Wednesday, November 28, 2007

More Scientists?

Gene Sperling's 24 July 2007 article in the Washington Post, "How to Get Fewer Scientists", painted a dire picture for NIH-funded research given a dwindling NIH budget. I generally agree this is a cause for concern, but it made me think, "How many more scientists do we need? How will we know when we have enough?". It also stirred up thoughts about "the big picture" of how and why we should fund science.

As a scientist by training and by nature, I'm all for more scientists. But the ultimate goal isn't necessarily to get more research-oriented, principle investigator (PI) scientists, which the NIH budget primarily feeds, but to improve the scientific health of the country, ensuring a continuous stream of new knowledge and innovations to foster national competitiveness and generally improve the human condition. PI-driven R&D is but one component of a larger scientific landscape that drives these goals, and I feel we would benefit from a resource allocation strategy that takes this whole landscape into account.

I think there are two main paths to improved national scientific health:
    1) diversification of scientific career path options,
    2) greater public appreciation of and accessibility to the scientific process.

Goal 1: Diversification of scientific career paths

Even in the most pro-science society, there will be a limit to governmental funding levels for basic R&D. So as we (hopefully) inspire ever increasing ranks of young folks eager to do science, we must also give them an awareness of the diversity of scientific career options available to them, and help foster new scientific niches as new knowledge unfolds. Whether we need more diversification or simply need to be better at communicating the existing diversity is open to debate.

Our scientific health would benefit if we could promote a range of viable and rewarding career paths to budding scientists, rather than cultivating a monoculture of Ph.D.s intent on the academic, R&D-oriented, federally funded career path. Increased awareness of scientific career options would also help attract folks interested in transitioning to science from other fields.

Increased diversification of the scientific work force would preserve the investment made in publicly funded scientific education, since it would diffuse the competition for jobs over a wider range of occupation types, making it less likely for trained scientists to opt out of the system due to difficulty finding employment for a limited number of tenure track positions. A greater diversity of scientific professions would also promote a positive scientific perspective throughout society, putting science on a more sustainable footing for future growth and furthering the cause of goal #2.

Goal 2: Greater public appreciation of and accessibility to the scientific process

Ultimately, I think we will see better governmental support for science when the general public is more scientifically appreciative. By this I don't necessarily mean more knowledgable, but rather interested in the scientific underpinnings of things, motivated to know how things work, and how they go awry. We need to do a better job at keeping alive our natural curiosity about how we know what we know, presenting the methods and discoveries of science as tools for addressing the problems of humanity, and encouraging a willingness to face both the benefits and risks of new innovations within a broader societal context. Discussing these things with kids and providing pointers to age-appropriate resources would be a good start.

This does two things. First, it will make the voting public more appreciative of important issues that require science funding, leading to funding levels that are commensurate with their true value to society. Second, it encourages more people to follow a scientific career path, spreading appreciation for the scientific understanding across a wider swath of society and enlisting more brain power to help solve complex problems ammenable to the scientific method.

As for how to best achieve the goals outlined above, science education and journalism play a big role. Stay tuned to the comments on this post for more ideas here.

Causes of Concern, Signs of hope.

One might even ask whether it makes sense to devote more funds toward R&D spending in the biosciences at a time when around half of the US public rejects evolution. Clearly, we need to do a better job getting more people on board and better educated about fundamental aspects of the life sciences. With that in place, I'd expect funding prospects to be a whole lot rosier.

I've seen some signs of improvement in science journalism in the mass media. The science section of the New York Times often has very compelling science stories and extended online-content. The health and technology sections of the Wall Street Journal often has very well-written stories as well, though their content is not open to non-subscribers. Wired does a decent job at hyping science to the techies, a key population segment. A Wired article on microRNA from 2005 turned up at the top of their most popular list on 8/11/07, and a 2003 article on RNAi appeared as #5 on the most popular list on 1 Oct 2007. Beating out other hot topics as Web 2.0 and pornography is quite an achievement, even if transient.


  1. Tom Tritton highlights the pain of the current funding woes facing basic science in a Periodic Tabloid blog entry on 28 Jan 08.

  2. Here is some analysis of the politics behind research funding (or lack thereof) by Kevin Bullis: Fact Checking Bush on Research Spending.

    A comment on that article underscores the importance of basic research funding and deserves repeating here:

    when we support a science enterprise we support far more than the actual project. The project could turn out a failure in its stated goals. However, every science project nurtures new generations of scientists, engineers, technicians etc. These provide a collective national know-how, which benefit the nation in multiple ways. They are also the foundation of other future scientific enterpises, which could be very successful.

    When you are killing science, you are killing America's golden goose.

  3. Good thoughts on diversifying the career opportunities of scientists. Many graduate programs are interested in this subject too, as they want the best array of opportunities for their newly minted PhDs, including both traditional and nontraditional pathways, AAAS has a good site for this subject that is worth checking:

  4. Regarding how grant money is doled out by the NIH, the NYTimes had an article about how new investigators are being favored in awards:

    Debate Flaring Over Grants for Research (21 Sep 2009)

    This raises an interesting question worth debating, almost like term limits in politics: How much favoritism do we want to give to new blood?

    Turning down too many new folks will make them less likely to pursue academic scientific positions, but will it force them out of science all together? As all the new, well-funded scientists presumably get older and wiser and better able to execute their projects, should we make it harder for them to get funding and continue research that may take several grant renewals to fully blossom?

    The increasing number of exceptions might suggest that the ranking criteria for judging and ranking grant applications could use some updating.

  5. A compelling economic argument has been made that the U.S. is turning out too many scientists:

    Study Suggests U.S. Could Use Fewer, Not More Science Student (28 Oct 2009; and discussed on slashdot)

    This presents an angle that my original blog post did not recognize, but I think it is also somewhat remedied by the greater diversification of scientific career paths I recommended.

    Ultimately, I don't think anyone wants our educational system to flood the market with graduates on a scientific career path. But what we do want is improved science literacy across all walks of life.

    The trick is to find a way to distill since savvy into everyone without making them all want to be professional scientists, a challenge—I know—given the allure of science.

  6. Moira Gunn's interview with the author of Unscientific American (9 Sep 2009).

    I haven't heard this interview (or read the book), but looks relevant to my post, though review is quite tepid.

  7. What about science blogs as a tool for increased public engagement with science? A recent article about this was reviewed here and here.

    I think it holds promise. One impediment may be the 'untamed' nature of the blogosphere. It is very diverse and unorganized, people may feel daunted when trying to approach it or just unaware of how to find relevant blogs. And what sort of mechanisms are in place for harvesting public input from the commentosphere in a way that is digestible to policy makers or other interested parties?

    I don't think we yet have the tools needed to harness the power of the science blogosphere. Definitely an area worthy of study. Perhaps semantic web-enabled blogging software could help, eg, making it easy to tag (or even auto-tag) articles using standardized tag libraries.