But that aside, what’s the point of funneling more math and physics graduates into math and physics instead of finance if they can’t put bread on the table? Or is the issue narrower, specifically the difficulty of getting an academic job? Or perhaps the major dynamic is that science & engineering professions are just really bad at capturing the value they generate for the society as a whole?
One of Razib’s commenters hits the nail on the head:
We do not need more scientists, but academic science as practiced depends on a large surplus of expendable trainees (grad students and postdocs) who have to believe that a career in research is an attainable goal. This creates an overtrained, underemployed workforce, but the alternative is to make “trainee” type research positions professional positions, which would be expensive. First, because you would have to offer real salaries and benefits, and second you could not create the illusion that working 80 hour weeks for 40,000 a year is going to someday get you your own lab, meaning less work out of each employee.
Tangetially, I raised this in a post about how NIH and other funders need to shift funding from R01-type grants to larger program project grants (italics added here):
From the perspective of academia, more resources devoted to larger projects means fewer smaller grants–and grants are how untenured professors get tenure, and tenured professors become full professors. Sure, if academics are involved with large project grants, they can swing some funding (sometimes a lot of funding), but it typically won’t be ‘their’ funding, and that also matters for tenure decisions. Publications will have many, many authors, and, again, they can’t be claimed as ‘theirs.’ Now, in defense of this system, it is very good for training students. It is very good at coming up with novel research ideas. It’s a good system for academia, but, if you want to turn basic research into translational research (never mind interventions), it’s not designed to do this
Before everyone freaks out (ZOMG!! YOU EATED ALL TEH GRANTZ!!), I’m talking about shifting funding. But one advantage of large project-oriented or center-oriented* grants is that they are educational ‘sinks’–they soak up surplus PhDs. As long as the economic incentives are for academic researchers to produce far more PhDs than are needed to replace themselves**, we will continue to have this problem. And after all, isn’t the point of training all these people to then have trained people doing stuff?
To shift gears completely, I think (without any evidence to support this) that one of the quiet casualties of the housing bubble is that it denied financial oxygen to biotech–or more cynically, the housing bubble wiped out the potential for a biotech bubble. That would also serve as an ‘educational sink.’
Finally, government budgets at the local, state, and federal levels have been shrinking. There could be lots of opportunities for certain disciplines in government research and service***. But shrinking budgets have eliminated any potential for growth in these areas****.
*Whenever I propose more center-oriented funding, academic researchers freak out–and forget that grants are awarded to institutions, not individuals, despite the colloquial use of “his/her grant.”
**Even a modest training regime–let’s say, one student for a six year period with no overlap between students–will result in five students during a faculty member’s career.
***By service, I not only mean administration, but also doing non-research activities (e.g., surveillance work in epidemiology).
****Even if budgets don’t shrik, without a massive wave of retirement, constant budgets in real dollar terms will do very little to act as an educational sink. If you think this is an expansion of ‘big government’, well, no one seems to mind expanding big gummint when it comes to our surveillance/prison state.