Sunday, June 27, 2010

There is No Shortage of Scientists

In her article on, "The Real Science Gap," writer Beryl Lieff Benderly points out that there is no shortage of scientists. Rather, there is a shortage of high quality jobs:

It’s not insufficient schooling or a shortage of scientists. It’s a lack of job opportunities. Americans need the reasonable hope that spending their youth preparing to do science will provide a satisfactory career.

She goes on to describe what every Ph.D. student learns firsthand upon earning his or her degree. Full-time job openings in physics and related areas are not the norm. According to a recent report by the American Institute of Physics, "About 60% of the new PhD's in the classes of 2005 and 2006 accepted postdocs after receiving their degree..."

"...An academic position at a college or university remains the prevailing long-term employment outcome to which most new physics PhDs aspire. The majority (76%) of individuals who had a long-term goal to work in a college or university position accepted a postdoctoral appointment after receiving their degree. A postdoc is typically expected as a necessary step to obtain such a position. New PhDs who aspired to a career within the civilian government or at national labs also had a high proportion (77%) accepting postdocs upon completing their degree"

Having experience in both academics and industry, I have found that students who aspire to work in academics or the national labs are lured by intellectual stimulation. This is not to say that industrial physicists are dolts. In my 5-year tenure at Bell Labs as a member of technical staff (1985-1990), I interacted with many very bright and dynamic individuals.

Back then, Bell Labs was a huge operation distributed over 22 geographic locations, employing about 20,000 individuals - a minority of which were researchers (many of them were office staff, accountants, etc.). That still left a large number of researchers that were doing varied jobs. Some labs were chartered to develop a particular product, and thus focused on a scientifically narrow goal. Other labs, like the one in which I worked, gave its scientists the best facilities and the freedom to pursue science. Some of the science was focused on areas that could potentially make a profit (my work), whereas other labs had the luxury of working on esoteric topics. Bell Labs used sexy research to enhance its public image, and to attract the best and brightest.

Ninety percent of the researchers that I considered top-notch scientists ended up in academics. The others, who had an interest in developing products and serving humanity through technological advances remained in industry, some of whom are high-level managers at large high-tech companies whose products we all know and use.

People that remain on the academic track are willing to spend six to eight years getting a Ph.D. degree followed by about 5 years of relatively low-paying post doc positions in hope of getting the rare assistant professor position, after which it takes an additional 6 years to maybe get tenure and lifelong job security.

I was willing to jump through the hoops, not because I wanted a guaranteed income for the rest of my life, but because I wanted to have the guarantee of perpetual intellectual stimulation and the resources for making new discoveries. Teaching and research provide the kind of high that makes the whole crazy process worth it. Those who fail may disagree.

This brings up the winner-takes-all system of incentives that seems to be more common in the U.S. than elsewhere. In many European countries, the typical high school student is already pigeon-holed into a career path. In contrast, the U.S. system is a war of attrition. The best undergraduates get into grad school. The best Ph.D. students get the top-notch post doc positions, the best of whom get faculty positions.

The academic path is similar to the entrepreneurial path. Many individuals work for years, some for decades, motivated by the small chance of making millions of dollars. And money is not always the motivation. Many entrepreneurs delight in the idea that their product might save lives or make life more meaningful.

Independent of the motivation or the activity, the common thread is that many people are working very hard over long periods of time with little compensation in hope of reaping the benefits of their labor. The question I find most interesting: is this system the most efficient in providing society with the most benefit?

It is difficult to answer this question, but let's consider the narrower topic of the merits of rewarding a small cadre of winners. Conservatives would say that entrepreneurs deserve the money they make because they earned it. Liberals might counter that no-one deserves such a high monetary payout.

These polar-opposite responses miss what I believe to be the important point. Innovation in science, commerce, the arts, or any other worthwhile activity requires not only lots of hard work, but all sorts of crazy ideas need to be tried and culled in a process similar to Darwinian evolution.

Recall that evolution requires reproduction, mutations/variations, and selection. In a free market, good ideas or products propagate between human hosts, wacky ideas or products are the mutations, and the selection process resides in the willingness of the consumers to shell out valuable resources in exchange for the new product. The free market system encourages "mutations" by promising huge rewards to the winners. It is this promise that fuels innovation. The winners do not deserve their rewards based on the intrinsic value of their contribution (whatever that means), their hard work, or their intelligence. Rather, the promise of rewards drives the players to participate. Limiting the steep reward structure would limit the needed fluctuations that send tendrils of innovation into uncharted territory.

The same may be true in science. If resources are not sufficient to grant tenure to all the brightest people with Ph.D.s, perhaps the dangling of the coveted tenured position as a reward motivates scientists to differentiate themselves. Consider Alan Guth's inflationary model of the universe, which he reported at the end of a decade-long string of temporary post doc positions. In addition to getting him a faculty position at MIT and several prestigious awards, his work has been extremely influential in cosmology and forms the foundations of a theory of the early universe. There are undoubtedly tens of physicists who fail for every Alan Guth who succeeds.

It may appear heartless to curse bright individuals with advanced degrees to years of temporary positions and unemployment. However, such individuals have the skills to seek alternative employment opportunities in engineering, finance, industry labs, and start-up companies that offer potentially lucrative careers. It's a choice left to the individual.

So, while it may not be possible to prove this hypothesis, I posit that perhaps our form of capitalism attracts risk takers that thrive in a winner-takes-all competition, leading to the fluctuations that are required for innovation.

The mantra that we need to "train more scientists for the future" has been around at least since I was an undergraduate in the 1970s. I have yet to see huge shortages of talent. When domestic talent dries up, the foreign pipeline gushes open. On the other side of the issue, Benderly bemoans the lack of job opportunities and the need to provide more meaningful employment to attract the brightest students. Both extreme positions point to the same conclusion. The supply of PhD scientists seeking academic positions exceeds demand.

My essay may appear to be the self-serving pontifications of a tenured academic who does not care about all the poor souls who have lost the academic marathon. On the contrary, I write this as would a father informing his son about the realities of life. I would counsel my son to follow his heart based on full knowledge of the facts, and to work with full intensity knowing the odds. In fact, I have a son who is a Ph.D. student in Physics, and this is the advice I continue to give to him.

No comments:

Post a Comment