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We are the 99 percent of scientists

Anna Goldstein, former grad student, chemistry | December 12, 2011

Tuesday, November 15 was a big day at UC Berkeley. Crowds gathered all day in Sproul Plaza as part of a “day of action” for the Occupy Cal movement. In the Haas business school, a student with a loaded gun was shot by police. And in the evening, Professor Robert Reich delivered his Mario Savio Memorial Lecture to an audience of thousands, motivating them to continue working to battle income inequality.

lab researchersAt the same time, across campus in Stanley Hall, a group of graduate students and post-docs were attending a talk on “The Future of Science”, hosted by the VSPA. The speaker was Kennan Kellaris Salinero, president of Yámana Science and Technology. You might think that this was bad timing for such a discussion. Shouldn’t we have been outside protesting with the rest of the 99%? But Salinero’s talk drove home the point that the government and banks are not the only institutions in need of change. Change is also badly needed in the sciences, and it’s our responsibility as the future leaders of the profession to determine the direction of that change.

Salinero began her career as a chemist at Georgetown University; she left academia to join industry after she discovered a need for more work-life balance. While working on the completion of the human genome project, she noticed that many of the sequencing centers were not sharing their data with each other. They even refused to use the same names to describe various proteins. That was when she realized that there are systemic problems with the way science is done today, and she’s been hard at work trying to define and solve those problems ever since. “Proteins are very good at self-assembly,” she says. “It turns out that humans are not.”

The issues at hand are enormously complex and impossible to wrangle in a single blog post (or even ten or twenty). So this post will just scratch the surface of my thoughts following Salinero’s presentation. And I’ll also limit myself to discussing academic science, for two reasons. First, it’s a world I know intimately, so I feel qualified to discuss its subtleties. And second, basic science research—the kind that results in a greater understanding of the natural world, thus greater mastery of it for the benefit of humanity—has historically thrived in universities. Government and industry labs are both significant sources of research progress as well; I will leave it to someone else to tease out the similarities and differences.

Let me share a story with you. A first year postdoc is applying for funding. She joined a relatively new lab; her advisor, Dr. Awesome (not his real name), was an extremely productive graduate student and has big plans for his group. Knowing that funding is limited, the postdoc crafts a fellowship application based on the overlap between her own expertise and the resources available in the lab. Reviews come back, and they are extremely flattering of her qualifications. They have nothing but good things to say about her preparedness and capacity to be a successful researcher. And yet, as of this writing, each of her last five proposals has been turned down. The committees justify their incongruous decision by citing her advisor’s lack of experience in mentoring postdocs.

At the same time, Dr. Awesome’s grant proposals are also getting rejected. Why? Not enough experience in the hyper-specific area of his proposed research. So Dr. Awesome and our postdoc heroine are stuck. They’re not established enough to establish themselves. Those coveted dollars are going instead to a select few groups (the 1%?) who managed to demonstrate their competence during a period of relative abundance. Perhaps things will turn around soon for Dr. Awesome. Or perhaps his bad luck will continue, to the point that future reviewers (and perhaps a tenure committee) will cite the lack of funding as a reason to deny him even further.

This is the reality of our current system. Is it logical? Is it efficient? Imagine academia as an engine whose goal is to efficiently convert intellectual and material resources into information and applications that benefit society. Of course, there are losses along the way. No conversion process can operate at 100% efficiency. We think first of the postdocs; there they stand at the doors of the academy, proposals in hand, ready to start their lab, but there just isn’t enough room for everyone. Then we remember the graduate students who, seeing the struggles and failures of their more senior labmates, decide not to pursue a research career (Salinero estimates that 60% of STEM PhD’s end up leaving the sciences). Even greater in number are the undergrad science majors who glimpse their future as a jaded graduate student, and decide that they would be better off in another line of work. People are walking away from science, and taking their future potentially ground-breaking accomplishments with them. Study the figure below if you don’t believe me. Our science engine is a gas-guzzler, wasting more bright minds every day.

graph re. high school grads who major in STEM, by level of STEM prep

(The percentage of top-notch high school students going into STEM fields has plummeted in recent years. Click here to see this data in the original paper by Lowell et al.. pg. 17)

