Friday, January 17, 2014

The Postdoc Conundrum: Avoiding Scientific Limbo


This perspectives piece, written in my personal capacity, appeared in a slightly shorter form in the Global Young Academy Connections, Winter 2013, Issue 1, pages 10-12. The following image (CCCC MS 20, f.66r) appeared along with the article, and was used with the kind permission of The Master and Fellows of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge.

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Medieval Christian theologians speculated that the afterlife must include a place for those not deserving admission to heaven but not guilty of behavior that would condemn them to hell. They called it limbo. In scientific research too, we have a limbo. It contains a large number of highly trained minds in their years of peak productivity but who are not yet considered ready for a faculty position. It’s called “postdoc.”
A postdoc is not a clearly defined academic status or job title—it’s a fluid state of time, open to much interpretation. The accepted principle is that a postdoc is just a temporary appointment for gaining additional skills and experience beyond a doctoral degree. However, there’s no consensus on how long the time period could or should be. Academics argue that the time depends on the field of research and the motivation of the individual postdoctoral researcher. Sometimes that “temporary” period can span up to a decade over multiple installments in multiple labs or research specialties. That state is a “super postdoc”—though there is nothing super about it.     
            In the United States, for example, the number of scientists and engineers in postdoctoral appointments—postdoctoral fellows or trainees, research scientists or associates, the names for this position are legion—has skyrocketed in recent years. The best estimates suggest total numbers between 50,000 and 100,000, with over sixty percent of those being citizens of other countries. A large majority of those scholars are in the biomedical sciences. Engineering and related interdisciplinary research areas have seen a significant influx of postdocs in recent times.
Several specific factors are thought to explain this burgeoning population: the difficulty of publishing in certain research specialties, the shrinking success rates for research proposals, the limited number of tenure-track faculty openings at top universities. Some observers attribute it to more systemic issues: a wobbly, ill-defined labor market for scientists and engineers shaken by the recent financial crisis or the antiquated structure of an academic system, which now includes aging faculty members who are postponing their retirements.
The benefits of postdoctoral training are thought to be self-evident—intellectual growth, professional maturity, and the development of a research network. But under the surface lurks a different reality. For years many postdoctoral scholars have felt like being treated like second class citizens. Some might even call them the invisible members of the scientific community.
Let’s consider some perspectives about the postdoctoral system from those who have had first-hand experience with it: 
A recently graduated elementary particle physicist notes: “The low pay scale is extremely demoralizing: low salary, no health insurance, no retirement fund; moving to private industry would double my earnings…I expect that within two years I will be forced to leave my field (after six years of graduate training) and become a full-time computer hack in order to allow my wife and me to be able to afford to have children.”
And this from an environmental toxicologist who decided against doing a postdoc: The postdocs “...are rapidly becoming a source of labor to which senior people owe no responsibility; postdocs are cheap, non-tenured, have no seniority rights, and don’t dare complain, since they exist at the supervisor’s discretion…”
A recent solid state physics graduate who abandoned the research area for an industry position adds: “Postdocs seem to be a ‘holding pattern’ in most Ph.D.’s careers, judging from my associates’ experiences, wherein one trades peak earning years (already substantially deferred) for a low salary, ill-defined working conditions, and no accrued benefits after a one or two year stint.”
In my own line of studies—engineering—one faculty member seeking to hire postdocs said: “At present…the pay for postdocs is so low that is very difficult to find American citizen engineering candidates. Most (if not all) the candidates who applied my two postdoctoral positions were of foreign origin and citizenship…At least in engineering I think we have the makings of a future crisis.”
            A sociology postdoc at a leading program observes: “…I took this research position because it was a unique opportunity to work with special people. But now, two years later, the job market in my field has collapsed. Though I have been very productive in terms of publications, etc., I have no idea what the future will bring at this point. I’ve talked to many other young, productive sociologists about these issues lately, and the level of stress and anger is alarming.”
            And finally, as an astronomer notes, the postdoctoral positions have in “many instances been transformed from a temporary educational/maturing experience into a semi-permanent holding pattern permitting a denial of employment realities and a kind of ‘futures’ speculation against an improbable massive increase in demand for academic faculty. For all too many people whom I know personally, the speculation failed and the chain of postdoctorals ended with financial exhaustion, and under- or unemployment.”
