Perhaps our nation's scientific illiteracy isn't merely an educational problem, but rather a matter of personnel — one whose solution is already struggling to emerge from universities.
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To qualify as a scientist, Jessica Palmer has ticked off all the right boxes. She received her Ph.D. from a top research institution, the University of California at Berkeley, in molecular and cell biology. She published original research, on the genetics of nervous system development in fruit flies, in Neuron and BMC Neuroscience. And at a time when academic jobs are scarce, especially in the biological sciences, she won a tenure-track faculty position after graduating, and started to pull in grants.
But then she gave it all up. She started a science blog called Bioephemera and went to work in science policy in Washington, D.C. This fall, she will matriculate at Harvard Law School.
"I was labeled pretty early on a troublemaker, for not wanting to go the research route," laughs Palmer when asked about her career choices. It started at Berkeley, where she felt constrained by the limited teaching experience and scant opportunities to bring her work out of the lab and into the public arena. "In graduate school, everybody wants you to publish your first three or four first author papers, and then go on to a postdoc," says Palmer. Yet she wanted to write for nonscientific audiences. Soon she helped found a publication, the Berkeley Science Review, to give young scientists the chance to do just that.
Palmer is one of a growing number of young interdisciplinary scientists for whom the traditional career path — a trip through the academic pipeline that eventually ends in becoming a version of one's mentor, a professor — makes less and less sense. In a recent survey of more than 1,000 science graduate students and postdoctoral fellows at another top research school, the University of California at San Francisco, less than half described becoming academic researchers as their top career choice. Instead, these young scientists want to take their degrees into industry or the policy world, into the media or K-12 education.
For some senior researchers, that's a very good thing. Young talents like Palmer should "no longer be viewed as deserting science," wrote Bruce Alberts, the editor-in-chief of Science and former president of the National Academy of Sciences, in a recent editorial. That's especially the case, Alberts observed, since having such researchers leave the ivory tower and filter out into the world would have the beneficial effect of "increasing contacts between scientists and the rest of society."
Yet at the same time, the science education system doesn't really know what to do with these Leonardos, and rarely trains them for what they'll encounter in non-research careers. More traditionally minded faculty members may look askance at their plans of academic abandonment. The young scientists themselves may be afraid to tell their mentors what they're really thinking — or they may be told, as Palmer was, that they're committing "career suicide."
As for the careers they seek, careers that might help reconnect science and society — it's true: they often don't even exist.
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Perhaps, then,it's time to make the case for the young Renaissance scientist — to argue that she or he deserves both an academic and also a cultural embrace; that such nontraditional career choices should be encouraged, rather than viewed with suspicion; and even that the training of scientists itself ought to change to make becoming a Jessica Palmer less of a struggle. In fact, a surprisingly strong argument can be made that young interdisciplinary scientists who leave the confines of academia are not only good for the country, but also for universities and even for corporate America, especially at a time when preserving the nation's scientific competitiveness is a concern of presidents.
The first argument concerns the long-troubled relationship between the world of science and the American public. Senior researchers across the country regularly lament how little the public knows about science — the responses to polling questions about whether the Earth orbits the sun are downright painful — and how strong the anti-evolution movement is. But here are some less cited numbers: Only 18 percent of Americans know a scientist personally, and less than half can even name a living scientist role model. In other words, it's not just that Americans don't know much science: In the absence of actual encounters, scientists tend to be seen from a distance as either nerdy or slightly threatening, not to mention elitist and walled off in ivory towers. No wonder the public fights back against their expertise on matters ranging from the teaching of evolution to vaccination to climate change.
Yet if bonafide scientists were more commonly found out working in the world — on Capitol Hill, in the entertainment industry and the news media, filtering into the K-12 education system, visiting churches — they would inevitably break down walls. That's not to say high-school science education doesn't matter; it will always be our citizenry's most central encounter with scientific knowledge. But facts (especially when memorized) are quickly forgotten; people, on the other hand, change lives.
