Skip to main content

Beryl Lieff Benderly

The Structure of Training, Not Inadequate Funding, Is Causing Young American Scientists to Look Abroad for Opportunities

Matthew Stremlau, a postdoc at the Broad Institute in Cambridge, Mass., also has experience doing research in China, at the National Laboratory for Agrobiotechnology and Peking University.  Writing on the op-ed page of the Washington Posthe advises fellow young scientists unable to achieve academic science careers in the United States to seek opportunity abroad.   Countries that also include Brazil, Saudi Arabia, and Singapore are currently quite hospitable to foreign scientific talent, he notes.  That’s not bad given that in the United States, “Only a handful of my friends will go on to run their own labs, though many more would like to,” he writes.  “Some go into industry or consulting or law. Others leave science altogether.”

Stremlau’s description of the current prospects for young scientists in the United States is certainly accurate, but he misconstrues the cause for their plight.  “Twenty years ago, most molecular-science PhD graduates in the United States went on to start up their own labs at universities across the country,” he claims.  He then blames recent cuts in “public funding for science and technology” for the current desperately tight academic job market. 
In fact, it has been been many more than 20 years since the majority of young American biomedical scientists have routinely had the opportunity to start labs of their own. According to Bridges to Independence, published by the National Academies Press in 2005,  in the early 1990s there were already almost 12,000 biomed PhDs aged 35 or younger in the United States, but fewer than 2000 of the tenure-track positions that allow scientists to launch secure, independent academic research careers.  (That’s fewer than 2000 positions altogether, not 2000 openings at any one time.  Only a much smaller number of openings became available each year.)  By 2001, the young PhDs numbered almost 18,000, but the number of suitable tenure-track positions had barely budged.  Even twenty years ago, therefore, many fewer than “most” young biomedical scientists got to fulfill their dream of a lab of their own.

And lack of federal funding is not the reason.  Paradoxically, in fact, the five-year doubling of National Institutes of Health funding that occured in the early 2000s, and the added billions for biomedical research included in President Obama’s stimulus package, only made this difficult situation worse.  That is because–as Science Careers has reported seemingly countless times over the years–the root of the problem is not a shortage of funding (the US spends over $40 billion a year on biomedical research alone), but rather the system of “self-replicating” professors who use graduate students and postdocs as cheap labor to do the bench work needed for their grants.  This produces a continuing stream of new scientists–many hoping to start their own labs–regardless of whether there exist career positions available for them.  
Over the last 4 decades, rising US science funding has thus led to a drastic increase in the number of young scientists produced by universities, but very little increase in the number of positions that permit any but a handful of these researchers to establish their own careers as independent academic investigators. Perversely, increased money available for grants just encourages professors to take on more grad students and postdocs, therefore producing ever more young scientists vying for the pitifully few real opportunities available.  
Stremlau’s advice to his friends and colleagues is certainly quite sound from the standpoint of individuals seeking personal opportunity.  But solving the basic problem will take much more than more than merely funneling more funds through the present, severely dysfunctional system.  It will take a restructuring of the career ladder and incentive structure within the current “pyramid” system of training and funding.
That certainly won’t happen in time to help Stremlau and his friends, and it may not happen at all unless the powerful academic interests that benefit from the current system take an honest and searching look at what is really wrong with American academic science and what must be done to fix it.  Until they do, looking abroad appears quite a sensible strategy for  talented young Americans.