Dept. Ecology and Evolution
University of Chicago
Perhaps at no time in history has there been as much turmoil, change, and uncertainty in the world of science as there is now. What is going on? In the United States the end of the cold war, the influx of scientists and engineers from abroad, and the decrease in research funding have all combined to make the employment and research climate for young scientists and engineers especially difficult. It is routine for "traditional" tenure-track jobs to attract hundreds of applicants. New Ph.D.'s often spend many years working as "post-docs" before they move on to a "real" job (or leave science). In many areas, research grants are very hard to get funded........
Is this a healthy situation? Is it a situation that will ultimately prove beneficial to science and engineering and to this country? This is a much more difficult question to answer. Of course, this is a global issue as many industries face new uncertainties and questions relating to the working conditions of their employees, job security, the nature of work, and the definition of a career. (Is this why we're here.......)
One perspective is that scientists and engineers have had it good for too long and that the difficulties they face are no different than those faced by individuals struggling in many other professions. After all, artists don't get research grants worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. Dancers and musicians don't get tenure. Why are there such different expectations about the nature of a career in science and technology? One reason is the "story" connecting science and technology to economic growth. Investment in research is said to end up creating jobs. There is definitely some truth in this. How much truth is another question. Even if this is true, what does it imply about the nature of support for science? Does it mean that the present scientific bureaucracy --with overhead rates for research grants of over %50 being typical -- is justified?
What does an individual do? The most important thing one can do is not romanticize the world of science or get overwhelmed by the situation. Science is and will be a great career as long as one is adaptable. Romanticize the world of science? Many if not most scientists are determinists. "Of course, politics is how joe blow and his friends got ahead, but I pulled myself up by my bootstraps." This is the romantic view. "Networking" is an inadequate term in this context but it captures the essence of what is important. You have to make yourself known and have others make you known. The tendency to ignore this is motivated by disgust at the obvious obnoxious self-promoters. BUT, networking is neither inherently good or bad. It all depends upon the relative efforts put into networking and into research. Ideally, networking increases the quality of one's research.
The second most important thing an individual can do is to be flexible. What does this mean? The present crisis in science presents numerous opportunities. No tenure-track job? Form your own research institute. Facing one postdoc after another? Apply for grants as a principal investigator. Interested more in teaching than in research? Apply for a high school teaching job. Love to program but not interested in continuing in physics? Form your own software company. Want to stay in your favorite city after getting a Ph.D. in molecular biology? Work for a law firm specializing in patent law. Be a freelance science education consultant. Work for the Office of Technology Assessment (if it still exists!) No one alternative is possible for everyone but there are many alternatives. The willingness to entertain these different career paths starts with a disavowal of the common expectation that Ph.D. is good only for producing more Ph.D.'s. A Ph.D. is a license to be a professional thinker in the broad sense. A nonresearch career is not a failure.
It is hard to underestimate the role of academic expectations and structures in making the present crisis worse for individuals and for fields. Graduate students are viewed as apprentices, not as a source of cheap labor. Academics often boast about how arcane their research is. The institution of tenure has created a dominant expectation about what an academic career should be. But this is not surprising given that the people who do most of the training of the next generation are the people with tenure. But even this is changing......
The role of "politics" in science deserves special mention. The traditional reaction to politics by many scientists is one of condescension and disdain. Science is objective after all. Politics is just demagoguery. This attitude illserves young scientists and science in general. As mentioned above, doing science is political for better or for worse. You have to convince people of the correctness of what you are claiming. Perhaps of more importance is that scientists must have a political voice. Former White House science advisor Allan Bromley relates the following story: ".....When I talked to Senator Mikulski she said.....look, if the situation out there is as bad as you say it is -- and I was talking about young investigators -- how is it that I never hear from any of these people, whereas on an almost daily basis I hear from representatives of the Veterans Administration and the Department of Housing and Urban Development?" Legislators at all levels must hear from scientists about the problems and needs of scientists. This is again a situation where many of the traditional conceptions about the nature of being a scientist are harmful. Increased competition for scarce resources doesn't help either.......
Graduate students and young scientists can especially help themselves by pushing for recognition as junior scientists as opposed to being regarded as students who need to be told what to do. Of paramount importance in this regard is some guidance with respect to the tools of being a scientist (as opposed to the tools of science). Organize a workshop or seminar on topics such as how to get a grant, how to give an effective presentation, how to collaborate, where to publish, etc.
All of this is part of being active -- not necessarily in a political sense -- but in a personal sense primarily. This is especially important in regard to understanding the large scale dynamics of science. It is commonplace to hear allusions to the fact that increased competition increases the quality of science. Do you ever think about whether this is true? Is it possible that it has the exact opposite effect?
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