Scientist shortage in the US


The National Science Foundation has just released a report on the growing, or should I say shrinking, problem getting home-grown scientists at a time when other nations are doing a better job, and retaining more scientists.

Being an American organisation, of course the NSF is focussing on the problems for that nation, but it inadvertently highlights a number of problems that are more widely being felt.

The west is, in short, falling behind on science. It is not merely the sheer volume of science, but the differential growth rates that count. The Scientist reports

The NSB report, along with NSF’s biennial Science and Engineering (S&E) Indicators 2004, found that the number of US jobs requiring S&E skills is growing at nearly 5% annually, compared with a 1% growth rate for the rest of the US labor market. But several forces are undermining the nation’s ability to meet the demand for qualified scientists and engineers:

Many of those currently working in S&E will retire in the next 20 years, while a smaller number of students are choosing S&E careers to take their place. The United States has fallen from third place in 1975 to 17th place compared to other countries in the proportion of 18 to 24 year-olds earning S&E degrees.

Over the past several decades, record numbers of foreign-born S&E professionals have filled this gap. Between 1990 and 2000, the proportion of foreign-born people with doctorates employed in US S&E occupations rose from 24 to 28%. And in 2001, more than half the US engineering and computer science graduates were foreign-born students. But restrictions on visas issued to students, exchange visitors, and scientists following the September 11 terror attacks have sharply curtailed this inflow. “This shortcut to a trained workforce is not likely to continue,” the NSB report states.

Increasing opportunities for science jobs in other countries are luring qualified scientists away from the United States. Between 1993 and 1997, developed countries other than the United States increased their number of S&E research jobs by 23%, compared with an 11% increase in the United States.

Reversing this trend appears to be ten years away if everything goes right.

When you look at the report itself, which is online, you begin to see why. Science teachers are not well trained or even teaching in their speciality, students are being forced to focus more on getting “right” answers than on understanding concepts, and not enough is being introduced - instead students are left to practice what they already know.

No mention is made in the teaching sections of evolution, but the Science and Engineering Indicators report of the National Science Board notes, under Public Attitudes and Understanding that

[m]ore Americans now agree with the theory of evolution. The 2001 NSF survey marked the first time that more than half (53 percent) of Americans answered “true” in response to the statement “human beings, as we know them today, developed from earlier species of animals.” (In Europe, 69 percent responded “true.”) Whether and how the theory of evolution is taught in public schools remains one of the most contentious issues in U.S. science education.

but goes on to note that

[m]ost Americans (two-thirds in the 2001 NSF survey) do not clearly understand the scientific process. Knowing how ideas are investigated and analyzed–a sure sign of scientific literacy–is important. Critical thinking skills are invaluable not only in science but also in making wise and well-informed choices as citizens and consumers.

Science has only flourished in the west because it grabbed the attention of the general public. Whenever that attention has waned, so too has education fallen behind, funding for research become subjugated to political goals and interests, and in the end nations become less influential and competent.

Those countries that are behind the west, however, know very well that science is how things are achieved, and they have no such compunctions in teaching it. They may, probably will, fall prey to the same problems themselves in a century or so, but that doesn’t alleviate the west’s problems now.

The price of achievement is eternal education, as someone might once have said.


Many in the ID community, too, are worried about the decline of science in the US. Perhaps there is something we can agree on…

That might be true if ID advocates and scientists didn’t have diametrically opposite ideas on how to fix this problem. As far as ID supporters are concerned, it seems the scientific method consists of giving up as soon as you find something even moderately complicated.

As a European, I am shocked, *shocked* by that 69% figure for understanding of human evolution. I would have guessed nearer 80%. Your link doesn’t offer a breakdown by European country - do you know if there’s one on line?

As a fellow European, so am I. Even 80% would have shocked me :(

Could we perhaps tell the Americans to keep their Jehova’s Witnesses and other religious/nutcases at home, the way we are contemplating doing with radical Muslim imams?

I read with great interest the reports of declining science in the U.S., and I would like to posit another explanation: as a young scientist (postdoc) in evolutionary biology, I am barely paid a living wage. I have little job security. I am treated shabbily by many of the tenure-track faculty in my department. I have put off getting married and having a family to make my career work. My chances of ever landing a tenure-track job seem miniscule, despite a good record of publication on my part. And I am not alone. If the U.S. cannot (or will not) pay working scientists with Ph.D.’s a wage where half their take-home income doesn’t vanish immediately just to pay the rent, why should anyone become a scientist? I don’t know where I will live or whether I will be employed year to year and grant to grant; why should we expect young people in this country to go into science and embrace that kind of a future? Even if their primary education was stellar? Granted, I love what I do, but at a certain point one starts having second thoughts. And perhaps I sound particularly bitter, but trust me, there are thousands just like me - postdocs, lecturers, adjuncts, etc. I know this is off the topic of the blog, but in the context of this post I thought it necessary to raise these issues.

