The most unfortunate thing about the furor over Unscientific America is that the vast majority of the shouting concerns a relatively small portion of the actual argument of the book. Far too much attention is being spent on the question of whether Chris and Sheril are fair to Myers and Dawkins, and not nearly enough is spent on the (to my mind more important) sections about political and media culture. Which is a shame, because unlike most bloggers, they make some fairly concrete suggestions about what ought to be done to address the problems they describe.

In particular, they make a fairly specific suggestion after talking about the problem of jobs in academia, which is well documented in countless blog posts about how difficult it is to get a tenure-track position. Mooney and Kirshenbaum see this as not just a problem, but an opportunity:

So, isn’t the solution obvious? On the one hand, we needto relieve pressure on the scientific pipeline, create more opportunities for younger scientists, liberate postdocs from holding patterns, and train newly minted scientists to better compete in an uncertain job market. On the other hand, we need to encourage the scientific community to engage in more outreach and produce scientists who are more interdisciplinary and savvy about politics, culture, and the media.

These goals ought to be one and the same. Why not change the paradigm and arm graduate-level science students with the skills to communicate the value of what science does and to get into better touch with our culture– while pointing out in passing that having more diverse skills can only help them navigate today’s job market, and may even be the real key to preserving U.S. competitiveness?

Meanwhile, let’s encourage public policy makers, leaders of the scientific community, and philanthropists who care about the role of science in our society to create a new range of nonprofit, public-interest fellowships and job positions whose express purpose is to connect science with other sectors of society.

This, to my mind, is a vastly more interesting question than whether the two-page description of the “Crackergate” incident is adequately balanced. Forget the stunt blogging, which has already received far more attention than it deserved, and let’s talk about what can be done to improve the state of science.

I like the general outline of the idea– if we want better communication of science, we need to provide some incentives for communicating science, and there are few incentives better than a paying job in that area. I wouldn’t be much of a blogger, though, if I couldn’t come up with some quibbles about the details.

For one thing, I think there are actually two related problems in academia with regard to jobs. The post-doc “holding pattern” they refer to is not just because there aren’t enough tenure-track slots to go around, but also because modern academic culture attaches some stigma to jobs that aren’t tenure-track faculty jobs. There’s a sense– mostly unspoken, but sometimes stated outright– that anybody who “settles” for something less than a faculty position at a Research I university has somehow failed in their career. This is part of the reason that people will hang on through multiple post-docs, because the culture of academia inflates the value of tenured academic positions way beyond their real worth.

In addition to creating new types of jobs, we also need to work at de-stigmatizing the kinds of jobs we already have– including positions in industry, public policy, and finance (well, maybe not so much finance…). This will take time and effort, but it’s something that can be done– we are science, after all.

The second nit-pick is the problem of displacement. Some of the tasks that Chris and Sheril imagine these “ambassadors” performing are already being done, albeit sub-optimally, by other people– PR officers, civil servants, congressional staffers, etc. Shifting trained scientists into those roles creates problems for the people who already hold those jobs, and makes them another potential source of resistance. This probably isn’t a huge problem, as those jobs tend not to have vast amounts of political power, but it’s probably worth thinking about a little. If more scientists move into the territory partially occupied by science writers, what do we do with the people who are currently becoming science writers?

(The same problem also crops up in de-stigmatizing industrial jobs. If you make jobs outside academia more acceptable, that probably means shifting some people from the academic pool into the industry pool. In which case, you may make the academic job situation less insanely competitive at the cost of shifting the industrial job market from “very competititve” to “extremely competitive.” And in the process, you squeeze out some people who used to get jobs.)

The biggest obstacles, though, are money and demand. While I think the sort of positions they’re talking about are an interesting idea, they’re not something that the political and media worlds are clamoring for. I suspect that there’s an element of “if you build it, they will come” here– if you can get a few of these positions created, and they work out well, people will step up to create more.

The real question, then, is how do you go about creating those first few positions? Chris and Sheril hint at the solution in the last paragraph quoted about, but the devil, as always, is in the details. How do we “encourage public policy makers, leaders of the scientific community, and philanthropists who care about the role of science in our society” to get this sort of thing rolling?

This is something that probably can be done– the Science and Entertainment Exchange seems like a step in that direction, though I’m not sure they’re hiring anybody. And this is the sort of thing where large-scale distributed networks like the science blogging community ought to be able to contribute something positive.

So, let’s have more discussion of concrete ideas, and less about third-rate Borat imitations. I like the idea, I think that it, like the science PAC idea is something that’s worth a shot, and I’m willing to pitch in to do my part. Where do I sign up, and what do I do after I sign?

