If There’s a Major Shortage of Scientists, Why is There Only Room at the Very Top?

Some proposals for California's biotech: Subsidized housing and post-doc bootcamp Are we heading to Aldous Huxley's vision of the future, where you have to be an "alpha" to get anywhere? Today, the New York Times and Herald Tribune published a story on the growing gap between the pay and prestige gap separating the very elite (CEOs of companies, performing artists and others) from their peers and everyone else. That gap also holds for science. For some, being a scientist has become as precarious a career as ballet. At a time when kids are not studying science or math and companies lament that they don't have enough skilled scientists, a significant number of skilled and trained scientists are languishing in poorly paying post-doc and adjunct professor positions. I'm doing some research for an article on offshoring and the shortage of skilled technical and science workers. There's a lot of rhetoric, strengthened by reams of data, about looming shortages and a crisis. And it's true. California, home to one quarter of the biotech industry, has been particularly hard hit by workforce deficits, across all industries.At one small California bio company I interviewed a few weeks ago, some mid and top level jobs have been unfilled for over six months. This week, the state held a meeting to assess and address skilled workforce issues, across all industries. Biotech's apparent hiring problem was addressed by a March article by Bloomberg's Luke Timmerman, subject of a previous blog post. But offering a very different perspective were academics and recruiters who commented on the AAAS' career forum.  Some had tried, unsuccessfully, apply for jobs in bio, or had attempted to place others in such jobs. One recruiter addressed Bloomberg's Timmerman directly, "Luke, I'd love for you to sit down at a dinner table a decade after you got out of school and eat Macaroni and Cheese for the hundredth time, because it is all that you can afford. Articles like yours simply hurt people, and spread misinformation." Another had a sad comment: "Achieving a "normal" middle class living by being a scientist in the U.S. is extremely doubtful. Much better to try for a physician assistant, nursing, pharmacy, dentist, veterinary practictioner, medical technologist, radiation technologist. lawyer, physician. Some regulated, licenced profession that dispenses a billable service or a sellable product.Science in the United states is headed to a slump because lack of leadership, lack of a clear goal and expendatures to war and deficit spending. Another worrisome trend over the last 40 years is the decreasing expenditure of private and corporate investment in R&D. " Some might sniff that the people who complain about this problem and don't "make it" just aren't good enough. Is that really the case? Surely they could be trained for career track positions.  As it is, some M.S. grads take entry level jobs just to make ends meet, and then leave after a year or two. Some other observations from those in the trenches: "Biotech companies do absolutely nothing to help the glut of academically-trained scientists make the transition to industry. They cry and moan about the need to find good people, and they even work closely with junior colleges and community colleges to help programs that turn out low-level factory workers for their manufacturing plants. But even their trade organization, the Biotechnology Industry Organization, has cancelled all career educational content at its large annual meetings." Another writes, "Until the biotechnology industry begins to develop internship programs for PhD and MS graduate students and postdocs, they will continue to gripe about not enough "terrific people." Writes yet another, "this is one of the few industries that require you to find industry-specific training and experience on your own...and only then will hire you." You can read the forum comments for yourself. So, why can't more biotech companies, all over the country, start up radical "boot camps" for post docs and academics whose careers have stalled to help them make the transition to industry and fill some of the positions? And, in parts of California where the average starter house costs $1 million, perhaps some housing subsidies or even housing complexes might be in order? For anyone looking to work in bio, BIOCOM has recently launched a new career site: