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DBL%20Hendrix%20small.png College chemistry, 1983

Derek Lowe The 2002 Model

Dbl%20new%20portrait%20B%26W.png After 10 years of blogging. . .

Derek Lowe, an Arkansan by birth, got his BA from Hendrix College and his PhD in organic chemistry from Duke before spending time in Germany on a Humboldt Fellowship on his post-doc. He's worked for several major pharmaceutical companies since 1989 on drug discovery projects against schizophrenia, Alzheimer's, diabetes, osteoporosis and other diseases. To contact Derek email him directly: derekb.lowe@gmail.com Twitter: Dereklowe

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January 24, 2013

Too Many Scientists: A "Pyramid Scheme"

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Posted by Derek

Chemistry World has really touched a lot of nerves with this editorial by economics professor Paula Stephan. It starts off with a look back to the beginnings of the NIH and NSF, Vannevar Bush's "Endless Frontier":

. . .a goal of government and, indirectly, universities and medical schools, was to build research capacity by training new researchers. It was also to conduct research. However, it was never Bush’s vision that training be married to research. . .

. . .It did not take long, however, for this to change. Faculty quickly learned to include graduate students and postdocs on grant proposals, and by the late 1960s PhD training, at least in certain fields, had become less about capacity building and more about the need to staff labs.

Staff them we have, and as Prof. Stephen points out, the resemblence to a pyramid scheme is uncomfortable. The whole thing can keep going as long as enough jobs exist, but if that ever tightens up, well. . .have a look around. Why do chemists-in-training (and other scientists) put up with the state of affairs?

Are students blind or ignorant to what awaits them? Several factors allow the system to continue. First, there has, at least until recently, been a ready supply of funds to support graduate students as research assistants. Second, factors other than money play a role in determining who chooses to become a scientist, and one factor in particular is a taste for science, an interest in finding things out. So dangle stipends and the prospect of a research career in front of star students who enjoy solving puzzles and it is not surprising that some keep right on coming, discounting the all-too-muted signals that all is not well on the job front. Overconfidence also plays a role: students in science persistently see themselves as better than the average student in their program – something that is statistically impossible.

I don't think the job signals are particularly muted, myself. What we do have are a lot of people who are interested in scientific research, would like to make careers of it, and find themselves having to go through the system as it is because there's no other one to go through.

Stephan's biggest recommendation is to try to decouple research from training: the best training is to do research, but you can do research without training new people all the time. This would require more permanent staff, as opposed to a steady stream of new students, and that's a proposal that's come up before. But even if we decide that this is what's needed, where are the incentives to do it? You'd have to go back to the source of the money, naturally, and fund people differently. Until something's done at that level, I don't see much change coming, in any direction.

Comments (32) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Academia (vs. Industry) | Business and Markets | Graduate School


COMMENTS

1. Anonymous on January 24, 2013 1:18 PM writes...

"But even if we decide that this is what's needed, where are the incentives to do it? You'd have to go back to the source of the money, naturally, and fund people differently. Until something's done at that level, I don't see much change coming, in any direction."

Tie it to grants! The NIH proposed that they make a committee years ago to look at the future of the biomedical workforce. Supply/Demand was a huge concern with many people commenting on it being a pyramid scheme with no where to go. Several responders to the survey (results posted in one of Derek's old posts) recommend limiting how many people can be funded from grants. The problem is that this is a disincentive for Francis Collins. Him and his colleagues recognize how big of a problem this has become and if you pull out the rug (by paying people what they are worth) the field would collapse because so little would be left over for research. He had a chance to fix this back in 2008 when Bush put out stimulus funding for the sciences but instead they exacerbated it, using the money to push for more people to be "trained."
If you follow the inaction on Collin's part you can see that it has literally taken YEARS for him to allow the committee to be formed, take the survey, and draw conclusions (...and by the way this isn't the first time this has happened. A committee's findings back around 2000 was also ignored). Even with obvious data he is purposefully dragging his feet, hoping it will all just go away. You can read the recommendations here: www.nih.gov/news/health/dec2012/od-07.htm which include ideas like training more people to increase diversity (If chemistry/biomedical research isn't considered diverse....I don't know what is) and "enhancing training." There is an interview here: www.nature.com/nature/journal/v493/n7432/full/nj7432-443a.html where you can hear his moans to not change a thing.

