“Does the U.S. Produce Too Many Scientists?”

Hot on the heels of Nature’s Astro2010 Decadal Review mini-panel not discussing career issues, I was pointed to an article in Scientific American that does just that: “Does the U.S. Produce Too Many Scientists?” by Beryl Lieff Benderly.

The article’s response to its titular question is a strong “yes”, in contrast to their assertion (not backed up too strongly, but certainly believable) that most people you’d ask would say “no”. The juicy counterintuitive conclusion is obtained by analyzing the question in a relatively narrow way: how many PhDs do we mint or import compared to the number of faculty positions there are? Of course, as also detailed in the whitepaper I helped write, there answer is “a lot more”. If every PhD ought to obtain a faculty position — which is a big “if” — then yes, it’s pretty clear that we do indeed produce too many scientists.

Benderly touches a bit on the “if” and mentions a few of the career-path issues that are also raised in the whitepaper. The very comparison of “number of PhDs” versus “number of faculty spots” is indicative of how narrow the thinking typically is when it comes to career trajectories for a PhD.

The article also focuses on “science” as an activity only performed by PhDs in research labs. Obviously there are issues with this but I imagine that Benderly was well aware of them and simply needed to keep the article somewhat focused. That being said, there are a few sidenotes touching on issues beyond the research-class world that seem a bit off to me. For instance, discussing the quality of American primary and secondary education:

Raising America’s average scores on international comparisons is, therefore, not a matter of repairing a broken educational system that performs poorly overall, as many critiques suggest, but rather of improving the performance of the children at the bottom, overwhelmingly from low-income families and racial and ethnic minorities. This discrepancy, of course, is a vital national need and responsibility, but it does not reflect an overall insufficient supply of able science students.

I guess I agree with the second sentence — we can get away with a lot since we have a large population. But the first sentence seems completely misguided to me. Privileged students are always going to perform just fine given a system that isn’t pathologically flawed — the fact that our system fails underprivileged students precisely shows that it’s broken.

Then the article closes with:

The real crisis in American science education is not young Americans’ inability to learn, or the schools’ inability to teach, but a distorted job market’s inability to provide them careers worthy of their abilities.

I like the emphasis at the ending here on the career options for PhDs, and yes, the article does focus on PhDs, but really? “The real crisis in American science education”? I’m pretty sure the real crisis in American science education is that most Americans have a shockingly poor grasp of the basic facts that science has taught us about the natural world and a profound ignorance regarding how and why the scientific process is successful. The real crisis in American science education is that many science teachers (bless their souls!) are not qualified to teach the subjects they teach. The real crisis in American science education is that schools don’t have enough money for the necessary educational materials and many students don’t have enough time and stability outside of school to study. Those are the real crises.