I don’t mean to say that established researchers should be denied funding for the sake of the younger ones. The problem of funding inequality in academia differs drastically from that of income inequality in the rest of America. Members of our nation’s top 1% have more pie than any one person could ever want or need, whereas the most-funded scientists are not usually among the super-wealthy. Meanwhile, these scientists do tend to produce high caliber research that merits further support. If the 1% of scientists have a reasonable slice of pie, then do we just need a bigger pie? Well, kind of. Increasing the size of the scientific workforce would certainly increase its output. Whatever happens, we certainly should not shrink the pie. But I don’t think we should stop at asking for more money, and neither does Salinero.

I can’t say it any better than this statement, from the original proposal of Yámana Science and Technology: “The culture and structure of basic science fail to fulfill the true potential of invested time, money, and individuals’ contributions.” The enterprise of science must become more, well… enterprising. We must honestly assess our losses and figure out how to recover them. For starters, it is imperative that we patch the “leaky pipeline”, not just for women or under-represented minorities, but for any person who wants more depth to their lives than slaving away writing doomed grant proposals can provide. When you consider the wasted potential of all the talented people being driven away from science, the cost of maintaining the status quo is immense.

Should we just throw up our hands and say that the problems are all too big to be solved? Should we keep playing our part in the rat race, vying for those few spots at the top and hoping the system works in our favor? Clearly the answer is no; it’s time for the 99% of scientists to take action. Let’s make the future of science one in which people are rewarded for being creative thinkers and effective leaders. The NSF is already thinking along these lines; their new CREATIV grants are designed to attract high-risk, interdisciplinary types of proposals that might have been ignored otherwise. Maybe you could start a new collaboration, or volunteer teaching science to a diverse group of students. I don’t have all the answers (I barely even know the questions), but I urge you to continue this conversation online, in the labs, in the hallways, anywhere that scientists gather. Imagine a world where researchers young and old can thrive and produce freely, and then ask yourself what you can do to create that world. And don’t forget to ask for more pie.

Further reading:
Steady as She Goes?: Three Generations of Students through the Science and Engineering Pipeline
Into the Eye of the Storm: Assessing the Evidence on Science and Engineering Education, Quality, and Workforce Demand
The Personal Cost of Being a Scientist (.doc)

This post appeared originally in the Berkeley Science Review, a graduate student-run magazine highlighting research occurring at UC Berkeley.

Comments to “We are the 99 percent of scientists

  1. This is an excellent post. However, it shed some light only on one aspect of the problem. There are many others:

    . The granting agencies prefer to give big grants to small number of researcher rather than small grants to a large number of researchers. As I was told by a very senior person at NSF, the rational is that if Chemistry (say) have too high of a percentage of proposals granted then all of the other sciences will cry out and ask increase their own funding at the expense of Chemistry.

    . Pricing of grants is completely inflated. Why should a graduate student cost the US government close to 100k$ (including overhead, tuition) when her salary is around 20-25k$? Since only very few people get very big grants, in general scientists do not work together to reduce the price of doing research in the US. Obviously this results in a competitive disadvantage for US research.

    . Many areas of science are built on hip. Many of the papers published in Nature, Science, PNAS simply publish false claims. There are rare cases where this comes out (i.e. in cases of obvious large scale cheating) but in general the journals policy is not to publish debunking of methodology or just simple research indicating that the “surprising” results published are just wrong.

    . The previous fact lead to a network of operators (not so different from the finance operators) who excel in publishing in the important venues but do not advance (and in some cases degrade) scientific understanding.
    Their techniques include keeping as much of the data and methods to themselves, ignoring related work as much as possible and either cheating or making mistakes that result in wrong and surprising publications.

    . The scientific system does not give any incentives to whistle blowers. Papers pointing mistakes in other papers are very hard to publish. Going after cheaters is considered non collegial. And almost no credit is given for repeating and verifying work by others.

    There are many scientists (I am one of them) who are very concerned about the current situation of science but so far there isn’t a critical mass for changing the incentive systems. For now the power is in the hands of the operators, the connected, the famous and not in the hands of those who do the best science.

    I should add that my own scientific career went well and I never had serious problems getting funded. I considered myself lucky for being able to do it in an honest manner.

  2. Here is a novel idea.

    How about reducing the number of graduate students in the sciences and closing some PhD programs ??

    This sounds cruel but not really as if one finishes a PhD program then one should have a reasonable chance of actually having a career in the field of study.

    It’s tough love to be sure but maybe we really don’t need that many PhDs in the first place. When you look at the citation indexes then you realize that the vast majority of the published literature is done by very few PhDs.

    People are walking away from science because of the poor employment prospects and it gets tiring seeing those over 30 not being able to find steady work.

    Increasing the demand for scientists would be best but that is not likely to happen given government cutbacks and that industrial R&D justifying PhDs has declined. If you can’t increase the demand then you shrink the supply.

    • hoapres

      Your comment is good but disturbing because it is becoming more common to hear that a college education is not necessary. Eventually, the market will decide who gets a college education and I hope it will not become limited to those who’s parents have achieved exceptional economic success. I reject the idea that there can be too many PhDs; the more people that can add to our body of knowledge, the merrier.

      • I agree that one can never be over educated but one can certainly and I suspect over credentialed.

        In the vast majority of cases, I don’t believe that a college education is necessary. What has happened over the past couple of decades is a vast amount of credential inflation required to get a job. If a job only required a high school diploma twenty years ago then it doesn’t follow that the job requires a college degree today.

        College diplomas are often used as an expensive and unwarranted aptitude test. Many jobs don’t require college but the employer requires the degree to be considered for employment.

        Of course, one can “reject the idea that there can be too many PhDs”. But of course you can have too many PhDs with the obvious and extremely absurd perhaps scenario of everyone having a PhD.

        With regards to “the more people that can add to our body of knowledge, the merrier” to which I totally agree but it needs to be pointed out that you don’t need a PhD to add to the body of knowledge.

        Another problem not often mentioned is that perhaps that the bright people make the college instead of the other way around. Lincoln who was a towering intellect and probably one of the greatest presidents in American history never went to college. If Lincoln went to Harvard then Harvard without question would make claims along the line “Harvard made Lincoln”

        If you are a true genius then the school will come to you offering financial assistance. I have been fortunate enough to meet more than one stellar high school genius and none of them have to pay for their education. While I have no disagreement with the basic contention that education should be made available to all, it should be pointed out that college costs have been increasing on an annual basis higher than the cost of inflation with the graduates having more and more difficulties finding employment.

  3. Your thoughts are important and beautifully presented. We, the ultimate consumers of science, fail to appreciate the connection between the years of preparation, hard work and the freedom to fail frequently required to establish the basic science needed to provide the foundation for innovation. But let me remind you of the importance of benefactors in the scientific process. It has been the 1% that more frequently understood the importance of basic research and provided the funding. Governments and corporations are more inclined to fund applications that necessarily yield a return on investment. Don’t dispair, you’ll find the resources when you find the best place to look.

  4. The financial industry, that produces nothing, seems to have captured the economy, and diverted our best and brightest to careers in finance and law.

    What funding exists goes way too much to NASA and military science — an absurd amount of funding that would better be spent on basic research.

    As fossil fuels decline, the size of the pie for everyone is going to shrink, and I fear basic science will suffer greatly, especially given the right-wing anti-science, fundamental Christian dumbing down of all textbooks, and general anti-intellectual history of the USA. If I could vote for where my taxes went, I’d give it to scientists who aren’t in the 1%

    • Alice, not to be rude or anything, but there are many Christians in the science world. Also, how might you suggest that “basic research” counter-attack a terrorism?

      • Renee- any military science, including counter-terrorism, is built on a foundation of basic research. X-ray scanners, explosives detection, etc… none of it would be possible without the scientists who first discovered the basic principles.

      • Renee said: “There are many Christians in the science world”

        I said “FUNDAMENTAL Christian dumbing down of all textbooks”. I was talking about textbooks. But since you brought it up, I’d love to see statistics on how many FUNDAMENTALIST Christian scientists exist who are publishing in PEER-REVIEWED journals recognized within the scientific community. Young-earth creationism is not science.

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