"We are planning to establish a sophisticated economic-modelling unit at the NIH to determine supply and demand. We are missing a lot of data. We need to determine who is interested in going into PhD and medical doctorate–PhD programmes, and estimate the current and future demand for their skills in all sectors."

Wow! Gee Golly. Are you going to make another committee!? I wonder how many years this will take...

BTW, I don't mean to come across as someone who doesn't like Collins. He's a great person, but he is the only person has the power to fix this...and for some reason he is refusing to.

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3. anon on January 24, 2013 2:19 PM writes...

the muting of the job market realities happens in the undergrad labs and classes.
You have a prof, who may or may not be blind to the realities of the job market, paint a very rosy picture of things to the students.
The media is also always trumpeting the shortage of science and engineering grads. Politicians like to throw their two cents in on the subject as well.
At the end of the day, it's hard for young people to get a good hold of what the job market is like, these people have significant influence over their thinking.

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4. paperclip on January 24, 2013 2:24 PM writes...

If PIs had more staff rather than students they would have to pay them more. They would also need to be nicer, because an unhappy staff member can much less painfully change labs than a grad student can.

If change is to come the key demographic shift would have to be significantly fewer grad students enrolling. Maybe I am weird today, but it is like how feudalism in western Europe had to change when the Black Death decimated the labor pool.

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5. Rhenium on January 24, 2013 2:43 PM writes...

How did it go from Stephens in the first paragraph to Stephan's in the last?

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6. gippgig on January 24, 2013 2:53 PM writes...

Scientific research (I specifically exclude scientific development) should not be a career; it should be an alternative to a career. Research should be for people who want to make discoveries, not money. You don't need a job, a lab, or a grant to be a scientist (heresy!). Been there, done that.

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7. MoMo on January 24, 2013 3:00 PM writes...

NIH Grants to univerisities have become a sham vehicle for researchers akin to welfare. Then the universities use it to stop paying teachers in the sciences--You want a job here? You must have grant money!

When is this going to change? Probably not in our lifetime as researchers tied into the funding programs run their labs on the Taxpayers dime.

SBIR you ask? Also suspect but once in a while something useful comes out of it--but not often enough for me!

Sure once in while a

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8. RKN on January 24, 2013 3:25 PM writes...

I don't think the job signals are particularly muted, myself. What we do have are a lot of people who are interested in scientific research, would like to make careers of it, and find themselves having to go through the system as it is because there's no other one to go through.

A very good point. If one is eager to become a researcher -- industrial or academic -- in an area of molecular biology, it pays to spend some time working and learning in a lab where molecular biology is done. With rare exception, that means academia. That's why I returned to school.

On the other hand, I think the oversupply of unemployed PhDs might be reduced if more students spent their time in a lab devoted to modern, leading age methods, e.g., acquiring skills in genomics, proteomics, bioinformatics, etc., and stay away from the traditional low throughput labs where students often languish for five years or more trying to get enough data to publish a low impact paper that shows protein X is necessary for process Y.

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9. Chemjobber on January 24, 2013 3:28 PM writes...

@5: The correct spelling is Stephan. Incidentally, her book "How Economics Shapes Science" is eminently readable and interesting. Not much on chemists, though.

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10. Derek Lowe on January 24, 2013 3:29 PM writes...

#5 - typo. Just fixed it - thanks!

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11. funkyfunkychemistry on January 24, 2013 3:36 PM writes...

pure curiosity: who exactly funded these "training grants" back in the day? industry? govt? if so, did the funding entities have a say over what the students researched? what was the role of the PI?

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12. Anonymous on January 24, 2013 4:17 PM writes...

I agree with #3 -- I applied to and began grad school without any idea that the job market was in trouble (and this was in 2009). While it does take a large dose of naivete to go to grad school without really examining the job market, I find it is a fairly common experience in my lab. There's even a post-doc who was told back in his third or fourth year when he was a student, "just focus on your project -- the jobs will come to you"!

It's easy to find people for your pyramid when undergrads lead such a sheltered life. I know I did -- and here I am....

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13. Todd on January 24, 2013 4:56 PM writes...

