The Collapse of Science, Not Housing, Ended the American Dream

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The job of a scientist is to predict the future and get there first. We do this by looking for patterns in subtle clues; organizing the fragments thoughtfully to project their likely trajectory. It is this process that moves me to write this essay; in essence an epitaph from the future.

After giving a guest lecture at a departmental seminar in one of the nation's leading medical schools a few weeks ago, I met with a group of eager graduate students and postdoctoral fellows over a lunch of sandwiches and chips as is customary for visiting speakers. I enjoy these sessions immensely as we go around the table and listen to each of the enthusiastic budding scientists share in turn their current research project with passion. This was an exceptionally bright and highly motivated group, but before any of us took a bite of lunch the meeting went off script. No one shared their research. Instead the group confessed fear. Uncertainty and bewilderment for the life choices they had made began to spill out.

All of them have seen their colleagues struggle and fail to find jobs at universities as funds dry up to support scientific research in this country. Depleted state budgets are unable to sustain higher education and scientific research in the face of so many other demands on public funds. Sequestration of federal funding has been most brutal and cruel in suddenly kicking out the supports of scientific research. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) will fund 1357 fewer research grants this year, funding the lowest number of grants for biomedical research in a decade.

Only a few insiders saw the impending collapse of the housing market long before the rest of us heard the deafening roar that swept away prosperity around the globe. Insiders can see the same thing happening now in science. Soon everyone will hear the boom, but by then it will be too late.

"The barista at Starbucks makes more money than I do," one of the postdocs said. His comment was not made begrudgingly, but rather reflected serious concern that his own future was not as bright. "I have decided to not have a family," one woman said, regret surfacing on her face as she made the confession. Like all scientists and artists, these people are driven by an intense passion. A scientist has to be driven to succeed, and to sacrifice with single-minded focus for ultimate success. But ambition alone is not enough. Science requires opportunity and support. We are at risk of losing a generation of scientists.

The lack of jobs for highly educated scientists may raise little sympathy among many citizens who have also suffered in this economy. The economic disaster caused by greedy Wall Street banking barons swept away life savings of retirees; young families lost their homes; blue collar workers and white collar professionals lost their jobs and many cannot find suitable work. But the difference is that hiring in other professions will resume with the recovery and rise in economic demand, but the financial and political torrent undermining the foundation of scientific research creates a unique calamity for scientists in training, which will have profound and long-lasting consequences for society. This is because training of scientists and the pursuit of science require long-term commitments, and timing is critical in successfully grasping a faculty position upon completion of one's training as a scientist. Because science is constantly changing, those who cannot land a faculty position soon after completing their postdoctoral fellowship will be left in the wake. If there are no opportunities the consequence is more than a personal disappointment, because it is to science that we look to for our future.

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