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Fewer Scientists, Not More, Says a New Paper

A great post over at our sister site, Science Insider, describes a new paper by B. Lindsay Lowell and Harold Salzman of Georgetown University and the Urban Institute, respectively.

The new study makes a point that we at Science Careers have been making for years: If you care about science, you want to make sure that science remains an attractive career. Focusing on the supply side — training more scientists — as many do, runs the risk lowering salaries, causing working conditions to deteriorate, and making professional prospects less certain for people with scientific training. Do that, and fewer smart people will enter the field. It’s a negative-feedback loop. Here’s how my colleagues Yudhijit Bhattacharjee put it in the Science Insider entry:

The researchers–led by Lowell and Harold Salzman, a sociologist at
the Urban Institute and Rutgers University, New Brunswick–argue that boosting the STEM pipeline may end up hurting the United States in the long-term.

This
happens, they say,  by depressing wages in S&T fields and turning
potential science and technology innovators into management
professionals and hedge fund managers.

So how do you create a vibrant scientific economy? You invest more in
science itself. There will be shortages. Salaries will rise. Science
will once again be viewed as an elite career:

The way to promote US
competitiveness in STEM fields is to “put more emphasis on the demand
side,” says Lowell, noting that U.S. colleges and universities produce
three times more STEM graduates every year than the number of STEM jobs
available. Cranking out even more STEM graduates, he says, does not
give corporations any incentive to boost wages for STEM jobs, which
would be one way to retain the highest-performing students in STEM.

Of course, many people in business don’t like this approach because they want to be able to continue hiring scientists cheaply. It’s short-sighted, but understandable:

Susan Traiman of the Business Roundtable criticizes the new study,
saying that it gives an illusion of a robust supply because it bundles
all STEM fields together. There may be an oversupply in the life
sciences and social sciences, she argues, but there is no question that
there are shortages in engineering and the physical sciences. The
findings “are not going to make us go back and re-examine everything
we’ve been calling for,” she says.

No question? The Conference Board reports that things are especially bad for engineers, with two online ads for every job opening. To compare, there is only one job-seeking health worker for every three opportunities posted in that sector.