I think the issue is that the type of person who gets on the bench is trying to use their brains, and only their brains, to make money. While the anti-social stereotype is overblown, you have to admit that the typical bench type isn't exactly a hyper-social being. They think that if they just use their abstract reasoning enough that they'll get ahead. Personally, I realized that I prefer industry to academia, and industry forces you to be more social. Still, so long as these personalities are out there, academia isn't going to hurt for warm bodies.

I think some classes in social skills and coping in social situations would help the young scientist community more than anything else.

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14. MPK on January 24, 2013 5:35 PM writes...

Decoupling of research from training? This was tested in the Soviet block, as "academy of sciences" - basically, research institutes without any teaching programmes (some had kind-of PhD programmes), where it was relatively easy to get tenure. The main disadvantage is that it was (but AFAIK no longer is) hard to fire a lazy "permanent postdoc". And such a system is very rigid - long-term employment creates a rigid network of relations (imagine that 95% staff worked there all their lives), which wouldn't form in a changing environment.

Permalink to Comment

15. anonymous on January 24, 2013 7:10 PM writes...

RKN – your suggestion that more students should spent their time “in a lab devoted to modern, leading age methods, e.g” is divorced from reality. Do you think anyone works in a poorly-equipped lab in a building that likely no longer meets code because they want to? No – they just didn’t have the stellar grades or letters or pedigree, etc., that enabled them to get into the top tier schools, and they are still passionate enough about science so that they’re willing to put up with sometimes dismal conditions to stay engaged. If you meant something like, we should fund less labs overall so that each individual lab has more money and can purchase all of the fancy stuff/pay all of the indirect costs necessary so that each scientist is always at the cutting edge, that’s a different thing altogether (and still probably not realistic).

Gippgig – You’re certainly correct that it is theoretically possible that a person can make discoveries without having a lab, or indeed even being a scientist. However, the type of discoveries you can make under these circumstances are very limited, particularly in the last century or two. In addition, I strongly object to the idea that research should not be a career (and the related implication that these researchers should not be paid). Maybe you are unclear about how modern technology, agriculture, medicine, etc., works, but it’s all based on scientific discoveries that people aren’t capable of doing in their living room for free.

Good grief.

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16. sciencemonkey on January 24, 2013 7:12 PM writes...

I don't see any incentive for the people at the top to change this system. It's really quite ideal in a short-sighted way that ignores the categorical imperative.

Granted, you don't have highly experienced, happily motivated people solving difficult scientific problems. But you can substitute with hard-working students who mistakenly think there is some future reward for their current effort.

What is the essential difference between scientists and medical doctors, where only the latter try to control their numbers to their benefit? Maybe with science, the PI is a different entity, the one that is rare and valuable.

Permalink to Comment

17. Anonymous on January 24, 2013 7:53 PM writes...

@Todd: There are plenty of people with social skills in academia. They are the people who usually get promoted & tenured. Good social skills are essential to play the game, but not to do top-level science. Social skills classes would definitely be a good idea for many young scientists, but social skills classes are not going to fix the problem that the system is structured so that it produces more degreed people than extant stable jobs.

Productivity would go up if research was more professional. Training is noble, but a rather inefficient way to conduct research. About the time most students figure out what the problems are with what they've been doing they are submitting and moving on, often to do something else.

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18. gippgig on January 24, 2013 10:00 PM writes...

#15: I certainly didn't mean that most scientists could do their research without a lab, just that some could (i.e., many of those doing theoretical research, such as the bioinformatics I did). There should definitely be some way for qualified people to get access to labs other than thru academic or industrial affiliations. What really irks me is the seemingly universal notion that the object of going into research is to get money or a job. If that's your goal you shouldn't go into research (try scientific development instead).

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19. Anon on January 25, 2013 2:00 AM writes...

If anyone knows her email, they should forward the author a link to see these comments.

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20. PMP on January 25, 2013 5:33 AM writes...

What are the alternatives? Stephan suggests, among other things: "[C]reate incentives for faculty to staff their labs with permanent help rather than relying on temporary labour." This sounds sensible - until one realizes that research requires both creativity and expertise. At least in mathematics and physical sciences, creativity tends to drop with increasing age (of course there are exceptions), and the same may be true in other sciences as well.

Graduate students and postdocs, in a stimulating environment, can be a significant source of creativity and innovation, and this is not so easily replaced by permanent staff. Additionally, permanent staff are - by definition - permanent, if you make the wrong hire you are stuck for decades, whereas a wrong postdoc will lose you grant money for a while, but will not seriously the group's productivity in the long run.

