Funding science in the US – A baby step in the right direction…

Last week Senator Tammy Baldwin (D. Wisconsin) said that she intends to sponsor a bill that would strengthen U.S. commitment to scientific research and innovation.   Sen. Baldwin said that she had become discouraged by the fact that the sequester was putting an entire generation of American scientists at risk.

After years of yammering that “American exceptionalism” was some sort of American birthright that virtually guaranteed our place at the cutting edge of science and technology innovation, the gesture was a refreshing one. At least someone in the Capital was ready to acknowledge that the system of training and supporting scientists was broken.

One of the situations the bill is supposed to address is that the current system for approving grants is heavily tilted towards older, established scientists  who have a history of publications to draw upon to justify new spending initiatives.  This has left young scientists and those who are trying to break down barriers with more “risky” proposals  out in the cold.  Many are folding their tents and moving on to greener pastures.  Indeed, even in these hard times, it would be difficult  to find a bigger dust bowl then biomedical research in terms of opportunities for young investigators.  Almost anything else would be more lucrative.

Truth be told, this has been a growing problem, that has been made more obvious by repeated budget cuts and now the sequester.  Beyond the obvious issues of seniority, the process of awarding grant money has become constrained by the force of human nature.  There has always been a tendency to fund the tried and true over the risky but new.   Even when risky but new is often  the only way to break new ground, tried, true, and publishable tends to win the argument.  But since budgets have been so severely  pinched, established scientists have circled the wagons to protect their own interests.  This has been at the expense of the up-and-coming generation of newly minted Ph.D.’s.

This has been seen time and again when it comes to the recruitment of graduate students and post-docs.  Expediency has been trumping ethics on that score for some time. Investigators bring in far more graduate students and post-docs than the system can possibly support.  These scientists in training indentured servants are recruited based on the needs of the principle investigators. Sadly,  no thought is being given as to whether there is a viable career track for these students and post-docs.  We now have a glut of post-docs looking for “real jobs” with a virtual limitless supply of more fresh meat available from abroad.  This basic exploitation is more than a tremendous waste of time and talent.  It can have tragic consequences for its “victims”.   Their best earning years are behind them before they realize they are at a dead end.  An interesting blog in NeuroDojo  stated what a former student of the author learned when at a national scientific conference:

 Do not, under any circumstances, do a Ph.D…..Nobody should do a Ph.D. because the number of people getting jobs that need a Ph.D. was, according to some estimates….10%.  (Furthermore) PI’s (Principle Investigators) are horrible people.  Didn’t matter what the career stage was. Every grad student and post-doc was unhappy with their supervisor. 


That’s some endorsement…or rather anti-endorsement.  The author concluded with  “….holy crap.  How has this all gone so wrong?”

Hopefully, the bill proposed by Tammy Baldwin will help address that issue.  Academia’s hands are far from clean in the matter of undermining a century of American exceptionalism.   At least someone has gone beyond abject denial.  But since this is not a spending bill that would put more money back into a system that is dying, I consider this to be a very small step in the right direction.

© 2013 – RGHicks – – All rights reserved.

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