Taken for Granted: Can EarlyCareer Scientists Believe in Change?

As the news of Barack Obama’s electoral victory flashed around the world, among the millions cheering were many scientists. As part of his winning message of hope and change, the new president-elect touted an ambitious plan for science and technology that promised, among other things, to double research funding over 10 years and immediately reverse Bush Administration policies that have hobbled stem cell research and sidelined scientific expertise in key decisions.

So will the Obama Administration mean improvement in the difficult circumstances facing so many early-career scientists? Savvy Washington observers predict that the cost-free changes–swiftly ending the ban on federal funding of research with post-2001 embryonic stem cells and restoring mainstream science to a place of influence in the high councils of the government–will very likely happen as soon as the new Administration takes over. But the pricier promises–including an overall boost in funding, unspecified steps to improve opportunities for at least some young researchers, and greater support for risky research–may take a good deal longer to come true, if in fact they ever do. And buried in Obama’s platform are proposals likely to worsen the glut of young scientists struggling to start research careers. Beyond these governmental realities, other factors further darken the outlook for scientists early in their careers.

The new president will face monumental problems that are distressingly real–a huge budget deficit, a worldwide financial meltdown, a distressed populace demanding action on jobs and health insurance, a nearly decade-long backlog of infrastructure projects, and a pair of intractable wars. But the science program he proposed during the campaign appears designed, at least in part, to solve an imaginary problem: the widely touted but nonexistent shortage of young scientists. 

Obama promised to triple the number of U.S. National Science Foundation graduate fellowships and raise funding for academic research. Neither step, of course, would do anything to create the reasonable career positions in research that new scientists need. Instead, by training ever more researchers to compete for the already inadequate supply of academic opportunities, Obama’s stated policies could well replicate the labor force disaster that followed the ill-planned doubling of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) budget.

Hard times

A generally gloomy picture emerged from a conversation with an Obama campaign science adviser in late October and from a forum on the incoming Administration held at the mammoth Society for Neuroscience annual meeting in Washington, D.C., in late November. Before the election, the campaign adviser, biology professor Sharon Long of Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, told Science Careers that the current job structure of academic science, which traps tens of thousands of young researchers in low-paid dead-end positions, is a “detail” that had not received attention, although “some people are concerned” about the issue. At the forum 2 weeks after Obama’s victory, a high-level panel of science policy veterans agreed with the moderator, Science magazine Deputy Editor Katrina Kelner, that “many groups are feeling optimistic,” but “the glow has to be tempered by the funding situation and the economic crisis.”

Any early increase in science funding appears unlikely, said forum panelist Wendell Primus, senior policy adviser to Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D–CA). Although Pelosi is an “an enthusiastic supporter of science,” he said, the immediate congressional agenda must focus on the dire and worsening economic condition of many Americans. “We will limp through December and then throw all this on the new president” when he takes office on 20 January, he added.

A major economic recovery package will be the new 111th Congress’s first task, Primus said. The plan is expected to focus on responses to the deepening recession such as unemployment insurance, food programs, help for strapped state governments struggling to provide basic services, and money to stimulate the economy. Panelist Harold Varmus, head of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City, suggested that science could try for some of that money by emphasizing its role as an employer and as a consumer of American-made equipment–an effort that will plunge it into ferocious competition with countless other interest groups, many of them better organized for combat than the research community. Early-career scientists, of course, are not organized at all to pursue their own interests against those of the grant-starved lab chiefs whom the major scientific lobbying organizations represent.

The second major legislation out of Congress, the appropriations bill to fund the government for fiscal year 2009 (which began in October), may well include increases for some bioscience agencies, such as NIH and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Primus continued. The increases in physical science funding initiated by the Bush Administration as part of the competitiveness initiative will probably also continue, at least partially. But because health care reform will be an overriding priority of both the new president and the Congress, Primus suggested that there would be a greater emphasis on biomedical research that produces tangible results. “We need a lot more clinical research,” he said. The high priority that the president-elect has given to energy independence and climate change also appear to portend significant increases in research. But, Primus said, overall “funding for science depends on whether we’re able to reduce the deficit”—a questionable outcome in a severe recession.

Another crucial issue for science will be the identity and status of the new president’s science adviser, said panelist John Porter, a former Republican congressman and current partner in the powerful Hogan & Hartson law firm. (Porter also heads Research! America, an advocacy group for biomedical research.) From the standpoint of early-career scientists, the most important thing about the new adviser may be his or her attitude toward the realities of the scientific job market. If the shortage theory holds sway, policy decisions are likely to be detrimental. But if an understanding of the reality of the scientist glut guides decision-making, there might possibly be some improvements. Still, with senior academic scientists and the organizations that lobby for them clamoring for funding, it’s unlikely that the Congress and the Administration will spend many scarce and highly contested dollars helping early-career scientists, a group that’s invisible on the Washington radar screen.

Other major indicators of what science can expect from the new Administration, Porter said, will be found in Obama’s State of the Union message–which will outline his Administration’s priorities–and his first budget. Given the Democratic congressional majorities and the electoral mandate at his back, his budget proposal will likely carry far more weight than in recent years.

The new president and Congress, however, have to undo the results of 6 years that Porter termed “the disaster,” when the entire increase in discretionary spending went to defense, homeland security, and veterans. “Everything else was flat-funded,” including science, he said.

Better days ahead?

Once the economy improves, “priorities of the Administration will change. Things will get better for you,” Primus told the assembled neuroscientists. But, he added, “I just don’t know how much.” In the meantime, perhaps one-third of the value of university endowments has vanished in the recent financial market collapse. At least half the states are experiencing serious budget stringency and are slashing funds for their public colleges and universities. Together, these mean hiring freezes and expenditure cuts on campuses across the country, shrinking the already small supply of faculty openings. In addition, the credit crisis has affected the financing available to the small tech and biotech companies that have provided career opportunities for many young scientists. And the financial industry, which has provided lucrative employment to young scientists in recent years, will not be absorbing many newcomers in the days ahead.

As the Obama era dawns, early-career scientists, like other Americans, can look forward to experiencing one of the great themes of the president-elect’s campaign: change. But whether it is change for the better appears at present to be a matter for the Obama campaign’s second great theme: hope.

Images. Top: BarackObama.com. Middle: Kelly Krause

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