It may well be that we need to _reduce_ the number of grad students and postdocs, to allow for better training, but I believe the creativity aspect cannot be so easily overlooked. Science needs young minds. Maybe the young ones need to be rewarded better for their contributions?

In many Eastern European countries, research centers have been separated from training (e.g. Polish Academy of Sciences, Hungarian Academy of Sciences). Before rushing to revamp the system, perhaps it might be useful to learn how these places are doing? Singapore's A*STAR might be another model.

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21. anonymous on January 25, 2013 6:35 AM writes...

@8 - What a pretentious and dare i say ignorant snob you appear to be ! I guess it was of NO value to humanity to discover that HMG-CoA reductase was the rate limiting enzyme in cholesterol synthesis (leading to the development of statins), Angiotensin converting enzyme is critical in blood pressure regulation (leading to BP lowering ACE inhibitors), etc, etc, etc.. Certainly all those Chip studies and comparative proteomics efforts have led to FAR more valuable chemotherapeutics....No??? Oh, I get it. It's because there aren't enough 'omics folks (yet)!!!!

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22. eugene on January 25, 2013 7:56 AM writes...

"Do you think anyone works in a poorly-equipped lab in a building that likely no longer meets code because they want to? No – they just didn’t have the stellar grades or letters or pedigree, etc., that enabled them to get into the top tier schools, and they are still passionate enough about science so that they’re willing to put up with sometimes dismal conditions to stay engaged."


This is very wrong. In my experience it is the top tier schools that have the dodgy labs. I was so impressed by a trip to a top 50-70 school recently and all their new labs and equipment, and wondered why we have to work in a collapsing building with cheap PIs and not enough instruments in one of the best (by reputation) schools in the country. One of our ancient labs still has wooden hoods and I have a feeling the boss is waiting for it to burn down before they are replaced.

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23. Another Kevin on January 25, 2013 8:00 AM writes...

@PMP: 'This sounds sensible - until one realizes that research requires both creativity and expertise. At least in mathematics and physical sciences, creativity tends to drop with increasing age (of course there are exceptions), and the same may be true in other sciences as well.'

By that argument, the sciences should never offer a career: young investigators will always be disposable, once their creativity is used up. While that model works for professional sports, I can't quite see society offering the same cachet (or lucre) to scientists.

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24. eugene on January 25, 2013 8:01 AM writes...

"Decoupling of research from training? This was tested in the Soviet block, as "academy of sciences" - basically, research institutes without any teaching programmes (some had kind-of PhD programmes), where it was relatively easy to get tenure. The main disadvantage is that it was (but AFAIK no longer is) hard to fire a lazy "permanent postdoc"."

Yeah, that was tested and it worked really great. Soviet science and technology was awesome. They did everything from CH activation research to bacteriophages to space stations. Are you putting this out there as some sort of negative example? Also, it's hard to fire a lazy "permanent professor" in Amreica these days as well.

Permalink to Comment

25. eugene on January 25, 2013 8:12 AM writes...

@PMP

"In many Eastern European countries, research centers have been separated from training (e.g. Polish Academy of Sciences, Hungarian Academy of Sciences). Before rushing to revamp the system, perhaps it might be useful to learn how these places are doing? Singapore's A*STAR might be another model."

Why go with those? Try the Weizmann and the Technion in Israel which have lots of permanent research staff. I see a lot of them featured in top articles regularly. I mean, if you want an example of another model, you should pick the best and not places that struggle with giant brain drain due to poor economy after the collapse of Communism. Otherwise your comparison would not be really fair.

"Graduate students and postdocs, in a stimulating environment, can be a significant source of creativity and innovation, and this is not so easily replaced by permanent staff. Additionally, permanent staff are - by definition - permanent, if you make the wrong hire you are stuck for decades, whereas a wrong postdoc will lose you grant money for a while, but will not seriously the group's productivity in the long run."

This is an unfounded conjecture with no numbers behind it. In other words: a personal anecdote. Graduate students and postdocs can make for a depressing environment if you're one of them, and have to listen about their problems of finding jobs or thinking of dropping out and becoming a painter. Coupled with the awkward conversations at the bar where each one tries to find out if the other's paper was accepted and if that means they they'll have a better chance at a job. Maybe the 'creativity' of postdocs comes from having to work nights on temporary contracts due to fear of the future?

