How to Calm the Booms and Busts in Science Doctorates

Americans go through an almost comically predictable cycle when it comes to science education: panic that the U.S. is falling behind, followed by overproduction of science Ph.D.s, followed by unemployment and underemployment in science professions, which discourages promising young people from entering the field, which leads to renewed panic that the U.S. is falling behind. It happened when the Soviets beat the U.S. into space with Sputnik in 1957, with the “A Nation at Risk” report of 1983, and with the biomedical funding boom of the 2000s.

Fears are now increasing that the U.S. is at another low ebb. A 2010 report noted that the World Economic Forum ranked the U.S. No. 48 in the quality of mathematics and science education, while China was rushing to the forefront, moving from nowhere to No. 2 in the publication of biomedical research articles.

A new book proposes ways to calm the booms and busts. It’s Falling Behind? Boom, Bust & the Global Race for Scientific Talent, by Michael Teitelbaum, who is a senior research associate at Harvard Law School and was honored as person of the year for 2013 by Science magazine’s Science Careers for his “dedicated, imaginative, and surpassingly effective work on behalf of early-career scientists.”

Teitelbaum is in the camp of those who think alarms about shortages of science talent are often overdone, harming the very scientists whom it honors. But he does worry, appropriately, about “symptoms of malaise.” For starters, Teitelbaum writes, Congress and the White House should heed the wisdom of Franklin Roosevelt’s science czar, Vannevar Bush, whose 1945 report, called “Science, the Endless Frontier,” laid the groundwork for the postwar system of federal funding for research and development. The government, Teitelbaum argues, has ignored Bush’s first principle—stability. “Whatever the extent of support may be,” Bush wrote, “there must be stability of funds over a period of years so that long-range programs may be undertaken.”

The U.S. needs to eliminate “perverse incentives” and “destabilizing” feedback loops, Teitelbaum says. He faults the National Institutes of Health for giving medical schools and other institutions a financial incentive to depend on external grant funding to cover their faculty payroll. And he says federal regulations encourage research universities to borrow funds for construction because they can include debt service in their calculations of indirect costs when applying for grants.

One bright spot is the rapid growth of a new kind of degree, the professional science master’s (PSM). It’s a two-year graduate program that educates science and technical professionals for jobs in industry and government by covering such topics as management and finance. With little or no federal support, the PSM as of last year was offered by more than 135 universities, Teitelbaum writes, “demonstrating substantial responsiveness on the part of U.S. higher education to national workforce needs.”

“There is no need for revolutionary change,” Teitelbaum writes in his final chapter, “no necessity for root-and-branch overhaul. Instead, what is needed is judicious application of incremental adjustments to the current structure of incentives and disincentives.”

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