Studies Paint Divergent Pictures of the Future for America's Scientific Labor Market

There was a time when predictions about the future of American science focused on the marvels soon to emerge from the laboratories of the world's preeminent scientific power. Recently, however, such prognostications have instead increasingly concentrated on the rapid gains by other countries, most notably China, India, and the combined nations of the European Union that appear likely to challenge America's previously unrivaled leadership.

What does this mean for American scientists, particularly those who haven't yet established their careers? Two recently published studies look at prospects for the labor market and come to rather different conclusions. One foresees a "stable" balance between U.S. Ph.D. production and employment opportunities. The other predicts a "long period of adjustment" for the U.S. scientific labor market, and the U.S. economy generally, after the nation loses its current world scientific dominance. The first study advises a continuation of present policies with modifications, while the second calls for "new labor market and R&D policies" to cope with the major realignment it sees coming.

Period of Adjustment?

"Does Globalization of the Scientific/Engineering Workforce Threaten U.S. Economic Leadership?" was written by Harvard University economist Richard B. Freeman and published as a working paper of the private think tank, the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER). Freeman's paper answers its title question with a strong affirmative. The U.S. is moving inexorably to a "less dominant position in science and engineering," suggests the report, ". . . of which the off-shoring of IT jobs to India, growth of high-tech production in China, and multinational R&D facilities in developing countries are harbingers."

An analysis by the Committee for Monitoring the Nation's Changing Needs for Biological, Behavioral, and Clinical Personnel of the National Research Council (NRC), on the other hand, presents a rosier forecast. At least in the biomedical sciences, "the balance between [U.S.] Ph.D. production and employment looks quite stable through 2011," the committee states in Advancing the Nation's Health Needs . Twelfth in a series of periodic reports advising the National Institutes of Health on policies related to training and recruiting the scientific personnel needed to carry out the nation's research agenda, the report examines "long-term trends and identifies training needs through 2010," with particular attention to NIH's flagship graduate and postdoctoral fellowships, the Ruth L. Kirschstein National Research Service Awards (NRSA).

Steady As She Goes . . .

Apart from one recommendation that breaks dramatically with current practice and several that propose some modification of the program's emphasis, the NRC report advises a "steady-as-she-goes" approach. The radical innovation would repair a widely recognized flaw in the treatment of NRSA postdocs by ending the prohibition currently preventing universities from classifying NRSA postdocs as employees eligible for fringe benefits, like those received by most postdocs paid with funds from research grants. "Employee benefits are a particularly important issue, especially health insurance" and NIH should devise "a mechanism for support such that NRSA postdoctoral fellows receive the ordinary employee benefits of the institution at which they are located," the report states.

The report also recognizes the growing difficulties facing young researchers seeking careers as independent investigators. "Career development of research personnel requires serious attention." Suggestions for improvements include "a transitional award to span senior postdoctoral status and an independent research position" and "awards to allow faculty and other researchers to maintain research careers during periods when personal demands (e.g., childrearing) prevent full employment status." Also needed is "a data system for tracking the career outcomes of its recipients of research training support."

Overall, however, the committee finds the current size of the NIH trainee pool satisfactory at both the graduate and postdoc levels, despite critics who argue that an oversupply of Ph.D.s, both native and foreign-born, discourages able young Americans from seeking science careers, particularly in the very crowded biomedical fields. "The total number of NRSA positions awarded should remain at least at the fiscal year 2002 level ... and future increases be commensurate with the rise in the total extramural research funding at NIH," the report suggests.

Today's large postdoc pool "is in fact desirable in terms of both training opportunities and research accomplishments," the report continues, although "the status and working conditions of postdoctoral candidates need to be improved" along with their "training and opportunities for advancement to independent research positions." The committee finds "the career implications for U.S.-trained citizens and permanent residents [of] the influx of foreign scientists ... difficult to determine," and believes that "the flow of foreign scientists into the system at [the postdoctoral level] should be encouraged as an opportunity to improve both training and research in this country."

. . . Or Rough Seas Ahead?

Freeman, however, has no doubts that competition from foreign scientists, both here and abroad, affects the job and salary prospects of many American research and technical workers. The U.S. will need policies to "smooth the transition from ... being the superpower in science to being one of many centers of excellence," he writes. American dominance was once so great that in 1970, U.S. universities granted more than half of the world's science and engineering doctorates. Part of this lopsided preeminence resulted from World War II, which destroyed the European scientific centers that formerly led the world and brought many European researchers to America as refugees. Huge U.S. spending in response to Russia's Sputnik satellite and the damage done to Chinese education and research by the Cultural Revolution also contributed to American scientific hegemony.

In more recent decades, however, "the rest of the world has begun to catch up," training large numbers of science Ph.D.s while U.S. Ph.D. production "stagnated" and the percentage of American Ph.D.s going to non-citizens rose, Freeman says. If present trends continue, by 2010, China will match and the E.U. nearly double the number of science and engineering Ph.D.s annually awarded in the U.S. Rapid increases in researchers and research establishments in low-wage countries "threaten to undo the traditional 'North-South' pattern of trade in which advanced countries dominate high tech while developing countries specialize in less skilled manufacturing," he warns.

The U.S. does, however, have substantial resources for easing the toll somewhat, Freeman notes. "As long as the government is the main source of support for basic research directly though grants or indirectly through subsidization of universities, its expenditures already help set the technology and thus economy of the future. The doubling of NIH research spending spurred the life sciences, where increased knowledge will be more beneficial to biotechnical firms and the health industry than to most others. The National Nanotech Initiative will spur engineering and physical sciences, which has the potential to benefit different sectors of the economy." In addition, the U.S. has traditionally been quite nimble in transforming research discoveries into commercially viable products.

"Continued growth in the supplies of highly talented young people will stretch out the transition period and maintain the U.S. as a center of scientific excellence, albeit a less dominant one," Freeman adds. Providing substantially larger numbers of generous fellowships available only to American citizens or permanent residents could, he suggests, help reverse recent stagnation in the number of new American Ph.D.s.

Different Perspectives

The two studies paint different pictures of the nation's scientific prospects in part because their different focuses. Advancing the Nation's Health Needs concentrates on what NIH needs to do to train and recruit the people needed to carry out the nation's biomedical research agenda. It also concentrates on the NRSA program, for which only U.S. citizens and permanent residents are eligible, and gives only secondary attention to the rapidly growing number of foreign scientists working in the U.S. on temporary U.S. visas and abroad in their native countries. Freeman's report, on the other hand, considers scientific manpower issues from the point of view of the people doing the science and the factors that affect their opportunities, choices, and motivations. But together the two studies do prove one point: predicting the future is far from an exact science.

Beryl Lieff Benderly writes from Washington, D.C.