Permanent staff can have a tenure system as well that is administered by the institution. Just like the professors to make sure you weed out the lazy and the wrong hires; during the tenure process they can rotate between a couple of labs as well. It's definitely wrong to have a particular professor in charge of the tenure promotion of a permanent staff member thinking that their staff member is their 'hire'. It won't be perfect, but there are a lot of deadwood associate professors as well. Plus the research staff can move between labs.

Permalink to Comment

26. eugene on January 25, 2013 8:37 AM writes...

@ another kevin

"By that argument, the sciences should never offer a career: young investigators will always be disposable, once their creativity is used up."

I think that's the system they have now! The young are lured in by the vampire professor who has no creativity of their own, and then sucked dry and disposed by the prof who gets to stay beyond retirement age and win a Cope scholar award (winning of award depends on the amount of the good stuff inside the grey matter of the postdoc who will be disposed of in the unforgiving job market with an average reference letter and then fired at 40 for being 'non-creative').

I'm sure PMP didn't mean it that way, but it's just how it came out.

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27. eugene on January 25, 2013 8:44 AM writes...

Speaking of using the blood and brain-power of the young for creativity, I'm sure this story does not at all explain why postdocs and graduate students are told to work... such long hours. And why their professors come in on the weekends and at night... to watch, yes, that's it, to watch... as they try to catch a few hours of sleep at their desks.

www.telegraph.co.uk/health/9615779/Transfusion-of-young-blood-could-delay-onset-of-diseases-like-Alzheimers.html

Permalink to Comment

28. RET on January 25, 2013 9:24 AM writes...

I think Ms. Stephan needs to reread Bush's report tp President Roosevelt as he is very clear about the importance of training "Renewal of Scientific Talent". He proposes funding both public and private enterprises and making sure, that universities and colleges should be given autonomy in the use of these funds in terms of policy and personnel. I personally don't think they envisioned the global economy and workforce and thus statements such as...

"There must be plenty of men and women trained in science and technology for upon them depend both the creation of new knowledge and its application to practical purposes. More and better scientific research is essential to the achievement of our goal of full employment."

Permalink to Comment

29. RKN on January 25, 2013 1:22 PM writes...

Do you think anyone works in a poorly-equipped lab in a building that likely no longer meets code because they want to?

Evidently.

Where I attended grad school every student was required to rotate in at least three labs before making their selection. I was under the impression this was case at most other schools as well.

Many criteria drive the decision of which lab to matriculate; my point was that one of those criteria should be: "Is the research I'm likely to do in this lab going to be valuable to a modern research effort after I graduate." The lab I did my research in was indeed affluent compared to others, but the PI had additional room for more grad students, yet few came.

As for your assumption about pedigree and grades, it's wrong. At least so far as I'm concerned I was well below academic excellence.

Permalink to Comment

30. Slurpy on January 26, 2013 5:43 AM writes...

RKN, not many schools require lab rotation, at least in my experience. I applied to about fifteen schools for materials chem back in '09, and of those 15, only one required lab rotations. When I ended up going to IU, though, I did find out that the biochem program required it (separately from the chem department), so maybe it's more of a biochem thing than a straight chemistry thing.

Hell, the biggest reason I ended up going to IU was because they allowed you to switch your PI during the first year if it just wasn't working out - the only other school besides the rotation school (Arizona State? I forget) that allowed it.

Permalink to Comment

31. PMP on January 26, 2013 6:10 AM writes...

@eugene

"This is an unfounded conjecture with no numbers behind it." It appears to hold true at least in mathematics - http://www.slate.com/articles/life/do_the_math/2003/05/is_math_a_young_mans_game.html

But I agree, this is an issue that is hard to quantify.

At any rate, _if_ the relationship between age and creativity is true - then we will need to have a fairer system to recognize this, and I agree with your analysis that the current system is not fair - at least in the US (if might be more fair in other countries).

Permalink to Comment

32. RKN on January 26, 2013 7:15 PM writes...

@Slurpy,

so maybe it's more of a biochem thing than a straight chemistry thing.

Yes; I meant any one of the PhD-granting sub-disciplines in biomedical research: biochemistry, genetics, mol/cell biology, pharmacology, pathology, neuroscience, and (@ some schools) nutrition.

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