Editorial | Published:

A crisis of confidence

Nature volume 457, page 635 (05 February 2009) | Download Citation

With a surfeit of graduates for the available funds, the US scientific endeavour is increasingly losing its lustre as a career choice. The country needs to take stock and plan more carefully for the future.

Jill Rafael-Fortney and Darcy Kelley, the two scientists profiled in this issue (see page 650), are both struggling to keep their laboratories going in an extremely tough funding environment. They are also two human faces of an increasingly dire career crisis that is afflicting young researchers across the United States, as too many scientists chase an all-too-finite supply of jobs and money. The leaders of science and their allies in Congress would do well to keep such faces in mind as they map out the future of the US scientific enterprise.

The economic stimulus package currently working its way through Congress is likely to inject billions of dollars into the budgets of the scientific agencies, which will no doubt be welcome to researchers (see Nature 457, 364–365; 2009). But without careful planning and sustained follow-up funding, that sudden infusion of money could end up worsening the career crisis rather then easing it. Indeed, it could readily become a replay of what happened after the budget of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) was doubled between 1998 and 2003, when the extra money drew in new scientists who then foundered when the budget virtually flat-lined in subsequent years.

The reality is that neither the United States nor any other nation knows how to calculate the number of scientists and engineers it currently needs, let alone how many it will require in the future. But at the moment, some signs suggest that the United States may have a surplus.

Supply and demand

“US leaders should commit to long-term, predictable growth in the science budgets, not just a quick infusion of cash.”

This mismatch long predates the present financial meltdown, and it affects many areas. The career crisis is especially stark in the biomedical fields, where the number of tenure-track and tenured positions has not increased in the past two decades even as universities have nearly doubled their production of biomedical doctorates. Those who do land jobs in academic research are struggling to keep them, because competition for grant money in biomedicine has grown at a steep rate.

Some might argue that this is the way it should be. By that cool logic, the nation benefits from having a surplus of scientists who compete against each other for jobs and grants, guaranteeing that the public pays for only truly exceptional work.

There is no doubt that competition can breed excellence, and that agencies should be rigorously selective in their research portfolios. But beyond a certain point, the hyper-competition for grants, publication and tenure hurts everyone — the individuals involved, the country and science itself. The process ceases to select for only the very best young scientists, and instead starts to drive many of the smartest students out of research entirely. They realize that the risks outweigh the benefits in science and choose alternative careers. Witness the steady migration of top undergraduates to business and other professions in the past decade, and the drop in the number of doctorates in science and engineering earned by US students since it peaked in the mid-1990s. Those dedicated individuals who do stay in science find that they have less time to do the research they were trained for: a 2007 study by the Federal Demonstration Partnership in Washington DC found that investigators typically spend some 40% of their working week on grant submittals and other administrative duties.

Bursting the bubble

For researchers struggling in the current environment, we can offer no obvious solutions. But both the government and universities can do a great deal more to guard against repeating past mistakes. Most importantly, the country's leaders should heed the lessons of the NIH funding bubble and commit to long-term, predictable growth in the science budgets, not just a quick infusion of cash that will simply create another bubble (see page 649). And agencies should also refine and expand their recent efforts to direct more funding to younger investigators who bring new ideas into science.

At the same time, government and academic officials should look carefully at how the country trains its next crop of researchers and how many it produces — as called for by many top scientists and blue-ribbon panels. Universities, in particular, should overhaul their doctoral programmes to graduate people faster and prepare them for jobs outside the traditional academic setting.

This is made all the more urgent by the economic downturn. As in previous recessions, US research institutions are experiencing a flood of new applications for their doctoral programmes in science and engineering (see page 642). These students are entering the system at the very time when industry is cutting thousands of jobs for researchers. Hopefully those positions will reappear by the time the next wave of doctoral students graduate.

A number of resources have emerged in recent years to help young scientists start careers in and outside universities, including alternative-career clubs started by the students themselves. But these measures alone are not enough; doctoral programmes should build better career counselling and training into their curricula from the start. Reform-minded deans have long championed this change but faculty members have resisted, in part because they cling to the archaic prejudice — implicit at times — that students who leave academia are failures.

The failures, however, rest within the scientific leadership, when it focuses only on numbers and fails to see individuals who write the grant proposals, conduct the research and struggle to keep their careers afloat.

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