Monday, November 28, 2005

Just where is this handbasket headed?

It's time for our regularly scheduled soul searching about what is happening to science (and its future) in the U.S. I was already going to blog about this, given recent news that Stanford has lost two scientists it was trying to recruit to Stanford's Institute for Cancer and Stem Cell Biology and Medicine to Singapore's Institute of Molecular and Cell Biology (which is viewed as a more favorable environment for this cutting edge research than even the deep-blue San Francisco Bay Area). But, not surprisingly, PZ Myers brought up similar worries in response to an article in Wired.

The big worries are that the U.S. is not supporting science in important ways -- U.S. universities aren't turning out enough science Ph.D.s (and science education at K-12 and undergraduate levels is not very good), there's not enough money being put into federally funded scientific research (or industry R&D), ideologically motivated restrictions on research are making it hard to do the research the really good scientists want to do, and scientists generally aren't getting the respect they deserve in the public square. The fear is that all these factors will coalesce in such a way that scientists start fleeing, first particular states in the U.S. (as suggested in this look at how different states fund or prohibit stem cell research), then the U.S. itself. At which point, presumably, everyone left in the U.S. will either be a frycook, a member of the punditry, or a participant in a reality show.

Are we totally screwed? Hard to tell from here, but it seems like this is a good moment for reflection about the precise nightmare scenario we're afraid of.

It is hard to deny that individual scientists will be influenced in their choices of where to go by the circumstances in the different locations under consideration. If you want to do research with stem cells, you probably don't want to take a university position in a state where stem cell research is illegal. If besides having a scientific career you also want to raise kids, you might want to do science in a place where the schools provide a good education (including in matters scientific). If you're a woman doing science, you might want your job to be in a country where it's legal for you to drive yourself to work. At the same time, scientists' choices are not always completely determined by their scientific agendas. You might forego a position at a ridiculously well-funded research institution, where you could get any state-of-the-art piece of equipment you want, in favor of a position at a less-well-funded institution where you can also contribute to excellent undergraduate education or live in a community you prefer; the trade-off would be finding creative ways to pursuit your research with fewer resources. But scientists make this kind of choice all the time. (My suspicion is that the scientists with tight resources tend to be more clever about experimental design because they have to be.) Moreover, there are more than a few scientists who tend to work, whether vocally or quietly, to change local circumstances (lobbying for more funding or more sensible regulations, supporting K-12 education, talking to their neighbors). These people manipulate experimental systems for a living -- are they going to accept their environment as immutable? Not so much (although some prefer moving to a different environment over tinkering with the environment they have). So, it would surprise me a lot if the sun rose one day on a rapture-like disappearance of all the scientists from the U.S. or even from Kansas.

At the same time, it is an important feature of science that you need a scientific community in which to do it. To keep research going, you need a critical mass of people in the lab -- not just to run the experiments, but to bounce ideas off each other and challenge each other's interpretations of the results. Because scientists have finite lifespans, this means you need to keep putting new scientists into the system even to maintain equilibrium. So, cutting back funding of science (including the training of new scientists in graduate school) could set up a situation where whole lines of research die out simply because there aren't enough scientists to maintain them. It's not clear, either, that "thinning the herd" of research lines this way would make for a stronger body of scientific research in the long run, given that it's often unclear in advance which lines of research will be the most important from the point of view of basic knowledge or practical implications. And, there's no guarantee that defunct research lines could be successfully resurrected later when more funding becomes available.

None of this would mean that there wouldn't still be people in the U.S. interested in pursuing science. However, to do so in the context of a scientific community, they would need to: (1) go somewhere that has a suitable scientific community already, (2) find a way to participate remotely with such a community, or (3) figure out how to constitute such a community ex nihilo where they are. The resources for exercising the second option have been steadily improving, but there are still many kinds of research one probably shouldn't do in jammies in one's garage. The third option is pretty hard without many like-minded friends and buckets of money. Assuming one is good at picking up languages, the first option may seem like the path of least resistance. But if the scientists all go to Singapore, that may have an impact not only on the science education available in the U.S., but also on who earns the royalties on patented inventions ... like pharamceuticals. So, as has been said before, this would not be a development without consequences for Joe Q. Public.

At the same time, futzing with one little piece of the current situation without addressing the others may lead to bad consequences, too. For example, increasing the number of science Ph.D.s produced in the U.S. only improves the scientific climate in the U.S. if there are ways for these Ph.D.s to stay engaged in science in the U.S. For starters, making sure there are enough jobs for all these Ph.D.s (non-exploitative jobs, not an endless cycle of post-docs until you achieve nirvana) would be a good thing. Large numbers of well-trained but under-employed and under-appreciated scientists enhances the feeling that the U.S. is not a good place to do science.

It does seem to me that the current situation presents an opportunity to consider cultivating a truly international community of science. Concerns have been voiced about how many foreign students come to the U.S., get science Ph.D.s, and then go home with them, thus shifting resources (in the form of education) from the U.S. to other countries. Setting aside the fact that foreign students pay lots of money to study in Ph.D. programs (whereas U.S. students are generally fully supported), as Ph.D.s in their home countries these scientists are well-situated to collaborate with U.S. scientists (and with U.S.-trained scientists in other countries). At a moment when it may be getting harder to do science locally, it seems like it should be getting easier to do it globally. Moreover, collaborations between scientists in different parts of the world who have different cultural and religious backgrounds but who share a commitment to the project of science just might give the rest of us a model for figuring out how to get along in a diverse community. It might even help us get in touch with our common humanity.

As for the point PZ was making in the Pharyngula discussion: Are we, as a nation, spending money on other things (like wars, or corporate tax breaks, or reality shows) that would be better spent supporting science and the benefits that flow from science to society as a whole? I'm no economist, but I think the answer is probably yes.

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At 2:55 PM, Blogger coturnix said...

Just because I never comment does not mean I do not read your every post. Usually, I just have nothing clever to add and do not want to waste cyberspace on posting "Amen". Just keep doing what you're doing. Your blog is excellent.

At 6:07 AM, Blogger Kyle said...

Setting aside the fact that foreign students pay lots of money to study in Ph.D. programs (whereas U.S. students are generally fully supported)...

Could you elaborate on this more? This has not been my experience at all. No one at the college I graduated from is paying for a graduate degree in physics in cash - they all pay for it in blood, sweat and sanity. I had heard the chemistry dept is similar. Is this just unusual for a college?

At 9:37 AM, Blogger Doctor Free-Ride, Ph.D. said...

Oh dear ... I may have gotten my head in a muddle about Ph.D. program support in general (at large research institutions) and in-state vs. out-of-state vs. international student tuition rates at public universities (where the international students almost always pay much more than the in-state students). It is possible that at many universities the international student tuition for Ph.D. programs is significantly higher but gets covered by tuition remittance (just as the state-resident's lower tuition gets covered). But, there are cases where universities offer admittance to Ph.D. programs with less than full support (in terms of tuition remission and TA or RA stipend) -- in these cases, the students have to find a way to make up the difference, and the difference for foreign students is bigger. (I knew a few people who went through Ph.D. programs this way, often with help from a parent's company; this was before the Asian financial collapse in 1997.)

Thanks for pressing me on this, Kyle -- I'll see if I can find some hard data to make up for my clearly muddled memory on this point!


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