Over at Bio Careers there’s a rather long winded article titled “Do we need more scientists?”

Since it is late and it has been a long day, I must admit that I only skimmed it.

But it seems to make the argument that a bunch of chicken littles have been crying about the sky falling, because we’re going to have a shortage of scientists and engineers.

It says that these people have been up to this for many years… and that they are statistically wrong.

Ok, well, yeah.  In some sense we have no shortage – if viewed statistically.

On the surface, viewed by the broad brush of statistics, all is well in science-ville.  We have loads of happy graduate students and post docs just clamoring to get in.  Right?!?

Right-o.  However, statistics can never get you down to the underlying mechanisms of things.  It doesn’t matter whether those things are human behaviors – or molecular behaviors.

And here’s a behavior I’ve observed: I have encountered an ever-increasing array of scientists who have thrown or want to throw in the towel (i.e. quit science).

Maybe they don’t have any other job options.  Maybe they are just temporarily frustrated, and will soon get over it like a kid with a skinned knee.  Maybe, like me, they’ve found a great alternative career path such as  opening a bike shop.

Regardless of who, what, or how, there’s a why: science is increasingly hard to do for increasingly scarce rewards (unless you’re one of the elite “in crowd” – I suppose I should count myself amongst those with ~$1M of various funding to my lab this year – but I’ve never counted myself as being in the “in crowd”).

In the US, science does have a real problem.  It is not a problem of “how many,” but of “who”.

There are still plenty of eager foreign folks willing to come here to do science.  For many of those folks, it is the opportunity of a lifetime to get science training and do science in the US.

The problem is not that these folks (many of whom I count as good friends) come here.  I welcome them. The problem is that the dwindling interest of native-born US Citizens  in science is covered up in the broad-brush-stroke of statistics.  The foreign folks fill in the “numbers gap” – making the arguments on the aforementioned page sound sound. So, yeah – we have too many scientists. On paper.

But what happens if (or when) a place like China gets to the point that their science infrastructure rivals ours – and they are recruiting heavily for scientists?  I’m willing to wager that a lot of the foreign born folks who came here can be readily lured away.

Where will that leave the US?

Ask any Russian about the “brain drain” that occurred in multiple stages due first to the pressure of Stalinistic authoritarianism, and then later due to economic crunches.  Many of the best and brightest ended up here.

However, if things continue not-going-so-well for science here in the US (paylines on grant proposals of 10-12% at the NIH indicate not-going-so-well), that brain drain could readily reverse.

Statistics tell us nothing about that.  They tell us nothing about the underlying reasons for why there appear to be plenty of scientists still in the US – and if/when/why that may change.

Hence,  I cringe when people try to use statistics like that article does to make some kind of point about whether there is a shortage or not.  I’ll take my (wo)man-in-the-street anecdotal evidence any-day over those statistics to figure out where things are headed.  And the anecdotal evidence indicates there is a deep and festering problem.

The economic woes have just added salt to that wound.

At least the writer and I agree on one thing (agreement in bold):

Instead of raising the false flag of shortages, those concerned about the future of science and engineering in the United States should encourage objective appraisals of current career paths, as well as innovations in higher and continuing education designed for more agile adjustments to inevitable changes in these dynamic fields. The overarching goal should be to find ways to make these careers attractive relative to the alternatives, for this is the only sustainable way to ensure a supply commensurate with the United States’ science and engineering needs.

Yes, we need to encourage scientists and engineers – by helping them all along the career path!

Numbers be damned.  It is the people that count.

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