Raw, astute, and as contemporary as they may sound, these perspectives are taken from a sweeping multi-disciplinary survey conducted by the National Research Council four decades ago that was part of the 1981 report Postdoctoral Appointments and Disappointments (National Academy Press). These issues are now well known, but the challenge is not much is being done about them in a systematic manner.
Over the past decade, some of the issues—offering health insurance, establishing university offices for postdoctoral affairs, and providing various forms of assistance to scholars on temporary visas in the United States—have already gained traction and support. Membership organizations such as the National Postdoctoral Association in the United States and the U.K. Research Staff Association have also come into existence to make a better case for postdoctoral scholars. These are encouraging steps.  
But they don’t begin to cover the root questions that may underpin the agonies of postdoctoral researchers. We must ask: What is the purpose of higher education? What is the purpose of additional training? What is the desired and practical length for each or both of them? What drives the multi-year, multi-institution, multi-field, and multi-publication postdocs for coveted entry level tenure-track positions? Why prepare a host of overqualified individuals for a very limited number of faculty positions? Why pay them so little for their advanced qualifications? Is the change difficult to make because there are no incentives in place for the mentors and institutions hosting the postdoctoral scholars? There are no simple answers to these questions.
            Instead of tackling some of these core issues, what we have instead developed are some escape mechanisms. In my experience, one way to shy away from offering policy solutions is to call for more data collection. In fact, one of the four recommendations of the 1981 report mentioned earlier was to focus on data gathering. A number of more recent reports issued by the National Institutes of Health, White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, and the American Chemical Society among others have followed suit. Lack of quality data will be a perpetual concern. As long as the world of the public policy exists, it’s a good bet that we will continue to come across reports calling for more or better data collection.
My view is that better data would be desirable, but is there anyone in the research world who is not already aware that there are serious issues with the postdoctoral system? The morale of our highly valuable postdoctoral scientists and engineers—and by extension the vitality of the scientific enterprise—is at stake here. One way to approach this challenge would be to go beyond our bunker mentality and take a portfolio approach toward enhancing the careers of doctoral and postdoctoral-level scholars. In other words, the focus needs to be on a cornucopia of different career pathways that exists beyond the towers of academia. Some like to refer to academia (and occasionally industry) as “traditional” pathways whereas others such as creative arts, journalism, policy, law, finance, consulting, marketing and fashion design as the “alternative” pathways.
This is a flawed approach, and one of which I’m guilty. I classified careers as “traditional” and “alternative” in my co-edited book Career Development in Bioengineering and Biotechnology (Springer), which I worked on as a graduate student. This confession aside, the essence and intent of that book was to promote a portfolio approach to career development with the understanding that many career pathways are equally valuable and legitimate for a scientifically-based mind. In fact, the current reality is that academia is becoming the “alternative” career pathway as ever more PhDs and postdocs pursue non-academic careers. And this has advantages. Only by encouraging the spread of scientists and engineers through different career channels to the various corners of our society can we become better designers and communicators of our profession in the future.  
Career development of scientists and engineers across different sectors needs to be given greater weight and recognition in our scientific culture. Awareness of the portfolio of career pathways available for scientists and engineers needs to begin as early as undergraduate years, perhaps even during high school years, via counseling, publications, symposia, social media, online courses, professional societies, and both young and senior national scientific academies. The pursuit of doctoral degrees and postdoctoral experience needs to be critically evaluated by aspirants before important life-altering decisions are made. Advanced degree or training is not for everyone, and not every career pathway requires one.  
Calling for a culture change or a structural reform in the scientific enterprise is easier said than done. To reengineer the postdoctoral research system—with the ultimate goal of redesigning the academic research system—we first need to change ourselves. We also need to update our understanding of current social, economic, and labor market conditions. The early career scientists and engineers—and young national academies—can help propel these discussions, and need to take responsibility for leading this change. By ignoring these realities we remain prisoners of our tradition.
The alternative? There’s always limbo.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Young Scientists at the World Economic Forum


