Thursday, April 18, 2013

The System is Perfect

We folks in academia complain a lot about the system we're in.  Particularly those of us in the life sciences.  Some of us are grad students obsessed with the uncertainty of the future.  Will there be tenure-track jobs for us?  I want to make decent money in my thirties and start a family - do I really want to spend eight years as a postdoc?  Some of us are those postdocs, facing the reality of making a marginally better salary than they just had, and resigned to trying again and again and again to apply for faculty jobs while keeping one eye on biotech.  Are there even any jobs left in the life sciences industry?  And some of us are faculty - they've "made it" but rarely feel that way, struggling to come up with money for their salaries from their grants because universities don't want to cover that cost.

So we complain a lot about these things.  But what will ever come of it?  As I've begun to fully confront the reality of academia (yeah yeah I should have given it more thought before my fourth year of grad school but that's a topic for a whole other post...) I have begun toying with a rather fatalistic conclusion:

The system is perfect.

Well, not for us that are in it.  But for society?  It's actually a pretty good deal.  Here's the gist of my thinking (and please tell me where I go wrong because it does feel off in places):

  • The government invests public money into science.
  • Science is done by people.  In fact, the more scientists you have, the more science you get out.
  • You need to pay the scientists money, or they won't give you science.  But you also need as many scientists as possible.
  • Lo and behold - the current system.  A great many that get paid relatively little for a small chance to get a job that pays relatively more.  Tenured faculty - $100k+, job security, and intellectual freedom.  The one position that actually requires a PhD.
  • Of course, not everyone can get those jobs - they're too scarce now.  But enough do that the rest waiting and applying keep trying, sticking out year after year in postdoctoral limbo until they get their break or give up or find another direction.
In the end, the public gets a tremendous value.  Really smart people working for the lowest possible wage, providing knowledge that betters everyone.  It's not like if you double the pay of a grad student, that that student will become twice as productive (or even 10% more productive).  Current grad students and postdocs (and faculty) are already working pretty much near the limit of their productivity.

So to everyone else in academia: why should they raise our pay?  If the public gets the same science out of a $35k postdoc as they do from a $60k postdoc, what's the point?

Some people say it's not really about the pay - the pay can be "low" so long as the coveted faculty job is still there at the end of the tunnel.  Okay.  So let's increase science funding a little bit.  Change the rules at NIH so that recipient universities have to increase the number of new tenure-track faculty slots.  More jobs = better, yes?

But what if more faculty jobs simply leads to more postdocs sticking around in academia longer and more grad students electing to take a postdoc and more undergraduates picking grad school?  The size of the system gets bigger - and more science gets done - but the shape doesn't change.

Alright, let's do the opposite.  (See: DrugMonkey, rxnm). It's irresponsible to keep encouraging/admitting more grad students when we know they won't have a shot at jobs.  Decrease the grad students, you decrease the postdocs, you end up with a greater percentage of postdocs finding faculty jobs.  But if you decrease grad students (and subsequently, postdocs), you're decreasing the number of scientists.  Even if the amount of public funding stays the same, a smaller number of people are using it and so less science gets done.

And so we're stuck.  Maybe things like unionizing, making universities more efficient, and creating new kinds of academic jobs (more staff scientists / lecturers) would help on the margins.  But in the end, doesn't the public have a right to want as much science as it can get for the lowest price possible?

This Monday, an NSF contest calling for solutions to problems in graduate education closed.  I bet a lot of the submissions touched on the jobs issue.  I thought about it myself when I wrote my entry up.  But in the end, I can think of only one (really infeasible) solution: really REALLY increase science funding.

I mean double, triple, quadruple the NIH budget.  Make there be so much money available that we have a real shortage of life scientists (not a fake one [NeuroDojo]).  Make there be so much money available that students who would apply to med school think about grad school instead, so that undergrads who are thinking about majoring in economics pick biology instead.  Then, maybe you can have postdocs that make an average of $60k a year and getting faculty jobs after only three to four years.

But that's in the hands of the public.  The public has to want life science so badly that it's willing to throw more money than is needed at hiring life scientists for salaries to go up.  Otherwise, academia will be stuck in the perfect system it's in today.

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