Comments

  1. #1 ponderingfool
    July 16, 2009

    How many PhDs are doing the long periods of being a post-doc in order to get a faculty position at a research university?

    Anecdotally, most PhDs I have know don’t hang on for long periods of time to get an academic job. Those that do long post-docs are usually ones who either A) like the post-doc life style or B) are trying to still figure out what they want to do. Everyone else seems to move to another position that is not a post-doc. A sizeable number of my classmater from graduate school didn’t do the traditional post-doc route; they became consultants, science policy fellows, or working in industry. The latter group got paid very well for making that choice. The policy fellowships usually pay $20,000 more a year than NIH mandated post-doc levels. The consultants and those working in industry got paid even more & got perks (like moving expenses & signing bonuses).

    Not saying there aren’t a few people hanging on but are we making them a greater percentage of the PhD pool than they actually are?

    I agree we need to make graduate school more friendly to other careers. How about career services geared towards science PhDs in universities- usually those focussed on undergraduates are woefully inadequate)? To expect a PI to mentor someone in a career they know nothing about is absurd. Universities should be stepping up to the plate to fill the role. More of the overhead on training grants dollars should be going back to the graduate students.

    We also need to change society as a whole. Want people to love and appreciate science? Get them when they are young. Once someone is an adult they tend to be set in their ways. That means we need teachers who teach science early on. That means getting more people interested in teaching. That is where I think the extra money should be devoted.

  2. #2 Chris Mooney
    July 16, 2009

    Chad,

    The answer is, you’re already doing it.

    Take global warming as an analogy. If you remember to turn out the lights, if you get compact fluorescent lightbulbs, if you drive a Prius, you’re not really saving the planet–because after all, the problem is so much bigger than you that your contribution to fixing it is trivial…

    But wait a second. You’re not *merely* taking these actions on the own; you’re also becoming part of a changing culture where these actions are becoming more normal, more celebrated, more meaningful. You’re becoming one part of a bigger change that requires many, many people for its realization.

    Something similar is true of changing academic culture–or philanthropic culture. Yeah, it would be great if a few really powerful people at the top just caught on, threw a few switches, and changed the whole system. But we can also begin to change it from below, just by talking about it, just by making these arguments.

    So chat up any billionaire or university president you can find, and meanwhile, keep blogging!

  3. #3 hiphop
    July 16, 2009

    But wait a second. You’re not *merely* taking these actions on the own; you’re also becoming part of a changing culture where these actions are becoming more

  4. #4 becca
    July 16, 2009

    You could always nudge the Seed overlords to keep an eye out for some folks interested in doing career + science type blogging in a larger variety of fields (there’s lots of good academic career advice, but I have the unfortunate impression that a lot of people who didn’t take that well-beaten path think they just “stumbled into” their jobs; there’s not a lot of advice on how to go find them).

  5. #5 Brian Mossop
    July 16, 2009

    Chad,

    I think you make some excellent points. Here’s one more thing I’d like to throw out there for discussion: In my mentor’s generation, very few PhD’s did postdocs before landing a tenure-track position. Now, a 4+yr postdoc is a given if you want to end up in a top-tier school. I left academia for industry after the first year of my postdoc. But guess what, I’m seeing the same trends surface outside academia’s walls. Scientist positions at my current company, which at one time only required a PhD, are now given to people with *significant* postdoc experience. Similarly, research associate jobs, which once only required a master’s degree (or less), are now being filled by PhD’s, MD/PhD’s, and people with a few years postdoc experience.

    So I’d argue that people doing postdocs are not only holding out for the tenure-track jobs, but possibly for industry jobs as well. I think this is an alarming trend. Does this mean that the number of suitable jobs for PhD’s (in research) is decreasing across the board, regardless of whether it’s in academia or industry, or are the expected standards ever increasing? Are we at risk for postdoc experience to be required in the future for careers such as science policy, science communication, etc.?

  6. #6 Matthew C. Nisbet
    July 16, 2009

    Chad,

    I think one thing overlooked is not to re-train science PhD students, but to create new types of degree programs, with various prototypes already emerging at places such as Arizona State, Colorado, Wisconsin, and here at American University.

    These programs at the MA level–and potentially as a professionally-oriented doctoral degree–would focus in a cross-disciplinary way on science and public affairs with course work in ethics, policy studies, communication, law, and a concentration in a scientific field such as genetics, biology, environmental science etc. (The ideal student might arrive at the graduate program with a BA major in the sciences.)

