Science in crisis (?)
Today, Inside Higher Ed has a story about a crisis in the training of new scientists, engineers, and mathematicians that I swear I've seen at least half a dozen times in the last dozen years. (And, given that for large periods of time within those dozen years I was paying more attention to research and thesis-writing than I was to the world, it's likely that I missed a few iterations.) The crisis is that, while in the last decade U.S. enrollments in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (or STEM) have increased at the bachelors and masters level, doctoral programs in these fields have seen a decrease in enrollment. So, we have more students staying in the science pipeline longer than a decade ago (i.e., not leaking out in high school or college), but fewer are making it to the end of the pipeline and a Ph.D.
The first question to ask is whether this constitutes a real crisis (which means figuring out what would make it a crisis). Then, if it is a crisis, we'd need to figure out what to do about it.
Since I was an undergraduate a loooong time ago, I have heard doom-and-gloom stories about critical shortages of science Ph.D.s in the U.S. Of course, while in graduate school in chemistry I found out that U.S. universities were turning out something like 30% more chemistry Ph.D.s than the U.S. market could handle. So I confess to being a bit skeptical about the target numbers of science Ph.D.s certain folks think we ought to be reaching. Is this one of those situations where we're not actually striving to reach the optimal number of Ph.D. scientists to fully staff a healthy and active scientific community but rather pursuing growth in output for growth's sake? Does our economy depend on an every increasing production of Ph.D. scientists? (What's the futures market like on string theorists?) Is this just one more number we'd like to be able to hold up to compare ourselves favorably to Germany, or China, or India?
I hope not; it would be a silly reason to make more people suffer through the slings and arrows of a doctoral program. But there may well be good reasons. While people with bachelors and masters degrees in the sciences (and engineering and math, of course -- assume they're included; even economics) can find work in research labs, it's generally the folks with the Ph.D.s (or M.D.s) who are driving the original research. Maybe this is the cost of producing fewer Ph.D.s and more B.S.s and M.S.s: we move away from discovery, innovation, and deeper understanding and toward just being technicians. The market can probably absorb a lot more technicians than PIs, but leaving the original research to other countries that are better at producing large numbers of Ph.D. scientists might come back to bite us -- especially if there are skilled technicians who can be had for cheaper than those trained in the U.S.
And it's not clear that the costs will be primarily economic ones. Sure, with fewer Ph.D.s we may have a harder time supporting a thriving biotech industry, or attracting international students to our research universities (where they often inject cash into the system that their American classmates do not), or winning Nobel Prizes at the rate to which we've become accustomed. But who exactly will teach the increased number of students in the sciences at the bachelors and masters level when our Ph.D. output falls below the replacement rate?
(Given the large number of Ph.D. scientists looking for permanent positions, many with multiple post-docs under their belts, this does seem rather far fetched. I'm just reaching for a plausible explanation of the "crisis" here.)
The big distinction between Ph.D.s and scientists with lower levels of education -- that Ph.D.s are the ones who "really" do research -- might point to another reason to be concerned about our progress in increasing science enrollments at the lower levels. In many instances, centers of scientific research place all the emphasis on research, to the exclusion of attention to teaaching, public outreach, and other potentially useful functions a scientist could perform. (I'm not making this up: Sean Carroll talks about it here.) This already has an impact on all those undergraduate science majors. I would never let me children be undergraduate chemistry majors in my graduate chemistry department. The level of instruction from the professors (those guys with the Ph.D.s) was, with a few exceptions, pretty dismal. Occasionally, some good instruction could be had from a TA whose graduate advisor had not yet impressed on him or her that time spent on teaching was lost forever to what really mattered -- research. And, all to often undergraduate research experiences were supervised by graduate students rather than the professors. So, lots of those people getting B.S.s at the high powered research universities may know a lot less than they ought to about their scientific field and about research in it.
And, this is less than ideal if we want a population that actually understands something about science. Once you're out of school, your facility cranking out problem sets doesn't do much for you. It would be much more useful to have a grasp of how science tackles problems (problems whose solutions are not yet in the back of the book!), how science uses the tools it has and develops new tools, and how scientific patterns of thought set up conditions where we really can build a body of knowledge that we can count on (in part because many pairs of hands and eyes scrutinize it an continually update it). You may not need this kind of understanding of science to be an adequate technician (although it can be helpful when unexpected outcomes present themselves). On the other hand, if all you have is mad technical skillz, you may be replaced with a robot someday.
I think the crisis I'm feeling with science has less to do with the numbers game and more to do with recognizing that the value of the Ph.D. scientist is and ought to be more than a machine to produce original research. Yet, in many places, this is how scientists (especially scientists trying to build tenure cases) are regarded. When the rational choice is to shut out the rest of the world so you can do your research and get your high-impact publications, it makes it harder for people outside the system to get value out of the science Ph.D. Unless teaching is recognized as valuable too, the people who might be able to teach us the most about what science is up to right now will have other things they have to do. (And is it a surprise that advisors who haven't given much thought to classroom teaching sometimes have serious difficulties teaching their advisees in the lab?)
This isn't a trivial worry. If Ph.D. scientists are isolated from everything but their research, it becomes easier to marginalize them -- to assume that what they have to say when they make their rare appearances in broader discourses just doesn't matter. We let the public discourse write off science at our peril. So, it seems like maybe we need to start cultivating our scientists as communicators -- not just in journal articles, but in the public square. And we can't really cultivate it without making it count. Research universities ought to recognize that building public interest in and understanding of science is, in the long run, good for the health of the research university and good for the health of science education.
Having more science Ph.D.s might be a good thing, but doing more and better things with the science Ph.D.s we have might be even better.