Tristan wrote

Many in the ID community, too, are worried about the decline of science in the US. Perhaps there is something we can agree on?

Given the Wellsian trash that was offered by the “ID community” for the Ohio Critical Analysis model lesson plan, that community’s contribution to the decline is to accelerate it.


Joe has hit on the most important facet facing the training of future scientists. I’m a postdoc too, and, while not as bitter as he is, he describes the reality fairly well. The most talented people find tenure-track jobs, but there is a lot of ‘which lab did you come from’ that goes into it. And most research universities treat the teaching of science as of secondary or tertiary importance. The NIH budget just doubled within 5 years, and now they are complaining that increases of 2-3% are too small? Where did all that money go? There is some recognition that both training of scientists and teaching of science is rather poor, and steps are being taken to address these issues, but it is on a small scale. As long as the incentives are for bringing in research dollars, things will be slow to change. One thing that needs to happen is for training programs to have more variety, so that people can move into academic or government research careers that are not tenure-track more easily. The whole system is geared towards replacing PIs, but there are many more people in the pipeline than can fill tenure-track jobs.

The summary of my somewhat wandering post above is that the scientific community deserves a lot of the blame. They don’t pay any attention to the training of young scientists, then complain about people not going into science. They denigrate teaching’s importance, then complain that students don’t understand science. They disdain public advocacy and explanation of what they do, then get upset when they don’t have constant increases of funding.

I don’t mean to indict every scientist, but this is the general attitude of the field as a whole, in my opinion.

When I was an academic (20 years worth), the usual locutions were teaching load and research opportunities.


I believe that I have contributed somewhat to the United States’ problem of the dwindiling number of home-grown scientists: I recently dropped out of graduate school to pursue a professional degree. The reasons I did so were partially stated above by other commenters. The pay is horrible, the hours are long, and the environment is not friendly to raising a family at least until you hit your mid-thirties (although it certainly can be done). I also grew to realize that the tenured faculty I knew pined for the days when they were in graduate school, while I was looking foward to the days when I could do my own reasearch. Something clearly was amiss. I asked several of them what part of their scientific career did they enjoy the best, and the almost universal answer was graduate school, with a few saying postdoc. The reason: there wasn’t the constant grant pressure and pressure to publish, no matter what the relevance or quality. They could just do their benchwork, and analyze data. I realized more and more that if I wasn’t enjoying what was supposed to be the best times of my scienfific career, then I shouldn’t stay in science, especially since the only benefit I see pursuing a Ph.D. in the sciences is, well, going into science; you certainly don’t go into it for the reasonable hours or high pay.

So, in short, the reason why I left is twofold: the social structure of science (“publish or perish”, “spinning” your research for grant money, etc.), and the lack of any other benefits of a career in science (low pay for most of one’s career, long hours, etc.). To encourage Americans to pursue a career in science, one or both of these problems has to change.

As a high school student, I suspect part of the problem may be that students simply aren’t exposed to practical applications of science. I know I wasn’t. I took Chemistry, Biology, Advanced Chem, and AP Bio, and in all three years never once performed an experiment of my own creation (pardon the pun) nor was forced to think outside of the box. As a high school student, I suspect I wouldn’t have been ready. I guess we’ll never know.

As far as gov’t funding goes, the lack of prize-winning American scientists seems more to do with a decline in quality of the research being done rather than the quantity of researchers. Would increased funding have that much of an effect, or are we looking at a severe dearth of novel insights?

Following Sputnik, the goal was the moon. Have young Americans a similar present day goal?

Adam Marczyk Wrote:

That might be true if ID advocates and scientists didn’t have diametrically opposite ideas on how to fix this problem. As far as ID supporters are concerned, it seems the scientific method consists of giving up as soon as you find something even moderately complicated.

I wasn’t aware ID advocates had advocated their ideas on how to fix this problem. Please describe them, for I fear I’m out of the loop on this one.

I also think your conception of ID is inaccurate. While different paths are taken by ID and neo-Darwinian scientists, neither, IMHO, give up when faced with a problem.

Tristan: I also think your conception of ID is inaccurate. While different paths are taken by ID and neo-Darwinian scientists, neither, IMHO, give up when faced with a problem.

How is ID doing on applying its concepts of CSI in any meaningfull manner to show that it has even a chance of working? Remember that ID is a negative approach, it does not propose any positive hypotheses relevant to ID. In fact I have yet to see much ID relevant research that would show that ID proponents do not give up. Behe comes to mind, Dembski, Wells, Nelson… What have they published that shows how ID deals with the pressing issues of science?