    With my colleague Dietram Scheufele we detail the need for these types of new degree programs along with a range of other new public engagement initiatives in a forthcoming peer-reviewed article at the American Journal of Botany. The article is part of a special symposium on science education and communication. See the link below for a PDF of a final author draft of the article. It’s scheduled to appear this fall and should spark some constructive discussion.

    http://www1.soc.american.edu/docs/NisbetScheufele_inpress_What%27sNextScienceCommunication.pdf

    I will probably have a blog post up about this in the coming weeks.

    –Matt

  7. #7 Sam L.
    July 16, 2009

    But why would graduate students be interested in learning these skills that do not contribute to their chances of getting a job? If a school tries to “change the paradigm” as suggested, then the students from that school will be at a disadvantage.

    They are saying that we should train students for jobs that do not exist, in the hopes that the jobs will be created. How is that better than the current situation? We are already training students for jobs that do not exist, but at least they are desirable jobs that the students want.

    I think Mooney and Kirshenbaum are afraid to confront the real problem. There are *too many* people interested in science. There are not nearly enough jobs for them all. They are afraid to say this, because it conflicts with their thesis that we need better science communication in part to drum up interest in science. But we should look at the problem head on. How can we teach more people about science, and get kids interested in science—while at the same time keeping them from being *too* interested?

  8. #8 Chad Orzel
    July 16, 2009

    But why would graduate students be interested in learning these skills that do not contribute to their chances of getting a job?

    That’s why the last quoted paragraph specifically talks about getting people to create jobs for students with those skills.

    I would also question the claim that a broader range of communications skills are not helpful. Many of the skills you would need to communicate effectively with politicians and the media would also come in handy in a traditional academic context as well, particularly when dealing with academic administrators and funding agencies.

  9. #9 Alex
    July 16, 2009

    I think Mooney and Kirshenbaum are afraid to confront the real problem. There are *too many* people interested in science. There are not nearly enough jobs for them all. They are afraid to say this, because it conflicts with their thesis that we need better science communication in part to drum up interest in science.

    Yep. Scientists are good at simultaneously complaining that there aren’t enough kids interested in science AND that there’s too much competition for science jobs (or at least too much competition for academic science jobs). Usually we square the circle by claiming that the REAL problem is that so many of our competitors are from foreign countries, so what we need to do is produce more American Ph.D. students in science.

    So, basically, we academic elitists (and I count myself as one!) are blaming all of our problems on immigrants. Just like anybody else.

  10. #10 Matthew C. Nisbet
    July 16, 2009

    Chad,

    I would argue that these jobs already exist, are plentiful, and only likely to grow. The most in demand type of graduate in industry, media, government, and non-profits is someone with a broad range of knowledge and training, who is quantitatively literate and can engage in evidence-based thinking, *and* perhaps most importantly, can effectively communicate about complex issues and problems.

    Add a specialization in an area of science (not a PhD, but a graduate concentration and/or BA in the field) and that is the type of person that these emerging new degree programs are producing and that is needed across govt., the media, industry, and the non-profit world.

    Btw, I would add, it’s a major mistake to refer to these graduates somewhat cartoonishly as “the scientist version of Marc Morano” as some bloggers have. In fact, that type of ill-advised label–which connotes producing a partisan science advocate–is a great way to turn provosts and funding agencies off from funding new degree and training programs.

  11. #11 Banana slug
    July 16, 2009

    Ahem, disgruntled postdocs (are there any other kind?) have been retraining as science writers for a while:
    http://scicom.ucsc.edu/write/Graduates.html

    As much as Mooney + Kirschenbaum’s proposal would amount to a mini-bailout for science writers, I’m skeptical. What would these folks actually do? A more focused proposal targeted on supporting internship/outreach programs at high schools and middle schools might be better.

  12. #12 foolfodder
    July 16, 2009

    Please ignore this if the answer is obvious, or I’m being dense.

    Who will these people be communicating with?

    What will they be communicating?
    > Facts v. ideas
    > Short term policy v. long term change

    Why would someone pay them to communicate these things to these people? (Improving science education is a good reason, but isn’t really in the immediate interest of most corporations, I would have thought. Are there other, possibly more immediate, reasons?)

  13. #13 Chad Orzel
    July 16, 2009

    Btw, I would add, it’s a major mistake to refer to these graduates somewhat cartoonishly as “the scientist version of Marc Morano” as some bloggers have.

    I wouldn’t do that, mostly because I’m only dimly aware of who Morano is…

    Why would someone pay them to communicate these things to these people? (Improving science education is a good reason, but isn’t really in the immediate interest of most corporations, I would have thought. Are there other, possibly more immediate, reasons?)

