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For years, Americans have heard blue-ribbon commissions and major industrialists bemoan a shortage of scientists caused by an inadequate education system. A lack of high-tech talent, these critics warn, so threatens the nation’s continued competitiveness that the U.S. must drastically upgrade its K-12 science and math education and import large numbers of technically trained foreigners by promptly raising the current limit on the number of skilled foreigners allowed to enter the country to work in private industry. “We face a critical shortfall of skilled scientists and engineers who can develop new breakthrough technologies,” Microsoft chairman Bill Gates testified to Congress in March 2008.
But many less publicized Americans, including prominent labor economists, disagree. “There is no scientist shortage,” says Harvard University economist Richard Freeman, a leading expert on the academic labor force. The great lack in the American scientific labor market, he and other observers argue, is not top-flight technical talent but attractive career opportunities for the approximately 30,000 scientists and engineers—about 18,000 of them American citizens—who earn PhDs in the U.S. each year.
“People should have a reasonable expectation of being able to practice their science if they’re encouraged to become scientists,” says labor economist Michael Teitelbaum of the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation “It shouldn’t be a guarantee, but they ought to have a reasonable prospect.” But today, however, few young PhDs can get started on the career for which their graduate education purportedly trained them, namely, as faculty members in academic research institutions. Instead, scores of thousands of them spend the years after they earn their doctorates toiling in low-paying, dead-end postdoctoral “training” appointments (called postdocs) in the laboratories of professors, where they ostensibly hone skills they would need to start labs of their own when they become professors. In fact, however, only about 25 percent of those earning American science PhDs will ever land a faculty job that enables them to apply for the competitive grants that support academic research. And even fewer—15 percent by some estimates—will get a post at the kind of research university where the nation’s significant scientific work takes place.