Science Careers Blog

James Austin: November 2008

Most areas of science have made progress in increasing the representation of women--slow, inadequate progress in some fields, but progress nonetheless. Computer science is an exception.

This article, from yesterday's New York Times, asks, 'Why is the number of women entering computer science declining?'

November 12, 2008

Serious Postdoc Weirdness

There's no denying that life as a postdoc can be stressful. The pay is relatively low, the hours are long, the long-term prospects often aren't great, and sometimes bosses--and colleagues--can be real jerks.

But the events described in this story, from a staff writer at the San Francisco Chronicle (Hat tip: The Chronicle of Higher Education News Blog) are just too weird.

A postdoctoral researcher in the UCSF urology department has been charged with attempted murder after allegedly admitting that he twice tried to poison a colleague by putting laboratory chemicals in her drinking water, authorities said Tuesday.

The chemicals used by Benchun Liu, 38--a "buffering solution used to control acid"--discolored the water. The disoloration was noticed by the alleged victim, Mei Cao, who drank the water anyway. The accused then confessed to the victim that he had tried to kill her, and was arrested Monday. He is being held in the county jail without bail. Liu told police that he had been "stressed out."

This article in Sunday's New York Times profiles Nate Silver, a numbers guy who started the political Website and has won a popular following by correctly predicting the outcome of political races. Prior to that, he made a living analyzing baseball statistics. (Check out this In Person piece about another scientist who makes a living analyzing baseball.)

Some people who have analyzed his work say that Silver's methods are primitive and wouldn't pass muster on an undergrad lab report. But it's hard to argue with his record. (His most impressive achievement, in my view: Identifying the last-place Tampa Bay Rays as one of the top teams in baseball for 2008.)

November 10, 2008

Scientific Stimulus

Over at Talking Points Memo, a liberal political blog, economist and former Clinton Labor Secretary Robert Reich provides a prescription for getting us out what he calls our current "mini-depression"--not a full-on 1930's crisis but worse than the periodic recessions the country (and the world) goes through every few years.

Reich's prescription: government spending, and lots of it. On what? "Mostly infrastructure," Reich writes -- "repairing roads and bridges, levees and ports; investing in light rail, electrical grids, new sources of energy, more energy conservation." Reich points out that Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke agrees that economic stimulus is needed, and that "Even conservative economists like Harvard's Martin Feldstein are calling for government to stimulate the economy through infrastructure spending." That's because "Infrastructure projects like these pack a double-whammy: they create lots of jobs, and they make the economy work better in the future." Reich proposes also spending on childcare and healthcare, and adds a parenthetical "Important qualification: To do this correctly and avoid pork, the federal government will need to have a capital budget that lists infrastructure projects in order of priority of public need."

I'm trained in science, not economics, but my generic analytical skills suggest that Reich has it almost right. Spending on infrastructure, and thereby creating jobs and stimulating consumer spending--seems like a good idea. But I think he leaves out a very important category of public spending that ought to be increased to stimulate the economy: spending on science.

The government should invest in infrastructure improvement because America's infrastructure needs to be improved; job creation is merely an essential side effect. Similarly, investing in science would not be primarily a program to employ scientists. While unemployment rates among scientists are likely to rise along with those in other sectors--see Alan Kotok's blog entry from earlier today for insight into the impact the current economy is already having on academic hiring and layoffs--they're starting from a lower level and will probably rise more slowly. Unemployment among scientists just isn't a major problem right now compared to unemployment in the economy at large.

On the other hand, investing in science is always a good idea in the long term because science and technology are major engines driving economic growth. That's a very good reason for directing a big chunk of the anticipated $600-700 billion in stimulus spending towards science--but there might be a better reason still. The big problem with a recession--or a mini-depression--as Reich points out, is underutilized capacity. People out of work. Parked delivery trucks. Under-funded science labs. Under-stimulated scientists.

While unemployment among scientists remains quite low compared to other sectors, UNDERemployment among (especially young) scientists is already too high. Postdocs in their 6th or 7th year, stuck in their current positions without hope of better jobs at universities that are also struggling, are a huge un-tappedresource for the world economy. Unleash their creativity and give them money to spend on research and you stimulate the economy not just now but for years to come. Some projects we already know are needed: A new electric grid; alternative energy sources and alternative fuels. But science always comes up big in the long term in ways we never anticipated.

I'll leave it to others to decide precisely what form this investment in science should take. But the program MUST be designed to create independent research positions for early career scientists, and not merely to increase the number of postdocs in existing labs. A billion dollars could endow several hundred permanent faculty posts. In addition, Congress MUST commit to funding steady, healthy increases in the budgets of the nation's scientific funding agencies--not short-term spurts like the NIH doubling, which can be counterproductive. These investments, together, could pay off in a stronger scientific infrastructure, generating growth in new industries and improving our world economic standing, as China, India, and Singapore have already done.

The nation has a huge untapped resource in its underemployed scientists. Investing in them will yield benefits in the short term--and even more benefits in the long term.

Dear editor,

Thank you for this extremely well-written and exhaustively researched article!!  I'm a recent PhD graduate from a western university and everything written here pretty much sums up what a lot of us have been through but never hear.  At the beginning of my fifth and last year, I had the opportunity to have a group meeting with Barry Polisky, CSO of SIRNA therapeutics.  One of the students asked him if we should do a post-doc and he said, "Sure, kill some time, if you're young and immature, do it.  But, if you're in your late thirties, married with two kids I'd advise against it".  I'm that guy.  That was the first I'd heard that I shouldn't do the post-doc.  Everyone in academia advised me to do one, that I would be a great faculty member some day, I had an awesome pub record, gotten a grant or two, but it didn't make sense.  Then, I started reading the science careers website, and consulting with people OUTSIDE of academia, and it became clear to me that I would not do a post-doc.  Another student and myself made a pact to not take a post-doc, and this frustrated the hell out of our mentors, but we held our ground, and turned down offers from established faculty on a weekly basis.  After a short job search before I had even graduated, I was hired by a consulting firm to write for Johnson and Johnson, which put me in the loop, and now I'm a consultant for Assent working at Amgen. All of this occurred without a recommendation from my PI, (who takes advantage of her students and post-docs), and without a doing post-doc. My salary is 3 times higher, and my hours are flexible and 40 per week.

I'd also like to mention that during my time at my institution I attempted to organize the students into a collective bargaining agreement with the university but I feel that the 50% of the student body that's Asian wanted nothing to do with it, and we could never gain momentum.  I saw the victimization of our post-docs, especially the ones from China, who receive much less than the NIH recommended salary and no health benefits and work 60+ hours/week.  It's equivalent to indentured servitude.  And I saw it with my classmates, who talk about "grant time" like they were riding with General Custer.  Every single one of them worries about what kind of recommendation they'll get from their professor as if it's life or death.  I know, I did too.  And it makes sense, because we love doing science so much, that we want so badly to do it for the rest of our lives.  So we enter into PhD programs and (falsely) realize that one person controls our fate, our PI, and there's hardly a chance that we'll actually get to do what they do. It's like the movie "Hoop Dreams", where you find out that there's thousands of amazing basketball players vying for a handful of spots on NBA teams.

Anyway, thank you for putting this out there, and please keep the amazing work coming.  This website made a huge difference in my career.  It shone a light into the dusty halls of academia and said, "Hey, check this out" and it empowered me to step outside the box and forge a better path.