economics of science?

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economics of science?

Postby E.J. » Fri Feb 18, 2005 12:22 am

After reading numerous articles, postings on this forum, and speaking to post-docs it just seems like this is the "economics" of the sciences (in particular life sciences). Please correct me if I am wrong, or if you have anything to add.

- You have undergrad biology majors who either enter dental, medical, or grad school. Those who enter into grad programs either really love research and want to some day become PIs/teaching professors or are confused about what they can do with just a B.S. in biology (or don't get into dental or med school) so therefore enter into grad school b/c it is seen as a "safe and certain route". However, most have no clue what a career in academia or industry entails. Nor does anyone inform or warn them.

- Grad programs continue to attract both domestic and international students in their programs. However, with the decrease of Americans studying in the field of the life sciences there has been an increasing trend of international students in U.S. Ph.D. programs. Many first year students believe they can obtain a faculty position or industrial position immediately upon graduation, but later (in their 3rd-5th yr) they come to the inevitable realization that a post-doc is required. A majority go the post-doc route, and the others either quit the program or get their Ph.Ds and forego the post-doc for a non-science or alternative career route.

- Those applying for post-doc positions in the U.S. are not only those who received their Ph.D. diploma in the states, but also those who received international degrees therefore increasing the pool of competition for coveted "tenure-track" positions in academia. The huge supply of Ph.Ds and low turnover of faculty position creates this new work-force, which academia uses to their advantage to do the research, and pay very low salaries. The oversupply isn't the only reason for the low salaries, but also the fact that internationals come to the U.S. to study and are willing to take these low paying positions b/c there are greater opportunities and training here (Note: Pls, don't take this personal. I'm just trying to make a point. I don't have anything against internationals and believe they have every right to get the best education available).

- The length of the post-doc has increased over the years from 2-3 yrs of training to 3-5 yrs as well as the possibility of doing a second post-doc. Some after two or more post-docs become perma-docs. Academia has in place a number of checkpoints in their career path: asst. prof, assoc. prof, and full professor. Each of these positions have about a 4-year "trial by fire" that determine promotion through number of publications, obtaining funding, teaching, university politics, etc. If they don't reach full professorship within the time frame they either go through a similar track at a lower-tier university or leave academia.

- This oversupply created by academia and the immigration of foreign scientist creates a high supply and low demand in the U.S., which allows industry to be highly selective of employees. They demand highly qualified and trained personnel, yet providing less on the job training. Also, their salaries are lower than other jobs requiring personnel with less academic training due to oversupply of Ph.Ds and a cheap but highly-skilled foreign workforce.

- As for obtaining a government job (e.g. NIH), I have very little information, but I'm assuming it is similar to the structure of academia. Except the positions are far more stable and the pay is a bit better. I'm assuming these positions are few and very coveted?

Is this really how the system works? The whole oversupply or Ph.Ds through academia providing a limitless supply of workers for industry sounds very much like a conspiracy theory to me. In a way it sounds unbelievable.

economics of science?

Postby Val » Fri Feb 18, 2005 1:39 am

The US have never been about innovation. It always is about finance management. It may happen that the US came to the point where the better return on investment is not from science but from money management service for the whole world.

Some people say that the US makes their living from designing new technologies. They give away the new technology to the world only to design the newer technology.

There is a basic law which governs the speed of transfer of stuff from one place to another, e.g. Fick's Law. It implies that if we want to speed some process, we need to dramatically increase the concentration of stuff where it escapes from.

According to this law, the living standard in the US should fall to such a horrendously low level (poverty ?), so that people will get motivated to develop new technolgies in order to get out of poverty. At the moment, too many people are comfortable with their lifestyle and are not motivated enough to start pushing development of new technologies.

The new technologies (nano- and bio-) will eventually progress and become mainstream, but not before the economy stagnates and everyone suffers. I hope I am wrong on this :-( .


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economics of science?

Postby Kim » Fri Feb 18, 2005 2:49 am


You wrote, "The US have never been about innovation... According to this law, the living standard in the US should fall to such a horrendously low level (poverty ?), so that people will get motivated to develop new technolgies in order to get out of poverty."

