Saturday, March 5, 2011

Staff scientists in academia?

I'm guessing that most chemblogosphere denizens have read Dr. Jennifer Rohn's piece suggesting the formation of professionalized staff scientists in labs rather than itinerant postdocs. Derek Lowe has an interesting and (more direct than usual) response to Rohn, which I'm sure most have read as well. A few thoughts of my own:

Why no reference to Benderly? On this blog, we've been through discussions of staff scientists / professional postdocs before, during our discussion of Beryl Lieff Benderly's article "The Real Science Gap." Rohn's argument is quite similar to Benderly's -- I'm surprised that there wasn't a note about it. (Similar enough that Benderly dryly notes that it's nice to hear a new voice say the same things.)

For that matter, Rohn's (IMO correct) assertion that a tournament model is working in the academic labor market was also covered by Benderly in November. (It should be noted that the tournament concept is most attributable to economist Prof. Richard Freeman.)

What is the state of the industrial biology job market? The surfeit of academic postdocs is clearly the result of the mountains of NIH funding -- in particular, for biomedical research. It appears that, in contrast to chemistry, there is less of an industrial escape valve in the biomedical sciences to take up the surplus of workers; Lowe's final comment seems to indicate as such. This comment on In the Pipeline suggests that, in pharmacology, that industry has adapted to the new reality by requiring more and longer postdoctoral stints of their candidates. Terrifying.

At the same time, the number of medical scientists is expected to grow significantly (see slide 11), according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics. 39.3%, to be exact, between 2008-2018. One wonders where they're all going to come from and where they're going to work.

A negative feedback loop: Dr. Rohn's core idea is expressed in the following paragraph:
An alternative career structure within science that professionalizes mature postdocs would be better. Permanent research staff positions could be generated and filled with talented and experienced postdocs who do not want to, or cannot, lead a research team — a job that, after all, requires a different skill set. Every academic lab could employ a few of these staff along with a reduced number of trainees. Although the permanent staff would cost more, there would be fewer needed: a researcher with 10–20 years experience is probably at least twice as efficient as a green trainee. Academic labs could thus become smaller, streamlined and more efficient. The slightly fewer trainees in the pool would work in the knowledge that their career prospects are brighter, and that the system that trains them wants to nurture them, not suck them dry and spit them out.
So far as I can tell, this is a negative feedback loop. As more staff scientists are hired, there will be less funding available for postdoctoral fellows and graduate students. I believe that Dr. Rohn sees this as a feature, not a bug. Most current scientists would agree, I suspect.

But here's the thing: society, through the government, wants lots of scientists. They don't care about scientist unemployment -- they care about curing diseases and getting more for their taxpayer dollar. That un(der)employed scientists are the negative externality of massive NIH funding is not their concern -- we're just the grist. I suspect our cries will fall on deaf ears. 


  1. At the institute where I work I believe the average biological science postdoc is 4-5 years. That may explain why they work 6 hour days.

    As much merit as there might be to this piece, I agree with Derek that this will never happen. You won't be able to convince professors that they should be paying their lab members more. Other commenters on In The Pipeline had it right, as long as there's suckers to keep filling up spots in Ph.D programs this cycle will perpetuate indefinitely.

  2. Wow, I just remembered this post by Derek in 2006:

    The optimism of chemists back then was incredible, and looking back, a little unfounded. It seems we are fast approaching the bleak portrayal of the science profession that had been rejected as a bitter, inaccurate fantasy. Moral of the story? When a semi-retired, millionaire, PhD scientist with no need to beg for govt cash or tenure says science is a lousy profession, it's true.

    By the way, love the logo. Green really makes it stand out against the blue of Blogspot.

  3. Hi Chemjobber. Thanks for your great thoughts on my piece. The editor wanted an op-ed, not an exhaustive scholarly piece about state of the art of this topic including all views that came before - what they wanted was my personal take on the situation which I've been blogging about over the years. I'm not familiar with Benderley's writing so it was great to learn of these similar views via your post. (As much as I'd like to keep track of every voice online, it doesn't always happen.)

    To respond to your following point: "But here's the thing: society, through the government, wants lots of scientists."

    I'm going to repeat the analogy I've just used in the comment thread of my piece:

    "As an analogy, I have no doubt that sweatshops produce excellent clothing with the utmost degree of efficiency which its financiers would applaud. But that doesn't make their existence justifiable. It's an extreme comparison perhaps, but useful as a philosophical framework.

    Idealistic or not, I personally think there is a strong case to be made for duty of care to the people you are training. If PIs cannot afford to provide a better career structure, then the system should to change to make this possible. Fairtrade clothing costs more, but many people feel it's worth paying for."


looks like Blogger doesn't work with anonymous comments from Chrome browsers at the moment - works in Microsoft Edge, or from Chrome with a Blogger account - sorry! CJ 3/21/20