There's a second argument: The truth is that young interdisciplinary scientists keep universities going, by continuing to sample the academic life even if they aren't going to stay there. For let's face it: The numbers are daunting, the odds imposing, in academia today. Long gone are the early 1960s, when there was a real shortage of professors and "there wasn't even any thought about any other career," remembers Bruce Alberts. In contrast, today's young scientists know that rather than moving straight into a promising faculty job, after winning a Ph.D. they're instead likely to wind up in a postdoctoral fellowship, or several. This added academic stage has become an increasingly common stopping-off point as the percentage of recent Ph.D.s obtaining full-time faculty posts declined from 74 to 44 percent between 1972 and 2003.
However, universities still need to keep admitting far more graduate-level science students than the academic job market can support, if for no other reason than that you can't predict in advance which graduate students will ultimately become the leading researchers. Thus the scientists who won't ultimately end up in university research posts are nevertheless critical to the system, and they have to be provided for as well. "My argument with the conservative faculty," says Alberts, "is that you need a large pool of graduate students to create the next generation of scientists, and you don't know who is going to be successful." Yet given that this is the case, Alberts adds, if we don't want going to graduate school to be seen as a "high risk endeavor" then there has to be some way of providing training and options for those graduate students who are not destined to become bench scientists.
The final point concerns U.S. competitiveness. We've all heard the worries: The nation allegedly isn't producing enough scientists and engineers to keep apace with burgeoning nations like India and China.At a time when we need more researchers, why encourage career departures and interdisciplinary dithering?
The answer is that nontraditional scientists actually are a core part of our competitiveness. According to Bill Bates, the vice president for government affairs at the Council on Competitiveness, there's much misunderstanding when it comes to the very real problems with our scientific workforce. Given their vastly larger populations, Bates argues that the U.S. will probably never produce as many total engineers as China and India. Our competitive advantage, however, will lie in producing scientists with "soft skills," such as in writing, speaking, and task management, which is what our companies really need anyway.
In other words, the kinds of activities that Jessica Palmer had trouble finding at Berkeley, the encounters beyond the world of research, would also have helped make her, and those like her, a unique competitive asset.
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Yet if all of this is the case, something fairly radical follows: Graduate-level science education can't just focus on training people to do research. The curriculum has to change, so as to more emphasize writing and communication skills, the merging of academic cultures, interdisciplinarity. In fact, it's already happening: Senior scientists like Christopher Reddy of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and Jeremy Jackson of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography already train their scientist students in communication and policy skills. (We will be teaching science communication in Jackson's course at Scripps later this summer.)
Similarly, there ought to be far more transitional opportunities, particularly in the form of fellowships, to help the young scientists who will inevitably leave academia land somewhere else. These opportunities, too, are growing: For instance, the American Association for the Advancement of Science's distinguished science and technology policy fellowship, which brings researchers to Washington, D.C., to work in the federal government or in Congress, has exploded since its founding in 1973. The class of fellows back then numbered seven; today it numbers 150. The program has now produced 2,000 alumni in total.
Yet there remain major gaps: For instance, Alberts observes that we need real scientists to find jobs in K-12 school districts, where they can build a bridge between the university-based scientific community and science teachers on the ground. However, he asserts there is "no place in the U.S. that offers a one year training to such people, to make them invaluable to school districts." Young scientists who opt for nontraditional careers tend to be energetic, outgoing, and innovative, but they don't necessarily know a great deal about high-school education, any more than they do about policy. Remember: up to this point, they have received scientific training. Not something else.
One might write polemically about all of the above as evidence of standard academic dysfunction — were it not for the fact that the energy and enthusiasm of young scientists who want to do more, who want to give something back, is contagious and can make you feel that it all has to fall into place eventually. "I think it's a really exciting time to be educated in a bunch of areas," says Jessica Palmer. Let's hope academic administrators, as well as our nation's top philanthropists and leaders, agree.
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Chris Mooney, a science journalist, and Sheril Kirshenbaum, a marine scientist, write the blog The Intersection. This blog post is partly based upon their forthcoming book, Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future (Basic Books, July 2009).
Books mentioned in this post
Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum is the author of Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future