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Casual Labor Harms Science March 1, 2010

Posted by Dwight and Lynn Furrow in Dwight Furrow's Posts, Education, Science.
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Conventional wisdom holds that the U.S. educational system does not produce enough scientists and engineers to support our science-based economy.

Scientific American recently published an article challenging the conventional wisdom.

The problem is not a lack of science PhD’s but instead a lack of secure, well-paying jobs, a situation caused by the re-structuring of labor markets that has been going on in academia for decades.

30 or 40 years ago, roughly 75% of science faculty were permanent employees. Today, that percentage has slipped to less than 25% by some estimates. Most science research is done by graduate students or temporary employees with low pay and no job security and little hope of career advancement.

“There is no scientist shortage,” says Harvard University economist Richard Freeman, a leading expert on the academic labor force. The great lack in the American scientific labor market, he and other observers argue, is not top-flight technical talent but attractive career opportunities for the approximately 30,000 scientists and engineers—about 18,000 of them American citizens—who earn PhDs in the U.S. each year. […]

Most PhDs hired into faculty-level jobs get so-called “soft-money” posts, dependent on the renewal of year-to-year funding rather than the traditional tenure-track positions that offer long-term security.

It is no wonder that talented people choose to go into law, finance, or medicine that offer better career prospects. Yet, politicians and the media tell a different story.

Despite these realities, the existence of a technical talent dearth is nonetheless almost “universally accepted” in political circles, where it plays an important role in shaping national policy on science funding, education and immigration, says Ron Hira, assistant professor of public policy at Rochester Institute of Technology. “Almost no one in Washington” recognizes the “glut” of scientists, nor the damage that lack or opportunity is doing to the incentives that formerly attracted many of America’s most gifted young people to seek scientific and engineering careers, he says.

If the claim that the U.S. is not deficient in producing science Ph.Ds is false, why is it so often repeated?

As usual, when you want to know the answer to a question, follow the money.

University administrators save money with this system because they don’t have to allocate scarce resources to hiring permanent faculty; state governments (and taxpayers) are happy because they don’t have to support the universities; the few privileged scientists who administer grants are happy because all the money is funneled through their departments; corporations are happy because a depressed labor market keeps the salaries of their science employees low and they can argue for the need for more cheap foreign employees through special H-1B visas; and those politicians and members of the business community who seek to defund American universities and privatize education see their dream continue its ineluctable advance.

Meanwhile, our science-based economy suffers:

…the U.S. …finds itself increasingly dependent on an inherently unreliable stream of young foreign scientists, mostly in the country on short-term, non-resident visas, to do much of the routine labor that powers American research. The American research enterprise—the indispensable engine of national prosperity and the world’s leading innovation establishment—has therefore become vulnerable, observers say, to conditions beyond its borders and its control. At the same time, experts note that recruiting sufficient amounts of the talent needed for vital defense-oriented scientific and engineering work that requires security clearances has become increasingly difficult.

Ain’t capitalism grand?

book-section-book-cover2 Dwight Furrow is author of

Reviving the Left: The Need to Restore Liberal Values in America

For political commentary by Dwight Furrow visit: www.revivingliberalism.com

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