Lately, in scientific circles there is a lot of talk about the risks of losing “a whole generation” of scientists as a result of the stagnant research funding. I’ll unpack that sentence in a bit – because, although simple in appearance, the simplicity hides a complicated web of decisions, rewards, incentives, and priorities. First, it is clear the scientific community has borrowed a well-known strategy public health communicators have used for years to drive behavioral change. Want people to pay attention to some message? Make it about the kids. Adults who may not quit smoking, eat better, or get colonoscopies for their own good are often swayed when messages make clear that the real beneficiaries of taking action are grandchildren. Prominent scientists asking for more research dollars – hey, not for me, but for the kids – is a very clever pitch. It is a pitch private funders should be wary of indulging.
Another really clever twist on this “save the kids” message – especially for the biomedical sciences- is that it provides a distraction away from one of the reasons young scientists leave academic science: its pyramid scheme structure. Much of academic research is carried out by legions of young students and postdoctoral fellows. The career dream for many of these trainees is to become a “PI” – to garner a faculty appointment with your own lab, your own funding, and as quickly as is possible your own laboring legions. A single PI can “produce” large numbers of potential PIs over his or her 40 or 50 year long career. (For a visual on progeny production check out a public service announcement warning people to neuter/spay their cat!) Because an academic career is long, turnover is low and many more young people in training will aspire to join the exalted ranks of the PIs than academic science can place into faculty positions. Even the building boom of the past 20 years adding millions of laboratory square feet cannot relieve the training crunch. Labs grow – and so does the legion of young hands at the bench. At some point during training a (growing) percentage will opt into what academic science typically refers to as an “alternative career” – in government, non-academic non-profits, or industry. And the quality of the training the legions receive in experimental design, data analysis, research ethics, and scientific communication? I think you can guess. And in the last few years there has been some outspoken and concerned senior scientists calling attention to the issue of “overpopulation.”
So, if truth were to be told – some percentage of young scientists have always been “lost” to academic science. The system assures it. Academic science depends on high through-put at the bench and low turnover in the office. But rather than facing the overpopulation issue head on academic science has found a scapegoat. We don’t have to have an uncomfortable conversation about an internal, systemic issue. We can claim the kids are leaving because of stagnant funding! Academic science needs more funding so the kids can cure diseases, save the planet, and secure the future. Save the kids! Brilliant.
Except – for the most part increases in science funding goes to PIs. But to do more with more funding PIs need to recruit more students. More students mean more post docs. More post docs mean more aspiring PIs. You get the picture. More funding never relieves the need for more funding. Oh, there may be some short-term relief. But very quickly demand outsources supply.
Maybe it is really time to have a serious discussion about this issue. For the sake of the kids.