Contributor Scott Chimileski
A few months away from finishing a PhD, my social media feeds are filled with negativity about postdocs, jobs and funding. Article after article, elaborate infographics – there are even special calculators now that predict your chances of becoming a principal investigator.
It is certainly true: the competition for a position as a science professor and to earn funding as a researcher is increasing. Raising consciousness around these issues is important, and these articles, driven by genuine concern, do help. However, I think it has gone too far. I see it affecting my peers on Facebook: “Wee!! Sadly this motivated me to get out of bed, someday I could make $40k!” accompanied by a link to the article “Too Few Jobs for America’s Young Scientists.” This same sort of sentiment is echoed on Twitter.
— Tony Patelunas (@TonysPants) September 10, 2014
It’s human nature to focus on bad news; but it is long overdue to have a critical look at all the doom and gloom. Before we panic – before we decide there are too many PhD students and dream-up ways to intervene – let’s consider the history surrounding these issues, allow a little optimism in, and explore the positive. In this three part series, I want to help uplift my fellow young scientists.
We’ll begin by having a look at some data – not only over the past five years – but over five decades. The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and the U.S. Office of Management and Budget keep excellent records of historical trends in federal R&D funding that formed the basis for the plots included here.
Like financial markets, federal funding for R&D increases and decreases in a cyclical manner. For example, we have experienced a recent drop caused in large part by an ailing economy and the 2013 federal sequestration. Similar in principle to a correction in the stock market, this downtrend is significant, not at all fun while it lasts, and has legitimately affected many scientists. However, when examining a fifty-year period, it becomes apparent that funding for basic science has increased overall, suggesting that the current scenario will most definitely improve.
Current budget requests indicate another upswing in funding could be underway. The 2014 budget increased for every U.S. science agency: by 3.5% for the NIH, 4.2% for the NSF and 9.7% for the DOE. Fiscal year 2015 budget requests add to these gains (by 0.7% for NIH, 1.2% for the NSF and 2.6% for the DOE). As predicted by director Francis S. Collins, the NIH will support 34,197 research project grants (RPGs) in 2015, including 9,326 new and competing RPGs (up by 329 from 2014).
From 1962 to 1982 the fraction of U.S. Gross Domestic Product (GDP) used for non-defence research ranged from 0.5% to 1.0% as money was poured into the physical sciences during the space-race and the cold war. Since 1982, non-defence R&D funding as a percentage of GDP has been essentially flat, hovering around 0.4%, with a few drops to 0.3%. Research expenditure as a percentage of GDP varies from country to country as well. Any scientist would argue that more government money should be spent on R&D and perhaps it is reasonable to aim for a return to 1.0% of GDP for basic science someday. However it is important to realize that because the overall economy and federal budget has grown in the meantime, all forms of basic science funding have increased, despite a static R&D to GDP ratio.
Some articles go as far as arguing that there are too many scientists in training. But, should we expect the NIH budget to perfectly overlap with graduate enrollment? Likewise, I don’t think we should be shocked when there is not a linear increase in the number of principal investigators supported by the NIH every single year. This is like suggesting every business start-up will succeed in a constantly fluctuating economy. Science is competitive too: there will always be many trainees that will not end up having successful labs, and more scientists in total than will find funding each year. The odds don’t stop entrepreneurs – they shouldn’t stop aspiring scientists either. Competition is ultimately a positive force. In any case, the possible solution to this proposed problem seems even less realistic. Who might have the authority to regulate institutional admission decisions?
A PhD is, first and foremost, about education. Few would disagree that an overall trend towards higher levels of education is desirable in what biologist E.O. Wilson foresees as an emergent techno-scientific age – a time when we have serious problems to face (like a growing population). It seems more likely that government funds will continue to sway above and below the plot of graduate enrollment, and that, when looking over longer time scales, funding will hopefully parallel the influx of new scientists. If not, private foundations (such as the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation), industry, and other non-traditional sources may begin picking up more and more of this slack.
Though it may seem like a fixed thing, modern science is a developing human endeavour. Perhaps the current situation is not a crisis, but is more of a transition. Part two will examine where money for science has come from over time and where it might be drawn from in the future.
EDITORS NOTE: This article was altered slightly by Scott Chimileski to accommodate the infographic.