Thursday, November 17, 2005

The Economics of Academic Research

Interesting exchange will the Tall Medstudent. That I’d like to share as a post on it’s own. (All that follows is an elaboration of comments from yesterday-post’s).

Tall Medstudent:

When foreigner postdocs stop coming to the US, there will have to be a rise in salaries, and that will be followed by Americans reentering science.

That will be helped by the worsening of the US economy; the worse opportunities are in business, the better jobs in science will look.

This comes back to the Bush State-of-the-Union statement: America needs foreigners to do the jobs that Americans will not do. The lie in that statement was that Americans will not do the jobs, because American business would rather pay foreigners a lower wage than pay an American what he needs to survive in his economy. Anyways, I think that the US science needs a shake-up like this in order to move forward again.

I agree partly. Salaries will go up if there is a decrease in labor supply. All those that claim that “Americans don’t want to do those jobs” DON’T UNDERSTAND ECONOMICS. A truer statement is that Americans don’t want to do those jobs AT THAT PRICE. When employers can’t hire, they increase the salaries until they can fill those positions.

BUT an additional factor, that has non-monetary value, is how respected a job is. Americans don’t respect academia and so not many Americans enter research. In contrast Asian culture respects academia – that’s why many Americans of Asian descent enter academia at higher rates than other subsets of the American population. This not only has effects on how many Americans enter Science, but how much federal (or state) money is set aside for basic research, and what the NIH guidelines are to paying postdocs. The stature of a postdoc is so low in our society (and in our institutions) that they’re position on the income ladder is lower than it reasonably should be. And the high number of postdocs (due mostly to the over hiring of postdocs) applying for the limited number of PI slots is another great source of anxiety and one of the biggest problems in academia.

The solution may not be to limit foreign students, especially if other countries get their act together and the American school system continues to fail in its mission to produce well educated citizens. To build a wall around the US would only isolate America from obtaining the best minds from overseas. This is exacerbated by the fact that foreign researchers are treated like crap when they are here (in terms of getting visas and green-cards). I’ll get back to what the solution IS later, now onto part two …

I disagree with the worsening US economy will increase academic pay.

1) When this occurred earlier this decade, Americans jumped from business to the high paying professions (doctor, lawyer ...). There are too many alternatives to academia.

2) If the economy slides downhill, the government will cut money for research grants. Less postdoc openings and thus the market will favor lowering salaries even more (fewer jobs for the pool of aspiring academics).

3) Even if academia seems like a better alternative, the increase in Americans in academia will favor an even greater lowering in salaries and work conditions (as in #2 the ratio of jobs to the employment pool decreases, pushing salaries down).

Academic research is in a sense a luxury. A country has it if it can afford it. But that is deceptive. The US economy relies on basic research to generate new industry, so more and more it is a necessity. That’s why China and Singapore are investing tons of money in biomedical science. That’s why the US economy has been so strong over the last 60 years – it has the best universities and generates all the new technology. But I’m not sure that this will last. My belief is that academic investment is primarily correlated to HOW MUCH THE GOVERNMENT WANTS TO INVEST IN RESEARCH. Right now support for research funding is eroding. Academic conditions (FOR POSTDOCS AND GRADSTUDENTS) are not good, but still better than overseas. And the reliance on foreign academics allows this to continue to a certain extent. But I believe that the main problems are within American culture and academic culture.

Recently the NIH guidelines for postdoc salaries went up. Why? It wasn't because of supply and demand issues, it was because members of academia (PIs, not postdocs) lobbied the NIH to increase the salaries.

So in the end factors within the Academic establishment, and factors within American culture (as in respect for researchers, and a recognition that research is important for the future of this country) are the biggest pressures that will better conditions in Academic institutions especially for postdocs. We (POSTDOCS) need more money, and better respect within the institution and within society. And less postdocs should be hired, but those that are hired should be nutured not treated like slave labor! We can’t just rely on the market, but must change the culture as well. American culture and Academic culture. To simply rely on the market would be a disaster for postdocs, for the US, and in the end the US will lose out.