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NIH: The United States Has Too Many Ph.D.s

Story after story has warned us that the United States is falling behind in science and research. We need to train more scientists, and stat.

Or do we? A new piece in BioTechniques reveals that a National Institutes of Health (NIH) working group will be studying the future of the U.S. biomedical research workforce. Among its tasks will be to figure out what to do about the glut -- that's right, glut -- of Ph.D.-trained U.S. research scientists. From the article:
"At the root of the problem is the fact that we are overproducing Ph.D.s," Shirley Tilghman, head of the biomedical working group and president of Princeton University, told the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. "As a consequence, there are too many people chasing too few jobs and too few grant dollars."

So the NIH has too many Ph.D.s on its hands, and now the 12-member working group, the article says, "must either find a way to support Ph.D.s who want to dedicate their lives to biomedical research or a way to discourage them from pursuing research careers."

Of course, discouraging people from pursuing research careers contradicts the widely-held media meme that we need to produce as many scientists as possible. But when you look at proposed funding levels for the National Institutes of Health, this dosage of discouragement starts to make sense. There's an entire generation of highly-trained, highly-talented postdoctoral fellows (a sort of apprenticeship phase between the Ph.D. student and tenured professorship years) in their 30s and 40s who are leaving science because there is no research funding available. Life for both tenured and non-tenured academic scientists has become an episode of Survivor, only with beakers and emergency eye wash sinks.

The Ph.D.s who want to leave academia for private industry, meanwhile, are finding there aren't very many jobs to apply for as companies have cut back on research and development to focus on this quarter's results. In 2010, research and development constituted 2.8% of U.S. GDP. This year, research and development will constitute 2.7% of U.S. GDP, according to a recent Battelle report. It doesn't take a Ph.D. to see that the numbers are moving in the wrong direction.

People pursuing careers in Chemistry and Physics have it even worse. The National Science Foundation, which offers grants to chemists and physicists, is chronically underfunded and Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK) thinks the NSF is useless. Still want a scientific career?

Now in the interest of full disclosure, my spouse has a Ph.D. in the life sciences, which is the reason I've heard of publications with sexy names like BioTechniques. But this story would still interest me even if I couldn't tell a thermocycler from a stationary bike, since it adds a missing element to the whole "we need to train more scientists as soon as possible" conversation.

And the missing element is this: When it comes to highly-trained scientific research careers, the United States may not have a lack of skills and education problem as much as it has a lack of funding and long term vision problem.

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