2013 Young Scientists (40 scientists and engineers under the age of 40 selected from 19 countries) at the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting of the New Champions "Summer Davos."  

(Photo Credit and Rights: World Economic Forum)

Monday, October 7, 2013

Harvey Fineberg on SMART Vaccines

Harvey Fineberg, president of the Institute of Medicine explains the benefits of SMART Vaccines in the prioritization of new vaccines for development, and how user feedback can help inform and improve subsequent versions of this software tool. 


More information at www.nap.edu/smartvaccines

Monday, September 30, 2013

Prioritizing New Vaccines for Development

My colleagues and I are pleased to share the release of SMART Vaccines—a first of its kind software tool developed by the National Academies with support from the National Vaccine Program Office of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Dr. Harvey Fineberg, president of the Institute of Medicine, has called SMART Vaccines a “pioneering effort,” which has the “potential to contribute to strategic planning in a vaccine enterprise that confronts difficult choices and many constraints.”


In his foreword to our report RankingVaccines: A Prioritization Software Tool, Dr. Fineberg explains:

“As a software system, SMART Vaccines provides a customizable tool—with various built-in and user-defined attributes—for a vaccine enterprise that currently has no shared standards to support decision making. As a facilitator of informed discussion and decision making, SMART Vaccines has the potential to engage different users independently or cooperatively when they wish to reduce barriers for new vaccine development and delivery. Unlike many previous recommended priorities, SMART Vaccines does not impose a predetermined value system on decision makers. Instead, users are able to weigh and rank preferences that are relevant to the specific contexts in which they are making decisions.”

Please provide your comments and feedback at www.nap.edu/smartvaccines

Friday, May 24, 2013

Global Young Researchers at Leopoldina

Members of the Global Young Academy during the third general assembly held last week at the German National Academy of Sciences Leopoldina. The theme of this year's meeting was "Demography and Global Research." 

(Photo Credit: The Global Young Academy, May 2013)

Sunday, April 28, 2013

"Practicing Sustainability" Wins a Nautilus Book Award


Practicing Sustainability has been selected for a 2013 Nautilus Silver Book Award. The awards program, now in its 13th year, represents "Better Books for a Better World" and "honors, awards and promotes print books that inspire and connect our lives as individuals, communities and global citizens." 

Previous winners of the Nautilus Book Awards include His Holiness the Dalai Lama, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Barbara Kingsolver (selected again in 2013), and Deepak Chopra.


"The Nautilus Book Awards are named for the mollusk whose beautiful, pearl-lined shell contains chambers of increasing size which the sea creature constructs for itself as it grows. The nautilus symbolizes both ancient wisdom and expanding horizons; both the elegance of nature and a continual growth of understanding and awareness."

Hearty thanks to Nautilus Awards for this incredible honor! And congratulations to Springer, my co-editors and chapter contributors!

