NOTICE: Posting schedule is irregular. I hope to get back to a regular schedule as the day-job allows.

Friday, July 6, 2012

COMMENT: Not enough scientists? [Full link to blog for email clients.]

A friend recently sent me this article and asked my opinion.  The premise of the article - "We Don’t Need More Scientists—We Need Better Ones" is that rather than a shortage of trained scientists, what we really have is a shortage of good scientists.  The article quotes a medicinal chemist named Srinivasa Ramanujan who delivered the controversial title statement.  Interesting comments, and it turns out I've met the guy - in passing, and I doubt he'd remember me, but it was in the context of medicinal chemistry.

He’s right.  Kind of...

I have had many students come through my classes and lab as undergraduates and graduates.  Some were brilliant, some not so, and many in between. [And no, I am not referring to anyone currently or even recently in class or lab!]  The not-so-brilliant ones are unfortunately likely doomed to a life in a job where someone else tells them what to do, with never an original thought (which was, of course, their failure in my classes).  The danger of the less-than-brilliant scientist is that they have no sense of why they might be doing something so utterly wrong as to invalidate the science they’ve been directed to perform.  On the other hand, maybe they’ll be flipping burgers.

The brilliant scientists, however, also have no guarantee of success in the field.  Brilliance that translates into great ideas (and funding, and publications) often goes unrewarded, and can lead to burnout, disillusionment and a departure from scientific research.

No, it's quite often the middle group, the not-quite-brilliant-but-neither-are-they-clueless students who work hard at their research who most often achieve great things and advance the field of science. Off hand, I'd say that "good" scientists blend both brilliance and hard work.
"Genius is one percent inspiration, ninety-nine percent perspiration"  - Thomas Alva Edison, c. 1902
Current NIH funding is this way as well – the science lobby insisted in the 90’s that the NIH budget needed to be doubled in order to promote more research, good, bad or ugly.  So Pres. Clinton signed into law a doubling of NIH budget that took 10 years to accomplish.  Within 5 years (at 1.3-1.4 x the original budget, the number of applications and requests for funding had increased more than 2-fold.  By the time the budget increase was completed in 2002, the applications for that doubled money was more than 5 times what it was in 1993.  Five times the grants cannot share twice the money without someone suffering.  When I got my first grant award in 1994, NIH was funding 24% of applications.  Now they pay 7%.  This means the good has been swamped by the average, or even the mediocre in funding as well. The only solution is to keep trying, and to keep working...

"Everything comes to him who hustles while he waits" - Edison, c. 1908
I have trained 5 students & postdocs in my career – although I have been co-advisor to several others – my boss has trained well over 20 – including those coadvised with me.  That means that between us, we have produced at least 12 replacements apiece.  While science and technology growth of the 70’s-90’s warranted that replacement rate, the current research climate is more appropriate to a 4-5x replacement rate, given that about 20% go into industry, 20% into related medical/science fields, and 20% drop out of science completely, 5x replacement would double the size of the field every 30 years, a much more sustainable growth rate.

In many ways, it is similar (although not as bad) as humanities and “___-studies” majors in which the student or trainee rate should be less than 1x per professor (i.e. 1x to replace at parity, or preferably <1x to get rid of this blight on academia).

Yes, we need more scientists, but as stated, we need good scientists - hard-working, self-motivating and creative.  On the other hand, what we really need is to train everyone to be a better science-minded citizen.  Then maybe it would be a lot harder to pass off politics and manipulation as legitimate science!   

"Many of life's failures are people who did not realize how close they were to success when they gave up" - Edison, c. 1887


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  2. Speaker, I'd comment to this myself except that I'd be burning bridges. It could be argued I already have; still. I WILL say that in general it has been my observation that the science and engineering communities don't have employers who want innovation; they want drones. All identical, all well-behaved (meaning they do what they're told), all just competent enough to do their jobs and no more. I have never been known to simply do what I'm told without understanding the rationale behind it, be it scientific, technical, financial or otherwise. You know what happened there, 'cause you know what I'm doing now.


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