Friday, June 10, 2011

The US' newest export: assistant professors?


From the Washington Post a couple weeks back, Matthew Stremlau (a postdoc at Broad) writes about working as a (visiting) scientist in China:
The global science landscape is radically different from what it was when I started graduate school 10 years ago. Opportunities for cutting-edge science are sprouting in many other countries. China stands out. But there are plenty of others. India, Brazil and Singapore built world-class research institutes. Saudi Arabia aggressively recruits researchers for its King Abdullah University of Science and Technology. With a staggering $10 billion endowment there — larger than MIT’s — American scientists no longer need to suffer through Boston’s endless winters. Not to be outdone, Abu Dhabi opened the Masdar Institute of Science and Technology in 2009. These emerging powers have a voracious appetite for good scientists. So they’re trying to poach ours. [snip] 
Talented scientists in this country often fall through the cracks because they can’t get funding. Agencies are deluged with applications and often have to reject as many as 90 percent of the proposals they receive. Unfortunately, the situation is likely to deteriorate further as budget cuts limit the resources available for research. So I’ve started encouraging my friends to think more creatively about their careers. Go to China, I tell them. Or Singapore or Brazil or the Middle East. If the United States can’t fund its scientific talent, find a country that will.
In Beth Halford's "Too Many PhDs" article, we heard from Amir Hoveyda that perhaps US scientists should be thinking about heading overseas to make their way into the academic world. John Schwab also mentioned that perhaps even industrially-oriented young organic chemists need to be following their passions internationally.

I suspect Stremlau would agree with me that the international science boom (represented mostly by advancing economies in the Middle East and Asia) will not last forever and will produce winners and losers. New universities may not succeed in translating money into good science and the political and economic winds may shift once again. You can't buy your way into a great science culture without changing much of your political and economic system*; many countries might balk at the price in terms of relinquishing governmental control.

I think these issues (the concerns about young postdocs heading overseas) are mostly sideshows to the real question: who will receive government funding in the future and how long will they have to wait? As crazy as it sounds, I believe that the majority of the time, the current grants system probably selects the best science to fund. But there is continued dissatisfaction with the system. I hope it will probably (hopefully) culminate in a reworking to allow younger scientists to receive more funding, earlier. Otherwise, we're making a lot of youngish professors suffer -- and they'll consider going elsewhere if the suffering is less there.

In an (unusually) optimistic conclusion, the US commitment to science is long and deep and I suspect will continue on its current funding trend for many, many years.* In the end, though, I am all for other countries investing in science and trying to poach young US scientists; to paraphrase Churchill, science, science is better than war, war.

*OK, so China and Singapore are probably going to test that assertion pretty strongly. 
**In the coming years, what's going to take the bigger hit? DoD or NIH? My bet is DoD -- yours? 

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