Repost: What’s good for Bob Horvitz is good for America

[Something zodiacal must be happening, because we’re all talking about this dumb shit again. Deck chairs, Titanic, etc…]


One of CPP's postdocs gives his progress reportI won’t rehash the workforce/pipeline debate here, but there is a good overview of it, with a focus on the Tilghman Report, in the current issue of Science. One key takeaway is that the great majority of biomedical PhDs do not end up in the academic faculty research positions they are trained for (please just join the fray at Drugmonkey if you want to lamely argue that this isn’twhat this training is for). For the last 20 years or so, the runoff has gone to industry, however, this sponge, with the explosion of biomedical postdocs (unmeasured but likely nearing 100,000 in the U.S.) and in the current economic climate, seems to be becoming saturated. The industry route is problematic anyway, because it is not clear that doctoral – let alone postdoctoral – training is necessary or useful for the majority of these jobs.

Tilghman et al. make a number of suggestions: shorten training periods, increase postdoc wages, and somehow make institutions train students for the jobs they might, you know, actually have someday. Which are what? No one really knows. If my department is anything to go by: management consulting, pharma, or full time parenting. The reported “involuntary out of field” rates for people 3-5 years out of their PhDs are very, very low. No shit: they are all postdocs. This is a statistic that seems purposefully designed to obfuscate the issue, because as everyone knows the bottleneck comes 5-7 years post-PhD. I can’t find recent numbers for this anywhere. 

The first quote in the article that caused a spit-take was this one:

How can universities prepare graduate students better for the careers they’re most likely to wind up in?

Yes, “how” indeed. Before we get to how, however, there is this: WHY the fuck would they? Right now, being a grad student means getting “trained” by doing research the PI wants done. There is no better training for being an independent scientist than this. What is the value to the PI of spending time and resources training you to do anything else? Zero. What skills or experience does your PI have to help you prepare for a non-academic research career? Almost none.

Bob Horvitz of MIT is quoted several times in the article opposing suggestions made in the Tilghman report, for the reasons that they reduce PI autonomy and could reduce productivity. The US taxpayer is willing to pay for people like Bob – a Nobel Prize winner and mentor to a huge number of successful scientists, so no fault with him there – to  indulge their curiosity for two main reasons: 1. Basic research is essential for improvements to applied science and medicine that make all of our lives better. 2. Universities train scientists that, as a technological society, we need.

#1 is, I think, irrefutable. #2 is not so clear. Obviously we are producing more doctoral-level research scientists than we need or there would be no issue, no Tilghman report, no blog commentary blood sport over at Drugmonkey. Public funds also train tens of thousands of foreign scientists who normally cannot stay in this country and to whom this argument does not apply. It is possible that the taxpayer’s interest in #1 would be better served by a professional class of basic research scientist rather than students and other trainees, who are inherently slower and less efficient for the first several years of their training. If these researchers received salaries and benefits similar to other non-faculty professional university employees, it would certainly mean smaller staffs in labs. The economics are not clear here, as there is no way to quantitatively assess the impact of basic research on the stated goals of the NIH or to measure how student v. postdoc v. professional scientist work differentially contributes to this impact.

However, if the argument that regulating a workforce is going to hurt productivity sounds familiar, it should. It is the argument against every single labor reform movement and government regulation of every industry ever. It’s the argument against minimum wage, unions, OSHA, etc, etc. It is the clarion call of the most parasitic forms of capitalism. Most of us are still trying to live in a modern democracy and stave off various Orwellian nightmares. Productivity is not the only thing we should be trying to optimize.

So pardon me when my response to the unsubstantiated threat of possible impacts on “productivity” (PI’s published output) is a pretty big “fuck you.”


3 Comments on “Repost: What’s good for Bob Horvitz is good for America”

  1. […] last is key, and a point I’ve raised before. There is no payoff to the PI or the institution into meaningfully investing in “training” for […]

  2. […] when things like the Tilghman Report (PDF) are commissioned and written and greeted with denial and open resistance, or when the NIH refuses to even acknowledge the existence of the vast majority of postdocs (those […]

  3. […] swayed by specious arguments about scientific research that involve “optimization” and “autonomy” (freedom from regulation) for managers and institutions, and how we can give the most […]

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