Training Scientists as Members of Society

The scientific enterprise is not composed solely of scientists. Science is a societal endeavor that requires researchers, administrators, journalists, policy makers, lawmakers, businesses, and voters. In the United States, most scientific research is supported through taxpayers by large public bodies like the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation, making science a democratic institution. However, the model for training new scientists has neglected both economic and societal truths about how scientific labor should be distributed in the twenty-first century.

Most disciplines train a grossly inflated number of aspiring scientists that are unable to assume traditional research roles. Simultaneously, few graduate programs provide any substantial training in "alternative" (i.e. non-academic and non-research) careers, which the vast majority of their students will eventually pursue. By definition, this is an unsustainable path. Although a number of senior educators and scientists are calling, and have been calling, for changes to scientific training, there is a desperate need to follow through on these recommendations and face honestly the realities of science in our modern world. 

As you can see from the infographic above, the tenured-track faculty position, or your standard research professor, is a rare outcome from advanced scientific training. To pursue that position requires several years to obtain a Ph.D. and one or more postdoctoral training fellowships which may last two, four, or more years each. It is a time-consuming process and reflects a large investment by taxpayers in bright and motivated individuals, who are largely paid in one way or another by federal grants funded by taxes. Unfortunately for scientists pursuing this work, it is still largely a crapshoot that requires a great deal of luck to back up a decade or more of exceptional work. This is because most biology research is in a state of "hypercompetition" due to a glut of doctoral researchers relative to the finite amount of research dollars available to support them. This is by now a familiar tale, but one that remains unaddressed by institutional training guidelines and recruitment patterns. 

Yet this is not for lack of discourse. The most recent letter from the President of the American Society of Plant Biologists highlights the need for more diverse graduate training--while remarking that plant science may buck the trend and could be producing too few doctoral scientists--that is responsive to the economics of demand for scientific labor and trends in federal funding. Although plant biology may not suffer from the same unattenuated growth in graduate training that plagues most biomedical fields, that does not mean that our discipline is training adequately for industrial careers in agricultural sciences or the non-research careers that also support the scientific enterprise like science communication and policy. The President's letter echoes an ongoing conversation where educators discuss pessimistic attitudes by students about research careers and call for more diverse training and a reduction in class size. 

Most calls for change reflect a concern about supply and demand mismatch for scientific labor. Few, however, reflect on the broader question of what makes the scientific enterprise successful. Although basic research performed in academic settings is the foundation of scientific progress, in a vacuum it is nearly worthless. Scientists are largely motivated by intense curiosity and the desire to better understand how nature works. Biologists in particular, myself included, marvel at the apparent miracle of life and how cells and organisms respond so well to their environment and construct the diversity we see in our living world. But in order to support this kind of basic research and reap societal benefits, researchers must function within a web connected to the rest of society. 

Peer-reviewed journals allow scientists to communicate with one another and require publishers and editors. Science writers and journalists disseminate new findings to a general public that is fascinated by and benefits from this work. Entrepreneurs and large companies and engineers translate basic findings about nature into new medical devices, new crops, and new treatments, while stimulating the economy. Policy analysts and lawmakers (ideally) take advantage of our improving understanding about our world to align national policy with truth as we best understand it, in order to protect the environment and human health. Science with a capital 'S' is all of these things. What many educators fail to give sufficient attention to when discussing graduate training reform is that scientists play roles in each of these fields and more. Without trained scientists in diverse careers, our science writing would be limited, our businesses lost, our lawmakers blind to how the world functions. 

Our motivation to improve graduate training should come not only from disparities between the supply and demand of labor, but should also reflect an appreciation of how Science relies on society to function well. Training scientists with the skills to enter these fields and support science from outside the lab will help ensure that the scientific enterprise is not weakened by acting as separate from the world, but rather remains strengthened by its place in society.