Monday, April 8, 2013

Topping it Off: Rules and Incentives


I don’t seem to have much luck when it comes to the Philadelphia airport. Looking out the window from a Canadair CL 65 at Terminal F on a recent Saturday morning, it was clear to me that I was missing out on the peak cherry blossom weather as I was heading back home from a conference to Washington Reagan.
As the turbines started screaming, the flight attendant went over the canned script “electronic devices must be switched off for takeoff.” Everything seemed normal for our under 30-minute hop-on hop-off shuttle service. The plane pulled back a couple of feet and made a tentative stop; then emerged a deep voice on the microphone from the flight deck. It began with a really hesitant “Ladies and Gentlemen…” The person sitting next to me must have received a cosmic alert that he could preempt a delay even before the pilot could finish his sentence: “Now what?” he said with a shade of frustration shaking his head. 
It turned out that a service staff member had over-fueled the airplane, and rules didn’t permit the cockpit crew to fly with that excess gas. The three-year old sitting in front of me knew how to reboot his iPad and started to poke the touch screen for a game. His mom too turned her e-reader quickly back on again to continue reading a gripping novel. Why waste time? The delay that was to follow—45 minutes—went toward waiting for the Aircraft Service International Group to “defuel” the plane to the right level. The flight staff kept appreciating us for our patience—three times.

This event triggered me to reflect on how rules tend to generate compliance when they involve some form of incentives. As the defueling process was underway, I picked up the copy of the April 2013 edition of the US Airways Magazine from the seat pocket in front of me. As I thumbed through the pages eager to check out the cover story: “The Ultimate Graze: Eating Venice One Bite at a Time” I landed on page 12. An article titled “Fuel Economy.” Author: Tara Titcombe.
In the wildest synchronicity, a paragraph—titled “Less is More”— in that article went like this: “The amount of fuel required for each flight is carefully calculated by trip distance, plane weight, and potential delays. After studying the fuel loads on flights leaving from Charlotte, Philadelphia, Phoenix, and Washington, US Airways discovered that many aircrafts were being over-fueled—sometimes by more than 300 pounds. Newly revised fueling procedures have resulted in more accurate fueling which in turn has reduced the cost of carrying extra fuel.”
            After reading this piece I let my mind wander in relation to how the federal aviation regulations have remarkably evolved since the 1960s, and especially after a series of high profile accidents in the 70s and the 80s. The wisdom behind these regulations stemmed from the fact that human judgments were fallible, and human induced errors were essentially unavoidable. Later regulations required manufacturers to develop several additional layers of redundancy to ensure safety.

These safety innovations including simple checklists are not just symbolic of engineering excellence but on a more philosophical level, a reflection of our society’s shift toward rule-driven efficiency. Think of the number of high fatality airline accidents over the last two decades. Rock bottom.
In the case of air carrier I was in, the concept of efficiency—and by extension, economics—was purely a matter of the “right level,” perhaps even a derivative of safety standards. Nothing more. Nothing less.
            In the concluding lines of Titcombe’s article, Marc Gross, managing director of the US Airways operations control center says: “Our approach to fuel conservation isn’t just about cost savings. It’s also about being good stewards of the environment.” An economic incentive tied to an environmental objective—or could it be the opposite?
If such conservation-like standards were to be applied for let’s say overeating (topping off the bellies incessantly) would that result in anything besides the guaranteed public outrage and political concussions? How come we value rules differently when it comes to machines that we expect (and tame) to be devoted to our safety versus our own (irrational) behavior that plays a massive role in determining our health and performance?
In my own case, there are “rules” in place for me to take my car for routine preventive maintenance more frequently than going to my primary physician or dentist. Why? A system’s behavior (read: performance) changes as the emphases placed on the notion of efficiency changes. And of course, this involves incentives. After all, a change without an incentive is a change without any real change.   
            As the defueling process was completed and our plane started to crawl on the notoriously congested runway for take-off, the flight attendant reminded us that due to the short duration of the flight there won’t be any beverage service. Not surprising, but was the actual reason for not carrying beverages to keep the weight of the airplane at the right threshold? I don’t think so, but that’s another story.

Saturday, March 2, 2013

The Temple of Science is 150

It's a unique privilege to be working at the National Academy of Sciences during its 150th anniversary. On March 3, 1863, at the heart of the bleak and bloody Civil War President Abraham Lincoln signed the creation of NAS reminding us of what it means (and takes) to be a visionary. 


