The Collapse of Science, Not Housing, Ended the American Dream

(First published on Huffington Post Science)

star spangledThe job of a scientist is to predict the future and get there first.  We do this by looking for patterns in subtle clues; organizing the fragments thoughtfully to project their likely trajectory.  It is this process that moves me to write this essay; in essence an epitaph from the future. 


            After giving a guest lecture at a departmental seminar in one of the nation’s leading medical schools a few weeks ago, I met with a group of eager graduate students and postdoctoral fellows over a lunch of sandwiches and chips as is customary for visiting speakers.  I enjoy these sessions immensely as we go around the table and listen to each of the enthusiastic budding scientists share in turn their current research project with passion.  This was an exceptionally bright and highly motivated group, but before any of us took a bite of lunch the meeting went off script.  No one shared their research.  Instead the group confessed fear.  Uncertainty and bewilderment for the life choices they had made began to spill out. 


            All of them have seen their colleagues struggle and fail to find jobs at universities as funds dry up to support scientific research in this country.  Depleted state budgets are unable to sustain higher education and scientific research in the face of so many other demands on public funds.  Sequestration of federal funding has been most brutal and cruel in suddenly kicking out the supports of scientific research.  The National Institutes of Health (NIH) will fund 1357 fewer research grants this year, funding the lowest number of grants for biomedical research in a decade. 


            Only a few insiders saw the impending collapse of the housing market long before the rest of us heard the deafening roar that swept away prosperity around the globe.  Insiders can see the same thing happening now in science.  Soon everyone will hear the boom, but by then it will be too late.


            “The barista at Starbucks makes more money than I do,” one of the postdocs said.  His comment was not made begrudgingly, but rather reflected serious concern that his own future was not as bright.   “I have decided to not have a family,” one woman said, regret surfacing on her face as she made the confession.  Like all scientists and artists, these people are driven by an intense passion.  A scientist has to be driven to succeed, and to sacrifice with single-minded focus for ultimate success.  But ambition alone is not enough.  Science requires opportunity and support.  We are at risk of losing a generation of scientists.


            The lack of jobs for highly educated scientists may raise little sympathy among many citizens who have also suffered in this economy.  The economic disaster caused by greedy Wall Street banking barons swept away life savings of retirees; young families lost their homes; blue collar workers and white collar professionals lost their jobs and many cannot find suitable work.  But the difference is that hiring in other professions will resume with the recovery and rise in economic demand, but the financial and political torrent undermining the foundation of scientific research creates a unique calamity for scientists in training, which will have profound and long-lasting consequences for society.  This is because training of scientists and the pursuit of science require long-term commitments, and timing is critical in successfully grasping a faculty position upon completion of one’s training as a scientist.  Because science is constantly changing, those who cannot land a faculty position soon after completing their postdoctoral fellowship will be left in the wake.  If there are no opportunities the consequence is more than a personal disappointment, because it is to science that we look to for our future.


            Consider that these were some of the brightest kids in high school.  They went on to study in the best universities.  They took difficult courses and worked hard for 4-5 years to graduate with a degree in science.  Many left school as indentured students to Sallie Mae, now crushed under decades of servitude to bear the burden of student-loan debt.  After graduation they were admitted to top graduate schools to pursue advanced studies for another 5-7 years and receive degrees in medicine or a PhD.  Most of this group had then won competitive postdoctoral fellowships, and they now toil in the laboratory after their PhD degree as apprentice scientists.  Postdoctoral fellows are the talented individuals who actually perform the experiments that are funded by grants awarded to lab heads and tapped by universities for income.  Postdoctoral fellows are supported by a modest stipend, not a salary, and they are strictly limited to a maximum 5-year term.  After this the fellow must quickly land a job as a faculty member at a university, but what if there is no hiring?  The timing is treacherous.  Many now feel left without options, used up by a system that works them to generate income and then discards them at the end of 5 postdoctoral years. 


            Breakthroughs in science will carry a society into the future; relieve human disease and suffering, and power new billion dollar branches of the economy, such as electronics and the internet, revolutions in genetics, and the aerospace industry.  Most basic scientists give their research away without extracting windfall compensation in a fair exchange for the privilege of doing scientific research at a university or government institution such as the NIH.  Let others with the resources, time, and knowhow turn their new discoveries into commercial success rather than be burdened by undertaking that demanding work and getting distracted from tackling the next scientific question on the horizon.  This is what society expects of scientists and this is what society has trained them to do.  But the fruits of a scientist’s labor take time to mature, so when research is killed, the loss is not perceived until years later.  This puts basic scientists at a disadvantage in times of competitive budgets and political expediency. 


