Broken Beakers

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

The Washington Post recently put out a story about the fact that there are too many scientists in America, an unfortunate consequence of the state's central planning of that vital component of the economy:

A glut of new biomedical scientists ... entered the field when the economy was healthier. From 1998 to 2003, the budget of the National Institutes of Health doubled to $30 billion per year. That boost -- much of which flows to universities -- drew in new, young scientists. The number of new PhDs in the medical and life sciences boomed, nearly doubling from 2003 to 2007, according to the NSF.

But that boom is about to go bust, because an equal number of permanent jobs failed to follow. One big factor: Since 2004, federal research spending across all agencies has stagnated relative to inflation, according to an analysis by the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Although the injection of $10 billion in federal stimulus funds to the NIH from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 "created or retained" 50,000 science jobs, according to the NIH, that money is running dry, putting those positions at risk.

The lack of permanent jobs leaves many PhD scientists doing routine laboratory work in low-wage positions known as "post-docs," or postdoctoral fellowships. Post-docs used to last a year or two, but now it's not unusual to find scientists toiling away for six, seven, even 10 years.
The fact that so many scientists find themselves in long holding patterns is bad enough, but for many, the nature of the work makes it worse than merely frustrating. Speaking about her postdoctoral work, one interviewee notes that "I couldn't answer the question of how this was any different from undergraduate work."

But even that's not the whole story by a long shot, as Frederic Bastiat made clear over a century and a half ago. What might our economy be like now, with so many hard-working, talented individuals performing more productive work? What might it have been like had these individuals, better-informed about what the market would reward, specialized in something else a decade or more earlier? And how much better might their individual careers have been had they not been led down a blind alley by the pied piper of government-funding of science?

-- CAV


Steve D said...

Hmm, the dreaded post-doc purgatory; the problem is a government that mostly controls the supply of scientists and a private sector that mostly controls the demand. (See in a socialist country the government could just decree that no scientists are trained – problem solved.) But massive government funding of science, performed mostly by students and postdocs means that a professor can reproduce himself dozens of times over his career.
‘"I couldn't answer the question of how this was any different from undergraduate work."’
Less course work, I guess. I know a lot of my fellow scientist who think the country needs more scientists. I would rather have fewer actual science professionals but a much more science savvy public.
‘What might our economy be like now, with so many hard-working, talented individuals performing more productive work?’
And what might our world look like today, if the trend towards freedom and capitalism from the eighteenth century had continued? Almost sounds like a good idea for a novel to me; the opposite of Atlas Shrugged.

Gus Van Horn said...

Your last question reminds me of a thought I've had about situations like this in our economy: With enough state controls, who needs Atlas to shrug?

Steve D said...

With no state controls, we would all be Atlases.
For all we know, today we might be sipping a martini on the deck of a space station circling a planet in the Alpha Centuri star system, if capitalism had been allowed to run its course.
I’ve often wondered if altruism is the reason we have yet to make contact with an alien race. Perhaps sentient beings usually destroy themselves in a frenzy of self-sacrificing.
But Ayn Rand was right. It’s the ideas which matter. Otherwise, American’s would simply look at their health care system compare it those in other countries and decide what they wanted on the basis of which one works better.

Gus Van Horn said...

"With no state controls, we would all be Atlases."

I wouldn't go that far. Many would be Eddie Willers, and we do have free will, so there will be ne'er-do-wells no matter how good the culture is. But we'd all be far better off.