    One obvious reason would be to help policy makers make sense of complex issues with a scientific component. There are a smallish number of Congressional staff positions paid for by various scientific organizations for this reason. You could expand this sort of thing, and also, the hypothetical science PAC will need people to talk to Congress.

    Notice that the last quoted paragraph specifically refers to “non-profit public-interest fellowships.” You don’t immediately need to turn a 20% profit on the work these people do.

  14. #14 Christina Pikas
    July 16, 2009

    to this: “This probably isn’t a huge problem, as those jobs tend not to have vast amounts of political power”
    I say: that’s cruel, if true.

    repeating what others have said before me, there are lots of science policy jobs being taken by disaffected science PhDs and there’s a mailing list where they’re advertised and fellowships sponsored by AAAS and NSF. I’m SURE there is not enough capacity in these programs to handle all of the disaffected science PhDs.

    I haven’t read the book, no, but every quote i see says something like,”gee wouldn’t it be really cool if we had these circular things so our cars would roll”

  15. #15 Christina Pikas
    July 16, 2009

    to this: “This probably isn’t a huge problem, as those jobs tend not to have vast amounts of political power”
    I say: that’s cruel, if true.

    repeating what others have said before me, there are lots of science policy jobs being taken by disaffected science PhDs and there’s a mailing list where they’re advertised and fellowships sponsored by AAAS and NSF. I’m SURE there is not enough capacity in these programs to handle all of the disaffected science PhDs.

    I haven’t read the book, no, but every quote i see says something like,”gee wouldn’t it be really cool if we had these circular things so our cars would roll”

  16. #16 DuWayne
    July 16, 2009

    I am all about destigmatizing industry positions. I never really understood the stigma in the first place, especially in fields like the one I’m heading into, psychology. What the hell is the point of teaching, if all you’re doing is inflating academia? I understand that academic research is important, but I should think producing qualified scientists for industry is as well.

    And it really pisses me off in psychology. Because psychology is very much a field that absolutely must be producing people who will work in “industry,” or in this case, with people who need help. Yet I have noticed this same tendency in psychology, since I started studying, communicating with both academics and clinical therapists – and especially since I joined the APA. Clinicians are pretty much the bottom of the pecking order – unless they regularly get their names on manuals, papers and books that are taken seriously by the community. To hell with those peons who want to focus their time on their clients and write only when necessary, because they have come up with some variant modality that seems particularly effective and then only with a fair resentment at the time not spent helping people…

    As for the displacement, I am all for it. I would love to see, for example, the pharmaceutical industry overun by the best of the best. Scientists who have superior abilities and who take their reputations and ethics seriously (not that the ones there now don’t, but there is a fair amount of fudging in pharma).

  17. #17 katydid13
    July 16, 2009

    Congressional fellows don’t have much power, but they can have lots of influence if they capture the attention of the right Member of Congress who is on the right committee. The problem is timing these things is hard.

    Congress also has scientific and technical advisors at it’s finger tips. That’s what NAS, GAO, and CRS exist for. If they don’t have the experts in house they will find them. The problem is getting them to read that stuff. GAO reports have one page summaries because members were having staff summerize the executive summary into one page.

    Bringing together science, technology, and policy at the undergraduate level is another option. Lots of the basic policy work in DC is done by and bunch of 20 and 30 somethings with BAs in political science and either a masters in public policy or public administration or a law degree. Most of those people haven’t taken a science course since they were 19 and finished whatever the science requirement to graduate was. I work in a building full of them.

    While an undergrad degree in a science doesn’t qualify people to give advice at the highest level, it would help weed out the really bad stuff, and help people ask intelligent questions. They also would be in a position to connect their bosses with experts.

    People who can navigate the scientific world and the political realm are rare and needed. People complained about ignorance of the Members of Congress holding hearings on banking and fiance when they were trying to place blame for the financial crisis. Compared to hearings on science and technology policy they seemed informed and knowledgable.

  18. #18 BioinfoTools
    July 16, 2009

    Regards looking down on post-docs, the stigma thing is a bit of a nuisance. At one point I (seriously) considered doing serial post-docs as I like to travel and explore new locations and this might have been a way to mix this with work. As an independent consultant (in computational biology), I can work off-shore so this provides another means to acheive this. (Offers in interesting locations welcome!)

    One advantage of consultancy is that a series of “hands on” science contracts—as post-doctoral contracts are also—aren’t looked down on, they’re regarded as succeeding. (For any students reading this: there are serious disadvantages to consultancy, too, it’s not a soft option.)

