Thursday, August 23, 2012

Well, whaddya know? "A cost to the individual and society"

From an astute reader, a conversation with the authors of "Is American Science in Decline?" (by sociologists Xu Xie of the University of Michigan and Alexandra A. Killewald of Harvard). This interview was published by Salon.com:
Let me start with the obvious question: Is American science in decline? 
No I don’t think so. I think the evidence that we put together is pretty convincing that, by most measures, American science continues to be very strong and in some spheres even  improving. We do find some areas of  concerns in terms of the wages of scientists. And when we turn to the international perspective, that’s a little bit of a different story. Other countries are gaining on the U.S. but compared to the position that science has held in the past in this country, it’s still quite strong from a historical perspective... 
[snip] Some analysts see the problem differently. They talk about a surfeit of scientists? 
The growth of post-doctoral appointments has been a concern for many people, that these appointments are becoming a kind of holding tank where you’re delaying your first real job longer and longer and folks who aim to become academics are unable to find permanent employment. On the other hand, it’s not clear that it’s bad to have people with PhDs in non-academic positions So I think it certainly can be a concern as relates to an individual’s choices. If someone makes an investment that retrospectively they wouldn’t have made, that certainly is a cost to the individual and society. But I think the fact that individuals who get PhDs end up in other places is not by itself a bad thing. (emphasis mine)
I will continue to argue (perhaps too stridently and perhaps ignoring other data) that ignoring of opportunity cost is something that young scientists-in-training do at their peril, especially in a relatively low job growth economy.

9 comments:

  1. How does one measure the state of science in a given country? I'd buy that Nobels/capita is maybe meaningful, but that shows how good the science was years or even decades ago. Papers or patents per year? Bollocks!

    Opportunity cost seems to me impossible to calculate meaningfully. Retrospectively I should have bought that super lotto ticket that won $25 million. Zut! My hindsight portfolio also does really well.

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    1. That's a poor assessment of opportunity cost. I know you say that tongue-in-cheek, but for the benefit of those who don't know, the opportunity should be linked to the probability of the event occurring. In your example, the opportunity cost is very close to zero because the odds of you winning the lottery is very close to zero, so no matter your outcome, you likely chose correctly. Alternatively, if you chase a career in chemistry rather than graduate school after getting your BS degree, there is closer to a 1:1 correlation between the salary you would have obtained and the input into the calculation.

      I think one of the problems with using the opportunity cost model is not that people don't do it, but that the future numbers come out significantly in your favor with a PhD than without. (see http://www.census.gov/prod/2002pubs/p23-210.pdf for an example) Unfortunately, to B2O6Ya's point, that does not take into account things like potential layoffs, decreased growth, or even a bad quarter that implodes a company. One hiccup can destroy any of these calculations, and most hiccups are unpredictable.

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  2. Perhaps other sciences are different, but in chemistry if you're doing extended post docs there is a problem as it means you couldn't find a academic position or an industry position. And even postdocs are getting hard to find with funding threats on the horizon. What do graduating PhDs do when industry is in a funk and there aren't enough postdocs to tide them over? I think there needs to be a shift in how grad school works - PIs should use more visiting scholars and postdocs and cut down on the number of grad students they take. Yes it would cost more, but the current situation of cheap labor is unsustainable. Industry is no longer able to absorb the excess PhDs.
    I find it ethically questionable that people continue to recruit or steer students into fields where the outlook is so grim. Certainly I can't say with any certainty that five years from now is going to be the same or worse, but I have very little reason to expect it to get substantially better.

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  3. From what I am experiencing, and maybe what's reflective of these opinions. American scientists, especially young ones, are living like Mexican drug dealers. Live fast, die young, and if we get that big pay day, we might live to see our thirtieth birthday, maybe retire on some island. Maybe it's great to move science forward, and great for science in the short to near term with respect to U.S. standings. It's not exactly what you want when you want to sell life long personally rewarding careers. Yet given the outlook for most careers in the new world, I'm not exactly sure what a secure stable career is anyways.

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  4. One more thing, The big Ph. D. push might have finally died. At my previous University they are offering a brand new NIH funded research/masters program. Some of the requirements include business classes and extensive networking exercises to better prepare researchers for the modern job environment. For those of us left with Ph. Ds maybe we got screwed over in most respects, but well, at least we have Ph. Ds. I suppose if we push at it, success in one way or another will catch up with us.

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  5. "the current situation of cheap labor is unsustainable"

    How so? Schools know that if they can't recruit American students they can get them in droves from poor countries. Grad school and trade school are not the same. There will always be an excess of cheap labor for schools to prey upon (uhhhh, I mean educate.....ya, that's the ticket......). If there weren't so many poorly paid grad students around, who would TA all those lab courses at South Dakota State or Northern New Mexico University? You don't expect profs to do this, do you? Sadly, the students who spend likely a substantial portion of their wealth getting to these podunk schools from India or whereever probably do so thinking they have a shot at a job in the US when they graduate. They don't.

    "I find it ethically questionable that people continue to recruit or steer students into fields where the outlook is so grim"

    So should we shut down all the philosophy and poetry departments?

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    1. bya -- this got caught in the spam filter. Sorry.

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    2. This is anonymous from above. I think people have much lower expectations in poetry or philosophy departments- if you go into those you probably expect on some level to lead a life of penury. Now if we want to be upfront about the outlook for scientists being less rosy than it was and people continue to go into science with readjusted expectations that's fine. But continuing to pretend that things are okay the way they are is wrong. Your analogy is a little less than apt also because how many English professors have groups of 10 or more students? My issue is that the people in power (PIs) have every reason to recruit as many people as possible to power research far beyond replacement levels. And I wouldn't count on the idea that cheap foreign students will continue indefinitely there's potential for a backlash as people realize that we're essentially training our replacements as they emigrate back home after grad school.

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  6. "What about salaries for scientists?....We do find that compared to other prestige high- education professions, wages have fallen in recent decades." From the article, made me think of that line from that infamous essay "Women In Science"
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    "Adjusted for IQ, quantitative skills, and working hours, jobs in science are the lowest paid in the United States."

    http://philip.greenspun.com/careers/women-in-science

    Each year with get closer and closer to Greenspun's dystopic vision of pursuing science as a career...

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