I would not read too much into the NYT article that claims there is a decline in scientific research in the US.[…]/05RESE.html (I can’t find the link to an earlier article that had some pitiful graphs) The US still offers a great working environment - the best - for scientists. Yes it is hard on post-docs and from what I hear a career in life sciences research is now a long drawn out affair. But the US will continue to draw great scientists and researchers from the world over partly because of what it can offer and more because of what other nations don’t. I know quite a bit about how it is in India - where I am from. There are a number of scientific institutions - not the IITs that are actually verr good undergrad engineering schools. Some of them such as the Indian Institute of Science and the Indian Statistical Institute are over 75 years old. However science in India is run by the government and overseen by bureaucrats many of whom are intelligent but lack vision. And these days it doesn’t help to have a physicist as India’s science (Human Resources Development) minister who has invested top dollar on facilities (like a 2 meter IR telescope at Hanle 4,500 meters above MSL in Ladakh) but believes in astrology! It is a quaint and mixed up belief in the scientific and the absurd. And in India government servants (that all scientists are) retire at 60 regardless of what they do. The lucky ones can move into policy positions, but rarely do because they have to deal with bureaucrats who outrank them. A few universities do have a decent research environment but the proposal-grant-publishing cycle exists in name only. The government decides how much to spend on research on whom - the researchers write the proposals as a formality and get their funds most of which has to be spent on overhead. The work agenda of the government is not driven by research. If you compared the NIH and the Indian Council of Medical Research you would see the difference. A few scientists want to conduct research in a few vital areas - the politician if he understands or cares at all asks the bureaucrat to estimate a budgetary provision, which then gets translated into an opportunity for a proposal. It is only in the last 10 years that the administration has realised that it is possible to set a research supported plan for groups like the ICMR. Little however is happening. Some good work happens here and there where the head of the institution can maintain a line of contact to the administration. So at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences, or the Jawaharlal Nehru University, IISc, and here and there some limited work goes on. It is an overcrowded field where even good scientists turn into political creatures for if they did not their departments would decline. So when a scientist retires per force at 60 what does he/she do? Some obtain visiting fellowships abroad and many of them end up liking it and leaving for good. C.R. Rao retired as Director (top honcho) of the Indian Statistical Institute about 20 years ago. Now this is pioneer in the field and was set up in 1931 by PC Mahalanobis (a contemporary of the mathematician Srinivas Ramanujam) in order to create a science infrastructure for a modernising nation whose colonial master (Britain) was not interested in such matters. You would think that CR Rao would be kept happy and well funded? Well Rao came to Penn State in 1982 and continued his work in multivariate analysis earning himself the National Science Medal in 2002 at the age of 80! Ramanath Cowsik - 64 - retired as Director of the Indian Institute of Astrophysics and came here recently as a visiting scientist to Washington U. St.Louis. He has been elected to the Nat.Sc.Academy in April this year and plans to work here. One more. Dr.Obaid Siddiqui (a biologist and foreign member of the Nat.Acad.Sc.) is on an extension These are well known ones. But there are maybe 100s (even 1000s) of scientists from places like the Tata Institute of fundamental Research who decide to leave India every year. Yes there are many who stay back, but quite a few leave and will continue to leave. What do they see in the US that they do not in other countries? An open multicultural environment, vast proposal opportunities, a scientific culture unrestrained by political prejudices. As long as the US offers such a climate it will attract the best. The trio that published on “Primes is in P” at IIT, Kanpur, are at the Dept. of CS. (Agarwal the professor and two of his grad students, Saxena and Kayal). Saxena and Kayal were keen to take up math after high school but found little encouragement, in a society where Computer Science is the most glamorous!

I have to learn some basic molecular biology and genetics info fast for summer research. I grabbed a textbook from the library by Schleif. Looks acceptable. Anyone have recommendations about other books/sites?

Lousy pay, no time for home life, and few opportunities for upward progression in your career… that pretty well summarizes the problem.

I can’t help thinking the reason there is all this hue and cry for more young Americans to enter science is to keep a large pool of grad students and postdocs available that are desperate enough to accept the pay and poor working conditions that most postdocs face. There are already far too many labs in the life sciences (particularly molecular biology) that treat grad students and postdocs like workers on an assembly line rather than trying to nurture their skills and intelligence.

Until this attitude changes, the biggest demotivator for young scientists won’t be the creationists or the high-school science curriculum, but the realization upon graduating that a career in science isn’t as attractive as a career in business, law or medicine.

And, latest word on this from Scott Adams in the new DNRC newsletter:

“LIVERMORE, CA - America is losing its leadership in science, according to a recent study performed by people who wear corrective lenses but are otherwise untrained to perform research. “We looked all over the neighborhood, and no one looked like a scientist to us,” explained plumber-turned-researcher Carl Crakshowin.”


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This page contains a single entry by John S. Wilkins published on May 6, 2004 9:03 PM.

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