            I reassured the group that the transition from postdoctoral fellowship to professor is always a stressful and treacherous transition.  Even as I offered encouragement, though, it is clear to me that things have changed.  Perhaps the business model that fueled the expansion of higher education, scientific research, and prosperity in America after WWII through government contracts and grant funding was an aberration.  Universities of the future may contract back to the scholarly sanctuaries for the elite that they were for centuries.  The modern requirement of having a college degree just to be considered eligible for employment may shatter as students leave expensive brick-and-mortar institutions of higher learning in favor of affordable, flexible, and job-pertinent, on-line courses providing certificates of education in specific fields.  Basic scientific research will dwindle.  Those with scientific aspirations will enter industry to tackle applied science problems selected to bring quick financial profit. 


            The future is unknowable, but our present predicate is clear as are the reasons for it:  the dysfunctional government.  On this point everyone in the room regardless of political persuasion agreed. 


            On September 17, 1787 when our founding fathers broke free from the tyranny of Great Britton’s monarchy and declared independence from the most powerful empire in the world, they set down on paper deliberate plans for a prosperous and free society.  In laying out the responsibilities and priorities of a federal government, Article I of the United States Constitution states that the function of the federal government is “To promote Progress of Science and useful Arts [technology].”   This is inscribed in the document ahead of many other vital government responsibilities, including “To declare War…support Armies…to provide and maintain a Navy,” and many other functions that are listed after the responsibility of government to support science.   These courageous and wise founders of our democracy saw that a society without a scientific future is not sustainable or defensible.  This priority for supporting science is written into our United States Constitution years before other rights and responsibilities that we now hold sacred–freedom of speech, religion, the press, and many others that were added as amendments.  They saw, as archeologists plainly see when studying the rise and fall of civilizations of the past, that a society may be enriched and characterized by its art and commerce, but its survival and prosperity are determined by its science.  Whether that be spear points, agriculture, smart bombs, or cures for disease, science is the future. 


            Looking a century into the future from 1902, H.G. Wells predicted that democracy would become “a conspicuous phenomenon in the world only in the closing decades of the eighteenth century.”  In his analysis:


            I know of no case for the elective democratic government of modern states that cannot be knocked to pieces in five minutes.  It is manifest that upon countless important public issues there is no collective will, and nothing in the mind of the average man except blank indifference; that an electional system simply places power in the hands of the most skillful electioneers; that neither men nor their rights are identically equal, but vary with every individual, and, above all, that the minimum or maximum of general happiness is related only so indirectly to the public control that people will suffer great miseries from their governments unresistingly, and, on the other hand, change their rulers on account of the most trivial irritations–H.G. Wells, 1902, p 162. 


            In Well’s analysis the inevitable outcome by the year 2000 was–War.  In wars of the 21st century, Wells predicted that bravery and strength on the battlefield will not determine the victor, because “first, the steady development of the new and quite unprecedented educated class as a necessary aspect of the expansion of science and mechanism [technology]; and, secondly the absolute revolution in the art of war that science and mechanism are bringing about…a new class of intelligent and scientifically educated men.” 


            H. G. Well’s analysis seems frightfully prescient and it is supported by roots extending back to our founding fathers.  Ben Franklin and the others laid out matters in an order that placed preparation for war secondary to science.  They saw that a society weak in science faces a weak and indefensible future. 


            Science will bring us into the future and provide a better life for us and our children, but the need to support science goes beyond winning wars and practical rewards.  Every human being is curious about the natural world around them.  I believe that every citizen holds this truth in their heart.  Even as every individual works to contribute to society in his or her own way and raise their families in a better world, they give willingly for the greater good to sustain things that matter.  Every man, woman, and child wants to understand the mysteries of the natural world and their place in it. 


            I never got to hear what scientific research the graduate and postdoctoral students were pursuing.


            A democracy only provides the government that the citizens deserve, I have often heard.  “We demanded more from our government,” I told the students thinking back to my college days.  “Maybe we were dreamers, but we demanded that they listen.” 


            How naïve we were back in the 1960s and 1970s when we thought we could stop the war and save the whales with nothing more than protest and song. 


            Wait a minute.  We did stop the war and save the whales.



P. S.

            I believe scientists should take opportunities to step out of their ivory towers and explain to the public what they are doing with the money that tax payers have given them, and do it in terms that anyone without special expertise can appreciate and understand.  One expects no less from an automobile mechanic in return for money given them for their service. 


            Last weekend I had the privilege of participating in the World Science Festival in NY City, organized by physicist Brian Greene and Tracy Day  In a city with so many world-class entertainment opportunities it was heartening to see the theater sold out to members of the public who had paid to sit and listen to scientists talk about their research.  People care about science.  Science is a partnership.  The questions I received after my talk showed a deep understanding, appreciation, and curiosity about science.  Indeed, many questions I received were the same questions, stripped of jargon, that scientists in my field are asking and working to answer.



J. Kaiser (2013)  Science.  NIH Details Impact of 2013 Sequester Cuts


H.G Wells (1902)  Anticipations of the reaction of mechanical and scientific progress upon human life and thought.  Chapman and Hall, London.



Related articles of possible interest

R.D. Fields (2011) Obama’s Vision of National Security, Science, and Children.  Huffington Post


R.D. Fields (2011) Can Politicians be Trusted with Science?  Scientific American