"Avoiding a lost generation of scientists"

Today, I came across a paper in eLife titled "Avoiding a lost generation of scientists":

Funding for academic research in the United States has declined to a 40-year low in real terms, and other countries are experiencing similar declines. This persistent shortage of support threatens to create a "lost generation" of researchers – talented scientists who either leave the profession entirely, or who stay but acquire the cynicism and short-term thinking that hinders progress. While all researchers are being affected by the decline in funding, early-career researchers such as postdoctoral fellows and new investigators are being hit hardest.

The authors share stories of early career researchers that are struggling to stay in academic science and have created a facebook page* to do the same there. Also, they argue that advocacy and outreach should be done in order to make policymakers aware of this problem, for example by the infographic below.

From the eLife paper: https://elife-publishing-cdn.s3.amazonaws.com/17393/elife-17393-fig1-v1-480w.jpg

The authors end by saying:

The three scientists who shared their stories above are examples of a much deeper problem, but they are also reason for hope. If more of these narratives can be placed in front of policymakers and the true cost of under-funding science made clear, the prospects for consistent funding for the next generation of scientists can improve.

As someone who left academia because I couldn't get funding and was sick of all the short contracts and uncertainty, I applaud this effort and hope it will lead to a change. But I'm going to be advocate of the devil here and ask: Will the stories of disgruntled post-docs lead policymakers to change their mind? And is just going to increase funding going to solve this, or will it lead to more post-docs staying on for longer? Please discuss.


*Why Facebook? Is Twitter really dead...? - oh wait, they are on Twitter too. Oh, and they have a website.

21 responses so far

  • MorganPhD says:

    Honestly, and not in anyway politically correctly, the only thing that will push Congress critters to act is to see how many Chinese scientists we train with government $$$.

    There is a way to increase salary/stability/jobs across the board: F1 and J1 visa cap.

    • babyattachmode says:

      But will allowing less foreign grad students and post-docs lead to more steady jobs then? Or will it lead to more US post-docs doing multiple post-docs in an attempt to secure a TT position while the foreign PDs would have returned to their home country after their post-doc (like yours truly)?

      • drugmonkey says:

        Of course labor protection works to the benefit of domestic labor. Of course ready foreign labor decreases the negotiating position of domestic labor. Don't be silly.

        • babyattachmode says:

          Foreigners are already not eligible for NRSAs, so the labor protection is already there (or should I say "study protection" when talking about grad students and post-docs?).

          • MorganPhD says:

            The # of trainees on F31/F32/T32 awards is absolutely minuscule relative to the # paid from RPG's.

          • drugmonkey says:

            NRSAs fund 10% and research grants fund 90% of federally funded postdocs in the US.

      • MorganPhD says:

        No, I think reduced postdoc #'s are going to increase PD salaries in the short term, but also increase the need for a non-postdoc, trained scientist labor force. Technicians, senior scientists, whatever-you-want-to-call-it will be in high(er) demand.

    • MorganPhD says:

      I use the Chinese example as a strawman. Conservative Repubs want to start another Red Scare. Fear (of the unknown or of losing their jobs) is the only motivator for Congress, who ultimately decides how much $$$ is in the system and what the rules are.

      I personally don't think it's true (too many international postdocs/trainees/etc)

  • Mikka says:

    There is only one way to make pols do anything: show them it will give votes. Postdocs and early stage PIs constitute a minuscule demographic, and sob stories from the trenches won't move anyone. The real target is the voting public. I can't see any easy way to couple scientific progress to votes, unless we figure out a way to make the public, not pols, care about it.

  • ampanmdagaba says:

    I love drugmonkey, but it's not the first time they stab me right through my heart by suggesting that I should not have been allowed to come to the US. It makes me feel like a murderer, and more of an impostor.

    I guess it's just something I have to be able to forgive and forget, but gosh it hurts so much for some reason! You get used to thinking about climate change, Ebola, cancer, I don't know... You pretend to be a family of sorts: science, humanity, outreach. But then you are reminded that, no, it's actually your fault that the funding situation is so bad. You came to our neighborhood, stealing our funding and our jobs. Go back, the wall is not high enough, it should be made higher, and you will pay for it. Sad.

    • babyattachmode says:

      I feel the same way. Also: let's not pretend the funding situation is only bad in the US. It's very similar in Europe.

    • MorganPhD says:

      I think scientists in academia are more welcoming/accepting of immigrants than almost any other field in the US because we see the amazing contributions made by talented people from all over the world. I sympathize with your feelings and if people literally say "you shouldn't be here", then they suck.

