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The Threat to Recovery You’ve Not Heard About

Posted by | May 16, 2009

In recent years we’ve all seen many true advances in medical science, energy technologies and more – the kind of win-win work we need now more than ever to find new ways to build our future and propel us out of this global recession.

But scientists come in two flavors, what I call the workhorses and the racehorses. There are good reasons the Amish don’t plow fields with racehorses, and nobody wins the Kentucky Derby riding a workhorse. We Americans need both kinds of scientists. The trouble is, we are starting to be in danger of losing one set, and the general public knows nothing about it.

Here’s the good news. The workhorses of science and engineering are the folks who have a bachelor’s or master’s degree and a lot of enthusiasm for the workaday world. America is producing well-trained scientists and engineers who fit this description – that’s why exceedingly smart and dedicated young kids from around the world still come to the U.S. to go to college here in science and engineering. Students from our own country – very much including those educated in public schools – also hold their own in the undergraduate classroom and have rich potential in technical work once they earn their degrees. You can see lots of both sets of the young workhorses by visiting any college campus in the country at every point of the school year.

Another bit of good news is that universities now do much better educational work than they commonly did in the past. Here’s what I mean: there’s no better way to learn how to discover new technical knowledge than to jump in and do so, not just sit in a classroom and hear about the work. At both large public universities and elite private colleges, that kind of learn-by-doing work is now encouraged and supported for undergraduates, and it will yield dividends throughout entire decades yet to come in the professional lives of those who are truly being taught how to think.

These are, however, tough times. Many public universities are cutting budgets because revenue streams from state government are shrinking. Private universities have been hit hard.  But this isn’t 1931, and education in science and engineering in the U.S. is not in free fall.  We will get through the next two years, in part due to America’s generous college alumni and also help from the recent stimulus plan passed by Congress that supplements science and engineering budgets.

It’s the racehorses of science who look like they are in real trouble. These are the scientists who earn Ph.D.s and normally stay in their disciplines for 45 years. They spend their intellectual lives making many of the most fundamental advances in our knowledge base. Some of them direct large and well-staffed laboratories, others work by themselves using not much more than mathematics. However they go about their work, they are crucial to the recipe that makes for some of the greatest forward progress we’ve seen – advancement we very much need to keep alive in this recession for all sorts of reasons.

Many students earning Ph.D.s in the sciences this spring simply don’t have jobs to which they can apply. That’s not entirely a new problem, but it’s a trend that’s getting rapidly worse. More and more of these students do longer and longer “post-doctoral” studies, work that essentially extends their time in university labs while they wait for jobs to appear. And wait, and wait, and wait some more.

The rapidly increasing number of post-docs is worrisome. We’ve invested a whole lot in them. If we can employ these very able and highly educated young scientists – many of whom are not native to the U.S. but who would like to remain here if they can – we’ll be better off. If we never fully employ the post-docs or they go elsewhere in the world, we will be vastly the poorer for it. The “brain drain” that could run from here to Asia and Europe is staggering to contemplate.

How to quickly and fully employ America’s post-docs is a national problem, one I hope there will be public discussion about soon.