I really have problems with your wild speculations. They are laughable. Please show us some evidences to support your claims. Who invents biotech? The Americans. What is the first biotech company in the world? Genentech in South San Francisco! Who leads biotech innovations? The US. Not Asians, not Europeans, not Africans. Which companies innovate auto, airplane and PC industries and make them available to the mass? They are Ford, Boeing, HP, Wang (now defunct), IBM, Microsoft and Apple. The list goes on and on....

And only a poor and backward Third World nation can innovate? Sorry, this claim is a farce. Innovations almost always come from the most advanced and wealthy nations. Before modern time, most innovations came from China, which was the most advanced and wealthy nation throughout most pre-modern world history. During modern time, our innovations come from countries in West Europe, the US, and Japan. All are wealthy and advanced.
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economics of science?

Postby Kim » Fri Feb 18, 2005 3:20 am


Also, I would add that a poor and backward country never *innovates* to catch up with others in science and technology. They catch up in technology and science by successfully *copying* others first. That is a big difference.

The Japanese were well known for their *copying/borrowing*, not *innovating*, during 1880s-1950s. Their homegrown indigenous Japanese innovations came much later (roughly after 1960s) (1) when Japanese technology and science sector became mature enough to take on the West and (2) when Japan finally became a *rich* nation.

You can also see the Chinese are doing the exactly the same thing right now in technology and science. For the last 20 years, the Chinese are *copying*, not *innovating*, to get out of poverty.
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Yes the economics of science are believable

Postby JohnMastro » Fri Feb 18, 2005 6:28 am

You have concisely described the basic situation that I see every day in the life sciences in a midwestern research land grant institute.
I was looking at the personnel board for the Biochemistry dept. Foreigners comprised 100% of the visiting faculty, research assistant professors, post-docs, and about 80 % of the graduate students, and about 50% of the faculty. The faculty has more Americans I because many came into the system decades ago when the slope on the academic pyramid scheme was much less steep, and the importing of cheap foreign labor was less prevalent.

Yes the economics of science are believable

Postby Kim » Fri Feb 18, 2005 7:25 am


Of course, most visiting faculty are foreigners. After all, foreginers are visitors...

From my experiences, generally, there are more Americans in a top department than in a mediocre deparment. There is a direct correlations. I know that during the dotcom boom, most life sciences PhD programs, except the top ones, had difficulties to recruit new US students. But the top life sciences departments never had any difficulty to recruit top American students. So your survey may be biased based on the school/deparmtent that you have chosen.

On a positive note, the US still offers more career opportunities for scientists than Europe, Asia or any other parts of the world.

My questions:
If few Americans are going into sciences, then many undergraduate students must have understood and known that a science career may be difficult. Apparently the message is out. If so, then why are so many other students still going into PhD programs clueless? If the students are clueless about their career choice, should the students blame themselves?
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Yes the economics of science are believable

Postby Emil Chuck » Fri Feb 18, 2005 7:58 am

Kim asks: "If few Americans are going into sciences, then many undergraduate students must have understood and known that a science career may be difficult. Apparently the message is out. If so, then why are so many other students still going into PhD programs clueless? If the students are clueless about their career choice, should the students blame themselves?"

I certainly haven't done a scientific poll, nor would I claim to know the whole story nationally outside the students I know.

I don't know whether students entering Ph.D. programs are clueless about their career choices, but it depends on why they got into graduate school in the first place. Certainly once they are there, they are surrounded by people who want to do research and others who expect them to be researchers. At least this is why in an academic setting it is so hard for anyone there to get exposure to "alternative careers."

Students don't really access their career placement offices as much as they should. They also may not be as prepared to realize graduate school is not the same as undergraduate which is not the same as high school. Should I say the students should take some responsibility... well, yes. That's why I think a lot of the problems with developing the soft skills of management, communication, and organization are really lost at the undergraduate level.
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Yes the economics of science are believable

Postby Don » Fri Feb 18, 2005 8:17 am

One key point Emil has brought out is that students generally dont access career planning offices much. I would modify this to say that in general most career planning offices at US universities and colleges are quite weak when it comes to providing solid information about non-professional (e.g. not Law, Med, etc.) schools.

