Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Opportunities for the next generation of scientists?

The election is over. Now the question is whether we will continue on the same self-destructive course of the past decade or will we start to heal ourselves and build for the future. Clearly America’s economic success in coming years will rely more and more on its leadership in science and technology. But where will that leadership come from? The cutbacks in federal research funding over the last several years have been devastating to the nascent careers of young scientists across the spectrum. In my own area of biomedical research funding percentiles for NIH grants have plummeted to historic lows, with less then 10% of new grants being funded. This is incredibly stressful for young investigators, introducing major disruptions and uncertainties both in careers and in the lives of young families. How can we attract the best and brightest young people to science and technology when career prospects are so dismal?

To ameliorate this situation we need to do several things. First, despite the constrained fiscal climate, our political leaders need to recognize the key role of science and technology for future economic success and begin to re-invest in science. Second, our academic institutions need to understand that they have engaged in a profligate overproduction of science PhDs and that the emphasis in the future should be on quality not quantity. Third, both academia and industry need to give some thought to mechanisms to enhance career stability for scientists so that the loss of a grant or the end of a project doesn’t mean the end of a career. Maybe this is a pipedream, but if we don’t take these measures we are going to be rapidly surpassed by nations that take a longer view of science, technology and economic growth.

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