Skepticism about science and medicine

In search of disinterested science

80% unemployment?! The research system is broken

Posted by Henry Bauer on 2012/12/11

Try to imagine what it would be like to attempt to make a career in an occupation that has an 80% rate of unemployment and where on average you get to be 40 years old before landing your first full-time job.

Impossible to imagine, isn’t it?

That thought-experiment serves to describe present-day cutthroat competition in many research fields.

People who want to do scientific research on topics chosen by themselves rather than by an industrial employer generally seek careers in academe. For several decades now, academic researchers have needed to obtain grants from outside their university: otherwise they don’t get tenure in the first place or promotion later. At my own university, for example, already 30 years ago grant-getting of $100,000 per year was a requirement for tenure in the College of Engineering, and 3 times that for promotion to full professor. Nowadays at the University of California, Berkeley, molecular-biology faculty need to command about ¼ million dollars in external funds per year if they are to be able to mentor a graduate student in research (see p. 72 in Dogmatism  in Science and Medicine: How Dominant Theories Monopolize Research and Stifle the Search for Truth) — and mentoring graduate students is virtually synonymous with getting research done, having a research career.

The major source of grants for research in biology is the NIH (National Institutes of Health). By 2011, only 18% of grant applications to NIH were successful, and the average age at which an individual first obtained a grant as Principal Investigator (PI) was 42.
Before they get their own grants, researchers have to work for other PIs, so they are not independent researchers and have not begun an independent research career.

In 1980, the first year in which NIH gathered age data for PIs, that average age had been about 36 or 37. That may still sound rather old to begin a career, but it is not many years older than the average age — rarely less than 30 —  at which one can have obtained a Ph.D. and have experienced the essentially mandatory few years as a postdoctoral fellow. The increase since 1980 by 5 or 6 years represents about a doubling of the time between being qualified for a job and actually getting one. That’s a significant increase, especially since many graduates have large student-loan debt waiting to be paid off and gathering interest in the meantime.

Another take on these data looks at how many PIs are at the lower and upper ends of the age range:

In the early 1980s, 1 in 5 or 6 PIs had been 36 or younger while a negligible percentage were 66 or older (65 had then been a mandatory retiring age almost everywhere). By 2010, only 3% of PIs were 36 or younger and more than twice as many were 66 or older.

These numbers indicate what it’s like to pursue a research career in today’s hothouse environment of cutthroat competition; and not only in biology or medicine. In many other areas of science, researchers look to the National Science Foundation (NSF) for grants. When, as a chemist at the University of Kentucky in 1967 I first applied for an NSF grant, I and my colleagues there had a success rate of about 50%; by the time I left the Department a decade later, the success rate had declined to about 10%.

As Derek Price had predicted (From Dawn to Decadence: The Three Ages of Modern Science), science experienced crises during the second half of the 20th century as the proportion of GDP available for research no longer increased. But the fact of pervasive crisis has hardly been recognized outside the small specialty of STS. NSF continued to press for more support to train more graduate students for scientific work, and official policies pressed for more doctors and more medical research. So more and more people have been competing more and more desperately for bits of a pie that has not been growing commensurately with the growth of would-be researchers.
Few in or outside academe saw this coming. I recall being surprised, in 1965 at the University of Michigan, when a fresh Ph.D. told me that he intended to look for a job in industry in order to stay out of the academic rat-race — I was still imbued then with the traditional view of academe as an ivory tower. I did soon note how competitive grant-seeking was becoming, though, but I had no sense of the wide-ranging future consequences.

An overt consequence of the crisis has been a marked increase in dishonesty, including keeping important information secret as well as outright deliberate cheating within science.  More about that soon.


4 Responses to “80% unemployment?! The research system is broken”

  1. Boris Starosta said

    There’s the notion that many a scientist’s best work, most innovative work, is done when they are young. Einstein comes to mind. It follows logically, too: the young scientist has the least to lose in terms of professional reputation, and is unlikely to be encumbered by vested interests. It is only the rare and special scientist who stands at the “fringes” where true innovation can be found (nods to Bauer and the late Tom Van Flandern).

    Is this notion true, or was it ever true?

    From Bauer’s observations, it seems that the present-day system for funding and advancing research really discourages the young scientist, and thus discourages innovation, because more influence and financial power inevitably flows from the older generation of scientists.

    • Henry Bauer said

      Boris Starosta:
      You say, “the young scientist has the least to lose in terms of professional reputation”. But he has the most to lose in terms of career prospects, and so is increasingly unlikely to do anything that would jeopardize getting grants. SO the incentives nowadays for young scientists is to play safe, not question accepted mainstream views.
      So one finds that it’s retired academics who are most likely to question present-day dogmas; see Dogmatism in Science and Medicine: How Dominant Theories Monopolize Research and Stifle the Search for Truth, Jefferson (NC): McFarland 2012

      • Boris Starosta said

        Thank you for your reply, Henry:

        But could you comment on whether or not _before the present era (distinguished by massive government academic funding)_ it was the younger scientists who published the most innovative work?

        My original question aimed to see if present era policy isn’t stifling innovation, precisely because it stifles younger scientists. I suppose there would be a selection effect to control for: in the preceding era, there were apparently more younger scientist who were P.I.s (etc.), and so they got published more. But controlling for that, can one discern a difference between the quality of work being done in relation to the age of the scientist? (“quality” = good vs. shoddy, or innovative vs. mundane). … and could this further inform your criticism of the quality of present era science?

        Thanks again.

      • Henry Bauer said

        Boris Starosta:
        In pure mathematics it seems generally agreed that the most significant work tends to be done by young people, before age 30.

        I’m not aware of data for other specialties, but it does seem plausible that new ideas would come most before one is fully indoctrinated into the status quo. But I think a distinction is needed between fields like pure mathematics where little if any resources are required as compared to — using the most extreme case! — experimental high-energy particle physics. Probably there’s a difference between any theoretical discipline and any experimental or observational one.

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