Dec 6, 2013

Is science accessible for everyone today?

Hi everyone!

It's been a long time (my life as a postdoc is exhausting and leaves me no time to blog), but I admire this year's Nobel Laureate Randy Schekman's (of UC Berkeley, go Bears!) efforts to raise an important issue regarding the rising cost of higher public education during his acceptance speech in Stockholm next week.

Could This 2013 Nobel Laureate Afford College Today?
Nobel laureate Randy Schekman (center) gets his Nobel parking pass at Cal.  If you've ever tried to park at the UC Berkeley campus, you'll understand why this is a coveted bonus!

I worry for the future of (academic) science that we are moving towards a less diverse workforce in the sciences as the opportunity to obtain a good college education in the sciences in America is becoming less and less possible for more Americans.  Is a career in science moving back towards an option only for the upper-class, like that circa pre-1950's?

One part of this problem is due to the way American universities has grown over the last couple of decades, away from focusing on quality education to having a more corporate-feel to generate revenue.  Many public institutions displace the costs of rising education onto students because state funding has been cut. It is crazy to think that for some low- to middle-income students that attending an elite private university is more affordable than a public institution in CA due to the available financial aid packages!

I raise this point because I'm also proud to be a product of the UC system (B.A., Ph.D., postdoc), and even though I graduated 10 years ago (wow, time has flown by!), I managed with financial aid, scholarships and work-study positions (at the library and finding research positions in labs) to come out with a B.A. in molecular cell biology and integrative biology from U.C. Berkeley almost debt-free (which I paid off within 3 years on a grad student income!).  I even had the luxury of staying a fifth year by choice (with the help of a nice research scholarship) to take time to explore more biology courses in college and develop my senior honors research project before starting grad school, even though I could have graduated in 4 years.  That extra year was invaluable, because it boosted my confidence as a scientist as I was lucky to generate 3 publications from that year of undergraduate science research.  Sadly, I think my college experience is hard to achieve today.

However, don't think the burden of higher education is solely on students.  Faculty alike at both public and private institutions have to front part of the bill (for example, many faculty in the biomedical sciences at research universities are required to bring in external funding to support their own research that provide revenue in overhead costs to the university).  This structure in university funding began with the expansion of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) supporting biomedical research in the US in the 1950s, and while that was a great equalizer of opportunity to have a career in science for Americans (and foreigners) from the 1950s-mid 2000s, the pinching of science support in America makes it difficult for young scientists to think that academic science is a feasible career choice today.  I mean, I grew up from a modest background where our family constantly worried about money, so when I got to college I derailed (like Dr. Schekman) from becoming a medical doctor and I envisioned a career as a professor/academic scientist in college as a way to improve my socioeconomic status.  At the time (in the late 1990s/early 2000s), there was a world of possibility in biology with the growth of molecular genetics and growing support by the NIH to biomedical sciences at my hands!  But now, that support has shrunk, and as a postdoc you get a modest salary for our educational level (on the basis of being a trainee towards becoming faculty), but I struggle to live in San Francisco and help out my dad.  This is all towards the unrealistic goal (for the majority of postdocs) of becoming an assistant professor, but the reality is that you're very lucky to find a job as an assistant professor.  The downer is that you'll still constantly worry about money if you're lucky to find that faculty job, trying to find funding to support your people in your lab so you can keep your job despite getting tenure.  So, while I'm still committed to this career path because of my commitment to higher education in the sciences, especially public education and public outreach, it's not particularly an attractive career choice anymore for today's college students, who like me, might come from low- or middle-income backgrounds.

How do we make a change in the structure of academic science?  How can we make it more accessible and more attractive to all Americans from diverse backgrounds?  I think we can do it, but it will have to come from hard work from my generation of young scientists (B.A. early 2000s-) to come up with ideas and implement it.

Would love to hear your thoughts!

1 comment:

  1. I think the only feasible solution is to restructure NIH-funded scientific research by providing more permanent scientist-level positions in labs (like a super post-doc or lab manager that also does research). It is a huge waste of resources to train all of these Ph.D.'s who come out of grad school and long postdocs who then can't find research positions. I know of many talented scientists (as you do too) who are no longer working in labs -- such a shame, in my opinion.