  19. #19 CCPhysicist
    July 16, 2009

    I would argue that most of the concern about jobs in academia is born of ignorance. Since surveys have shown for decades that only about 1/3 of physics PhDs are in academia, it is naive to expect everyone to end up there. Programs such as the ones you feature can only help students and their advisers become more aware of what options are available.

    Further, since data also make the rather obvious point that most openings are not in R1 universities, it is hopelessly naive to assume you are going to “replace” a professor who has produced dozens of graduate students in a 40-year career. I documented all of this from AIP and APS statistics a few summers ago:

    http://doctorpion.blogspot.com/2007/07/physics-jobs-part-2.html

    One interesting result I found was that, even though a majority of physics faculty are at PhD granting institutions, the turn over there is very slow. Add to this the demand for the “best” – which includes applicants from overseas or senior hires from industry or elsewhere – and the odds of a new PhD getting a top R1 job are about 1/20. Better if you went to a top-ten university, worse if you did not.

  20. #20 Prem Lee Barbosa
    July 17, 2009

    If only science weren’t so damn expensive.

    Do you remember the days when scientists did their experiments in their spare time with their spare change?

    Neither do I, but apparently that was most of science history.

    I personally have fantasies of being a science entrepreneur. I think more scientists could apply their creativity to making boat loads of money doing and promoting science.

    Craig Venter and his long aren’t doing too bad for themselves, it’s just a pity that scientists aren’t more often the leaders of industries. But that’s probably because they haven’t invented those industries yet!

  21. #21 Passerby
    July 17, 2009

    Why is AAAS pushing for fast-track green cards for foreign science and engineering students and graduates? Why is OK for industry to pay *experienced* scientists and engineers wages little better than those offered to new graduates? Why is it acceptable for women in science/engineering industry positions to be treated as expendable because they *might* have children and thus be ‘unreliable’?

    How would you like it if you were an experienced mid-career scientist working for government, were lured away from a low-paying but otherwise secure job because you were working for mid-level management with high-school educations and zero science savvy (and thus no respect for your problem solving skills) – only to find that your new job was ‘temporary’, created and discreated because the new company only needed your expertise to resolve a couple of problems, then you’re out the door, as a cost-savings measure! That is the new style of management – treat your highly educated and trained technical staff as dispensible fodder, because there are plenty of others hungry for a job.

    The US has a substantial surplus of educated, trained, and experienced underpaid domestic scientists in government and industry. They are routinely treated like CRAP by petty, mid-level management that haven’t a clue about science and technology. This issue is a legacy of years of government/industry Good Ole Boy mentality that business and liberal arts degrees were superior to science/engineering education for program and project management. The latter were kept to low-rank jobs, while the former were groomed and quickly -over promoted to management positions.

    No wonder undergrads flock to the relatively easy, nonscience curricula.

  22. #22 Greg Laden
    July 17, 2009

    The most unfortunate thing about the furor over Unscientific America is that the vast majority of the shouting concerns a relatively small portion of the actual argument of the book. Far too much attention is being spent on the question of whether Chris and Sheril are fair to Myers and Dawkins, and not nearly enough is spent on the (to my mind more important) sections about political and media culture.

    While I think the appeasement/new atheist thing is academically interesting and of some political importance, I totally agree with this statement. Mistakes have been made, in my view, by various authors and bloggers in both bringing up issues and reacting to them. Time to move on. Nobody wants to hear that, but ….

    The post-doc “holding pattern” they refer to is not just because there aren’t enough tenure-track slots to go around, but also because modern academic culture attaches some stigma to jobs that aren’t tenure-track faculty jobs.

    Very true. And, within the narrowly defined gold standard toward which all must work or be viewed as lesser forms of life, there is no insentivie whatsoever to address any of the issues in M&K’s book.

  23. #23 CCPhysicist
    July 18, 2009

    Good points, Greg, to which I would add “ignorance”. I give my take on the origins of this problem in the historical introduction to the supply side of the physics job market:

    http://doctorpion.blogspot.com/2007/07/physics-jobs-part-1.html

    In the “history” section, I contrast the pre-war situation (when most grads went into industry and industry funded “academic” research) with the post-war situation when research became federally funded and almost all grads went into academia for a decade or more. When 90% of all PhDs get jobs in academia (the case in the 50s and early 60s), they don’t know anyone who followed a different path.

    BTW, the AIP has been pretty good about keeping its links “live”, but the ones in my article are now to the 2006 data analysis rather than to the 2004 data I was writing about.

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