      But I don't think anyone said you shouldn't be in the US (you or babyattachmode). Drugmonkey isn't Donald Trump.

      I think it's intellectually dishonest to look at a problem like falling wages, insecure jobs, and low % chance of being a PI in the United States and not consider the implications of an unlimited J1 visa program in creating that problem. One current estimate is that 2/3 of biomed postdocs are non-US-citizens (Rockey blog post from 2012).

      No one has suggested stopping the J1 visa program OR that you're not worthy of being here.

    • We are lucky that talented scientists from other countries come to the US to do postdocs. I hope that we can continue to attract this talent. I don't think the current academic crisis has much to do with this (or would be helped by this changing).

    • drugmonkey says:

      One of the reasons I do love science as a profession is that it is a vast borderless collaboration. Absolutely.

      But it is a job sector as well. And pretending this is not so leads to a host of problems for domestic workers, including wage suppression and poor working conditions. The parallels with other industries are readily apparent.

      You will note that I do not offer solutions because I do not have them. But I believe deeply that solutions cannot be arrived upon if we pretend that labor forces do not apply to our business.

  • AcademicLurker says:

    I agree with others that sob stories about how researchers' career trajectories are being screwed won't convince anyone who matters. Scare mongering about the US losing "competitiveness" is likely the only thing that will get much traction.

  • Katherine says:

    I personally think academia is not taking enough responsibility for being so dependent on the whims of politicians. NIH/NSF don't HAVE to be the largest funders of R&D. At a minimum, faculty and research staff should be funded by the institutions that they work for, not grants. Heaven help us if universities spent as much on their own researchers as they spend on (frequently losing, Real Sports did a great segment on this) sports teams and the ever-growing list of provosts, vice chancellors, etc.

    • "Funded by the institutions they work for" makes little sense -- universities don't have vast untapped pots of money. At nearly all public universities, the income that isn't from research grants comes from the state government, and from student (undergraduate) tuition. State funding is dwindling. At The University of Oregon (my univ.), for example, the state provides about 7% of the university's budget; most public research universities are at similar ~10% levels. A huge chunk of income comes from undergraduate tuition, but it would be morally reprehensible to increase already gigantic tuition fees to support research activities that do not directly benefit (most) undergraduates. So where is "university" money supposed to come from?

      One could reply that private universities could fund research, but *rich* private universities make up a small fraction of U.S. research activities.

      One could reply that universities should spend less on administrators -- definitely true, but the scale of savings would be tiny. (Faculty / postdocs / graduate students outnumber administrators by a large margin.)

      One could reply that universities should kill sports programs -- I would definitely agree. At many places, however, that would have little impact on the budget. (At Oregon, for example, the academic budget doesn't subsidize the athletic budget, at least not directly.) Moreover, even if there were money to be saved, it would be hard to argue that the "broad" benefit of directing it to research outweighs the "local" benefit of e.g. lowering tuition.

      Publicly funded research benefits the very broad public, and can only be sustained if the broad public supports it.

  • drugmonkey says:

    faculty and research staff should be funded by the institutions that they work for, not grants.

    And where is this funding to come from?

    In the US, many of the top research Universities are funded by the State taxpayers. The same taxpayer, btw, who also pay Federal taxes that fund the NSF and NIH grants. So what is the difference? If we devolve it to the States, then research will be conducted solely in Washington, Massachusetts and California, the only not-completely-ass-backward States when it comes to recognizing public good. I for one am not okay with that narrowness of the research enterprise.

    • babyattachmode says:

      In The Netherlands this used to be the way the money was divided: a lot of the money allocated for science was going to universities directly to pay for scientists who were on permanent contracts. Sometimes this lead to very creative people doing lots of science because that was what they could do (also teaching of course). However, it also often led to people who had been there for ages and were in no way stimulated to do creative, innovative research . In the past decade this money has more and more become allocated to national and EU funding agencies in order to increase competition. I am therefore not entirely sure that allocating the same amount of money to universities instead of funding agencies is the way to go. Spending it on science instead of football might help, but I'm not sure this would fly with many people...?

    • Katherine says:

      A couple of thoughts: there are plenty of private universities that are not state funded. So it definitely would not be the same pot of taxpayer money at those institutions. As for state schools, the percentage of their budget that comes from state taxpayers is steadily decreasing. So while NSF/NIH are 100% funded by taxpayers, state universities are not. Asking individual institutions to pay salaries for people who work for them is not therefore "devolving it to the states." I doubt Baylor, for instance, would give up the prestige of being a top research and medical university simply because they had to pay their faculty rather than relying on grants for salaries.

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