you come back to your country, old researchers never (ever) abandon the position at the university.
    So, a long cue of true high skilled researchers is waiting trying to find something, I am affraid, in the rest of the world…
    and doing science during their free time.
    Thanks Mike for your post!

  28. #28 Rosa
    February 28, 2012

    Very interesting post and also the comments.
    It is in some way funny for me to read the bad situation of science in US and around the world because it is ever worst in other countries like mine, Mexico.
    If you get a research position in any Mexican university, forget any problem. You can do your work and receive a very good salary, even compared with other parts of the world.
    But this situation is almost impossible for new PhDs. You have to do posdocs around the world (meeting nice people of course!) but fitting against prejudices for 3rd world people.
    And when you come back to your country, old researchers never (ever) abandon the position at the university.
    So, a long cue of true high skilled researchers is waiting trying to find something, I am affraid, in the rest of the world…
    and doing science during their free time.
    Thanks Mike for your post!

  29. #29 afrika mangosu
    March 5, 2012

    So, a long cue of true high skilled researchers is waiting trying to find something, I am affraid, in the rest of the world…

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