As Yale historian Daniel Kevles notes in a recent article covering the history of NAS in the Issues in Science and Technology: “The foundations of that future had been laid in the Civil War, when Congress established the academy, and during the Gilded Age.” Former NAS president Bruce Alberts’s recent editorial in Science is also a useful reminder on why societies need scientific academies and a scientifically well-informed citizenry. Penn State geologist Richard Alley's video covers Lincoln’s vision--and invention--very well in PBS's Earth: The Operator's Manual (5 mins):


Happy anniversary NAS! And thank you very much President Lincoln.


Image sources: The National Academies

Monday, January 21, 2013

Green Music


In an article for the Annapolis Capital Gazette, Theresa Winslow covers Maestro José-Luis Novo’s chapter contribution to Practicing Sustainability. I’ve been a fan of Maestro Novo since my graduate school days. Included below is the article, posted here with permission:

= = =

Green Music

Capital Gazette
Posted: Sunday, January 20, 2013 5:00 am
By Theresa Winslow, Staff Writer   

Annapolis has a Green Drinks group, Green Beer Races and green space.

Now, it also has green musicians.

No, the members of the Annapolis Symphony Orchestra aren’t going paperless. They still need their sheet music.

But as José-Luis Novo explains, composers always recycle material, drawing from colleagues and culture for inspiration. So, the ASO’s musicians are simply contributing to a longstanding musical tradition.

Novo, the orchestra’s music director, writes about music and recycling in the new book “Practicing Sustainability.”

Published by Springer in October, the book looks at issues typically confined to the environment from the perspective of many different fields, ranging from community development and medicine to education and historic preservation.

“We thought this would be a very interesting and significant complement to the more technical, scientific approach to sustainability,” said David Packer, executive editor at Springer in New York City.

Scoring a book deal
Novo’s participation in the project owes to his work with the Binghamton Philharmonic. He splits time between the New York State-based group and the ASO.

Guruprasad Madhavan, lead editor of the book, was a frequent concertgoer in Binghamton when he was in graduate school and became a fan of Novo’s. When he came up with the idea for the book, he contacted the conductor.

Madhavan, who has an engineering background, said there’s a great deal of similarity in the way he and Novo think about issues.

Still, Novo balked when first approached about the book because of time constraints. But after he met with Madhavan, he decided to give it a try. “The concept he had was powerful,” Madhavan said.

The book wasn’t the first time Novo considered the topic of music and recycling.

In the ASO’s 2010-11 season, he organized the concert “Recycling Redefined,” in which works of Brahms and Rachmaninoff were highlighted. Novo writes about this, noting that both composers “recycled some of their themes from either tradition or previous compositions.”

Other luminaries, as well as present-day composers, do the same, and this makes music sustainable, he said. “Often, you hear from people classical music is a dead art form. This couldn’t contradict that more.”

Even the title of Novo’s chapter in the book is an example of recycling, since it draws on the name of the concert. The chapter is “Recycling Reinvented: Music and Sustainability.”

“Art, in order to subsist, has to be sustainable,” the music director said. “If it doesn’t connect with what it comes from, it’s never going to have an impact on society.”

Novo said art is like to science in this way.

“Scientists are always ahead of their times, inventing the next gadget or concept,” he said. “Artists are the same, inventing the concept of how human beings interact and relate to the world.”
© 2013 CapitalGazette.com. All rights reserved.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Turn 'Em Loose!

"You've got to get kids out in the woods, in the natural environment as much as you can, and leave them alone...The worst thing you can do is to take them down the path of some nature park that has the label on each tree and tell them to be careful not to step off the trail because there might be snakes. What a terrible way to introduce them to nature. Turn 'em loose!"-- Harvard biologist E.O. Wilson at the 2012 Aspen Environment Forum.

Source: The Aspen Idea, Winter 2012/2013, p.20