Are we producing too many scientists?

Too many scientists
The short answer is: it depends who you ask.

The view of governments, universities and policy-makers is an emphatic “No.” In fact, they argue that Canada needs to sharply increase its output of scientists with advanced degrees, since they are the engine of “innovation” that will drive the “knowledge-based economy” of the future. The Ontario government, for its part, has implemented a plan to increase graduate enrollment by an astounding 50% over the period 2005-2009.

In contrast, from some in the scientific community comes a resounding “Yes.” They argue that an oversupply of scientists is having negative effects on the scientific enterprise, lowering the morale of young scientists and eroding the appeal of research as a career choice for today’s “best and brightest.” Without reforms, the long-term health of the research enterprise is at risk.

How can we reconcile these two paradoxical views? What’s going on here?

In the biomedical sciences, the traditional scientific career path has undergone a radical shift. While the number of tenure-track academic faculty positions has remained relatively constant over the last 20 years, the production of new PhDs has increased many-fold. Consequently, the established career progression from graduate student to postdoctoral fellow to academic investigator is now only followed by about 20% of PhDs. The result is a system that leaves 80% of its trainees to exit the academic pipeline for a so-called “alternative” career — a career for which they have received no formal training and which may not require their advanced research skills.

The negative consequences of a biomedical scientist surplus are evident today. As it has for over a decade, the scientific community continues to lament the situation of postdoctoral fellows: their low pay, long working hours, limited prospects for professional development and entrapment in a “holding pattern” of short-term contracts while they search for an academic position that is unlikely to materialize. (If they do beat the odds, they will start their first “real job” at the average age of 38.) Even for established researchers, increased competition for research funding has caused success rates for grants to drop to about 20%, encouraging a cycle of conservative thinking and an aversion to high-risk, ground-breaking research. Furthermore, the Darwinian struggle among a large pool of scientists for limited funding also leads to an unwillingness to talk openly about research findings – a culture of secrecy that undermines the collaborative nature of the scientific enterprise.

Given these warning signs of a biomedical scientist surplus, why are we demanding ever more? An editorial published in the journal Science offers an insightful, albeit somber, view:

Why do we keep wishing to expand the supply of scientists even though there is no evidence of imminent shortages, and most jobs are in the private sector, where they are immune to management by policy fiat? First, there is a widespread belief that economic progress depends on science and technology; why shouldn’t we have more of such a good thing? Second, policies are set mainly by elders, who, like the institutions that employ them, have little incentive to downsize their operations. Instead, academic reward structures and government funding priorities tend to perpetuate the “train more scientists” status quo.

There’s one more, uncomfortable, explanation for calls to increase the supply of scientists. The present situation provides real advantages for the science and technology sector and the academic and corporate institutions that depend on it. We’ve arranged to produce more knowledge workers than we can employ, creating a labor-excess economy that keeps labor costs down and productivity high. Maybe we keep doing this because in our heart of hearts, we really prefer it this way.

Donald Kennedy, Jim Austin, Kirstie Urquhart, and Crispin Taylor.