Supply Without Demand

Science  20 Feb 2004:
Vol. 303, Issue 5661, pp. 1105
DOI: 10.1126/science.303.5661.1105

If there is one domain of science policy in which bad estimates have become routine, it is the one we used to call “scientific manpower.” Time after time we have been warned of impending shortages which, with evergreen consistency, are subsequently transformed into gluts, to the dismay of those most affected: the future practitioners of our disciplines. Somehow, the predictors seem to forget that calls to increase future supply should bear some relationship to the present balance between supply and demand.

This is an old problem in the United States, where the ill-advised prognostications of the National Science Foundation in the early 1990s were followed by intense congressional criticism and widespread outrage among graduate students and postdocs. The National Science Board has apparently not profited from that harsh lesson. Now, expressing concern that few native-born citizens are entering scientific careers, it calls for an intensified national effort to expand domestic production. Meanwhile, unemployment rates for scientists are going up; according to the American Chemical Society, they have doubled among chemists over the past 2 years.

The habit is apparently contagious. On the other side of the Atlantic, the European Union has set targets for increases in R&D spending that, it predicts, will require 700,000 new scientists in the coming years. To meet this anticipated demand, the European Commission (EC) is implementing a series of new programs, as Philippe Busquin reported on this page last month (Science 9 January 2004, p. 145). But repatriation and mobility won't solve the problem. At an EC meeting at Rockefeller University in December 2003, angry expatriate Italian scientists pointed out that even if they want to go home, as many do, there are no jobs for them.


What is going on here? Why do we keep wishing to expand the supply of scientists even though there is no evidence of imminent shortages, and most jobs are in the private sector, where they are immune to management by policy fiat? First, there is a widespread belief that economic progress depends on science and technology; why shouldn't we have more of such a good thing? Second, policies are set mainly by elders, who, like the institutions that employ them, have little incentive to downsize their operations. Instead, academic reward structures and government funding priorities tend to perpetuate the “train more scientists” status quo.

There's one more, uncomfortable, explanation for calls to increase the supply of scientists. The present situation provides real advantages for the science and technology sector and the academic and corporate institutions that depend on it. We've arranged to produce more knowledge workers than we can employ, creating a labor-excess economy that keeps labor costs down and productivity high. Maybe we keep doing this because in our heart of hearts, we really prefer it this way.

The consequences of this are troubling. To be sure, the best graduates of the most prestigious programs may eventually find good jobs, but only after they are well past the age at which their predecessors were productively established. The rest—scientists of considerable potential who didn't quite make it in a tough market—form an international legion of the discontented.

Are there some things we might do to help us kick this habit? For one thing, university departments should be obliged to give applicants a detailed account of the placement histories of recent graduates, as few now do. Academic scientists should think realistically about how many intellectual offspring they ought to produce over a career and talk candidly with current students about the job market. Official needs estimates should study the present relationhip between applicants and jobs—we don't need more calls for “more scientists” from policy-makers who haven't first looked hard at the balance between supply and demand. Finally, governments and funding agencies should carefully consider the job market implications of their burgeoning science budgets.

Of course, the problem may solve itself. Undergraduates seem to be getting the message that science jobs are scarce and that the graduate students and postdocs in their departments are deeply concerned about their future prospects. As they turn their attention elsewhere and a real shortage develops, we may finally get the best science minds into stable, rewarding positions at a young age. That's a good outcome, but do we have to get there the hard way?

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