Lost Decades, Funded by Our Government

Monday, October 06, 2014

In the Boston Globe is a short piece on a national glut of postdoctoral science researchers. The glut, which the piece terms a "quiet crisis in science" is ultimately caused by central planning:

The plight of postdocs has become a point of national discussion among senior scientists, as their struggles have come to be seen as symptoms of broader problems plaguing biomedical research. After years of rapid growth, federal funding abruptly leveled off and even contracted over the last decade, leaving a glut of postdocs vying for a limited number of faculty jobs. Paradoxically, as they've gotten stuck, the pursuit of research breakthroughs has also become reliant on them as a cheap source of labor for senior scientists.

"They really are the canary in the coal mine," said Marc Kirschner, a professor of systems biology at Harvard Medical School whose lab of 17 scientists includes 12 postdocs. "They decided they'd go ahead and try to understand why a cancer cell is different from a normal cell, and here they are a few years out. They knew it was a competitive situation, and they were going to work very hard, but they didn't see the whole system was going to sour so quickly."
I was in grad school when Congress doubled the funding for the National Institutes of Health and remember wondering how that could be sustained and what might happen when it wasn't. Hindsight shows that this money, rather than boosting the economy, created a whole raft of perverse incentives that has stunted or misdirected the efforts of a significant number of those who should be among the most productive, in terms of satisfying actual market demand. The direct dollar cost is quantifiable, but we can only guess at the indirect impact on the economy.

The personal cost to a generation of scientists is at least an equally complicated matter, as a story with a happy ending from the article shows:
Casey Ydenberg's path illustrates how easy it is to follow a dream and find oneself locked in a career track without a destination.

Ydenberg, 33, has an impressive resume: he earned a PhD at Princeton, then went for a postdoc at Brandeis. This summer, a decade into his training, he realized that not only were the odds of getting a faculty job against him, but he didn't think he really wanted one. He felt burnt out.

Today, Ydenberg is pursuing a job that gives him real joy, building websites. He isn't bitter; he cherishes his memories of graduate school. But he uses none of his formal training and thinks there should be more conversations, earlier, about future careers so that people don't spend as long honing research skills that may not prove relevant.

"I don't think we're this oppressed minority or anything like that," Ydenberg said. "But I think for science to reform and for science to become better at serving society, the issues facing postdocs are going to need to be addressed -- otherwise nobody is going to want to go into research."
What might someone like Ydenburg have accomplished had he not either (a) taken a decade-long detour from a non-scientific career during the best years of his life, or (b) found himself in a buyer's market just when his scientific career should have started taking off? We'll never know.

Ironically, most scientists do not question the role of central planning in their occupation. This issue has been simmering for some time, but the talk is invariably of reforming an immoral and impractical system, rather than of phasing it out altogether.

-- CAV

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