Unfortunately, career planning offices are reviewed almost entirely on the basis of placing students in high paying jobs right after college. As a consequence they are quite weak when it comes to usefull information about the PhD route. So students who go down that road are often ilinformed about what lies at the end.

That said, students need to be pro-active about getting career information. I believe that in general many students simply dont take enough ownership over their futures when it comes to career planning. That however is a soap-box I wont get on this morning.

As for the comments about innovation in the western world, I could not disagree more. PCR - USA, RNAi - USA/Germany, Double Helix - UK/France (arguably), Modern Rocketry - Germany/USA, Internet - USA; the list could go on for ever.

A big part of the reason is that the basic research that drives innovation take capital (for research as well as for a generally high level of education for people from all walks of life). That kind of capital exists largely in the more developed nations. Please note, I am not saying that people from Djibuti are incapable of innovation. I am saying that countries like Djibuti lack the capital to invest in strong basic education for their citizenry and basic research that drives innovation.


economics of science?

Postby Kevin Foley » Fri Feb 18, 2005 8:51 am


That's an interesting and generally accurate summary of the economics of employment in the life sciences (and other fields?). However, personally, I think your overall tone is a bit too negative. The reality is that Science is great fun (how many people get paid to do something they love?), the unemployment rate is very low and compensation is decent. It may not always be easy, but all in all I think we are lucky to be scientists.

Of course, I successfully made it through the whole ?grad student/postdoc/first real job? transition, so now I can look back on it through rose-colored glasses!

A few things I would modify in your post:

1) I doubt very many undergrads enter graduate school in the life sciences without realizing that one needs to do a postdoc before getting a real job.

2) The "trial by fire" occurs between assistant professor and associate professor (getting tenure), not between associate professor and full professor (which is more automatic, although you still have to be productive and get funding).

3) As far as scientists making less money despite having greater education, that is certainly true. Taken to the extreme, professional athletes make a lot more with a lot less! But that's a pointless argument. Salaries are governed by supply and demand. And the truth is that established scientists do quite well, thank you. The trick is to become established!

But ultimately, you are correct about the economics of it all. Biomedical research in the US has a critical dependence on an abundant supply of relatively cheap and highly motivated labor: grad students and postdocs. And as long as people are willing to become grad students and postdocs, the economics of it all will stay the same.

Hopefully this doesn?t sound like a rant, but I am a bit disturbed by the feeling of ?entitlement? that I sometimes see on this board. A PhD doesn?t entitle you to anything, let alone a job. What gets you a job are your abilities relative to everyone else?s. And I am certainly not in agreement with those who say we are producing too many scientists and that we should have some sort of quota system. We live in a capitalistic society, and people should be able to pursue whatever career they want to the limits of their abilities. If one enters Science without fully realizing all the challenges involved in such a career, well perhaps you should have done more research. We all need to take responsibility for our own career decisions. Hopefully this board is playing a small but significant role in helping educate all of us about the realities of a career in the sciences.

And don?t let the sometimes negative nature of posts on this board get you down. Remember that part about getting paid to do what you love!

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economics of science?

Postby Madison » Fri Feb 18, 2005 9:36 am

I have noticed that the "hot shot" (ie popular, headed by a very prominant PI) labs at Harvard are almost exclusively American I think there is a growing tendancy to not want to higher forigners if they can attract a decent supply of Americans.

I think we are starting to see the beginnings of a 3-class system of trainees, where Americans are considered the best, Europeans and US-educated Asians are second tier, and Asian-educated trainees are considered inferior. I think this is a real shame, because some great raw talent will fall through the cracks. However, I also think this situation is somewhat grounded in reality, where forein-trained people are not as capable of navigating our system and becomming successful and independent. Obviously, we don't want to discriminate against people, but how do you best size up people and try to hire the best people you can attract?


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