Friday, May 18, 2012

Even Worse Than it Looks: The African-American Male Life Sciences PhD

Summary: Statistics reporting Blacks can be misleading. Be sure to ask about African-Americans (Black US Citizens), in addition to all Blacks. The data are probably even worse than presented.

Given the already low percentage of Black Life Sciences PhD graduates, it's difficult to imagine that the picture could get any bleaker.

It does...

Be sure to look at African-Americans (Black US Citizens), in addition to all Blacks. You may be surprised by the difference such a subtle distinction can make.
..hate to say I told you so.
The NSF also provides a number of pre-built tables, some of which are available here. For example, Table 24 shows the percentage of all Black PhD recipients per field for 2010. Keep in mind that this table shows the results for ALL Blacks. The picture is even worse for African-American males (Black male US Citizens).

...if you're still whirling in disbelief, enter the following into the NSF SED Tabulation Engine:
Outer: Race & Ethnicity (standardized)
Row: Citizenship (survey-specific)
Column: Gender
Filter: Academic Discipline, Broad (standardized)=LIFE SCIENCES

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Infographic: The Face of Life Sciences

What does a life scientist really look like? Nifty facial averaging software,[1] combined with available government statistics answers the question. Cheers!
The Face of Life Sciences
The Face of Life Sciences

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

In Person: Dr. Sally Rockey

“There is no political will to address structural problems like exempt H1B visas; we can only work at the margins.”

Today the NIH Science Policy Discussion Group had the great pleasure of hosting Dr. Sally Rockey, the Deputy Director of NIH Extramural Research [1]. She is a driving force behind the extramural grant policies of the NIH, the nations largest funding agency for biomedical research. Her office administers over $25 billion to the nations research sector [2].

Dr. Rockey is also co-chair of an NIH working group on the future of biomedical research workforce [3,4]. I am eagerly anticipating the groups recommendations, due in June.

I thank her for agreeing to speak with the group and hope she doesn't take too much offense. All views are my own, and in no way represent the group. This is not a critique of Dr. Rockey, she is in an unenviable position.

Let us begin...

Three things strike me about Dr. Rockey.
  1. She gets 'it'.
  2. She is adroit at coping with the doublethink her job requires.
  3. She's more or less as helpless as I am when it comes to changing the rules of the game, the underlying structural factors that are screwing an entire generation of American biomedical scientist.
She gets 'it'
First and foremost, for those that decry government administrators as incompetent blowhards who must be eliminated in the most brutal and expedient of manors, I'll personally vouch for her grasp (read: far beyond my feeble mind) of the underlying rules of the game, and how they disproportionately impact young scientist.

“We understand the importance of diversity...we're looking at ways to engage Community College students, as they represent an underutilized source of diverse talent.”

She understands the current model, decoupling the actual need for PhDs from training, is unsustainable.

She understands that the in-sourcing of foreign postdocs to staff academic labs on a cheap, disposable, exploitable, basis is driving away future American talent, leaving those already trained with even worse prospects than already created by an oversupply of domestically produced PhDs.

“There is no fat to cut in indirect costs...To cut indirect at this point would shatter some institutions...They are already subsidizing research with tuition dollars.”

She understands that in their quest for self-aggrandizement, universities are driving up tuition cost to subsidize research and administration.

Despite this understanding, her job requires her to simultaneously hold incompatible views. She must "hold to the importance of diversity," must "train the nations best and brightest to become future biomedical leaders," must "keep the funding model 'meritocratic' (hint: it isn't)," must "share the wealth to ensure early-career investigators are supported," must "ensure the US remains the most scientifically productive nation." And the list goes on.

Multiple conflicting mandates are not unique to the NIH. Just look to the Federal Reserve with it's dual mandates of full employement and inflation control. A central bank can do either quite handsomely, but usually not both [5]. (Aside: Volker is a debatable edge case, a hero to some, an insufficient de-regulator to others.)

The NIH cannot be everything to everybody. Attempting to do so is usually ill fated. I believe the euphemism is 'balancing priorities.' For example:
  • If the goal is to train and retain the nations best and brightest, a training model similar to doctors, with intense preselection coupled with tightly controlled supply, would be work. A research pyramid based on the exploitation of young scientist fails however.
  • If the goal is to produce the most research for the lowest cost, a more extreme version of the current R01/P01 system coupled with even more temporary visa give aways would work. Given, in a few decades, outside of a very small elite, PhDs would be reduced to the equivalent of highly educated agricultural workers, sourced from whichever country has prospects sufficiently bleak for its own citizens. Eventually there will be no Americans left in the process.

Ok, a smidgen of exaggeration. She's not really helpless, but in practice she can only work at the margin. She has a voice in shaping the national debate over our broken system, but forces that benefit from the exploitation have a bigger voice, and much more sway over Congress.
  • Create an annual post-doc census to more accurately measure the scope of the problem, which in my humble opinion is dramatically underestimated.
  • Require departments to make available PhD and postdoc placement statistics as a requirement for receiving funds.
  • Make marginal improvements to the lots of some scientist, like creating programs to siphon some excess supply into 'science policy' or other positions. 
  • Fund programs to directly match select PhD students with industry mentors, ensuring they develop the relevant skills to compete therein. 
  • Discourage Americans from entering graduate training by cutting the supply of funding, and transitioning the remaining funding to training grants.
These are all marginal improvements, and I suspect (read: pray at the altar of all mighty Sagan) they'll appear as recommendations in her working group's report. Whether any changes happen, well...well. Any major tampering with the University gravy train would either be outside of her pervue, or result in her hasty dismissal.

For example, a balls-to-the-wall approach would be to allow only permanent research staff to be funded on new longer-term grants, barring both graduate students and foreign temporary workers from being funded on grants, as is the current model. This wouldn't end the flow of exempt H1Bs to Universities, only Congress can do that, but it would be a start to policy that would have much the same affect. Even if it were within her power to do so, I doubt she'd get very far (read: axeman cometh).

The fact remains, that as long as disposable foreign labor is an implicit requirement for staffing grants, that Universities have no incentives to hire permanent research faculty, that irrationally exuberant natives continue to 'train', that the fire-hose of foreign supply is not reigned in, that PhD supply is decoupled from demand, the underlying blight will remain.

In benediction, keep on pushing that margin Dr. Rockey.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

A Tortuous Road: On the Structure of Academe

Let's start with a top-down view of the subject, from my best approximation of a labour economics perspective.

Defeat in detail of "trainees", particularly native-born postdocs.
Forgive my lack of artistic ability for a moment. Let's start dissecting this diagram...

Trainees: He/She/It? who does the work and gets shafted. We'll return to them at the end.

Universities: Produce research and the domestic supply of trainees. With some variability depending on the field, over 1/3 of US doctoral STEM graduates were Temporary Visa holders [See Notes].
  • Individual PIs are forced to 'train' graduate students and postdocs, not for the pupils benefit, but to produce the research that (massive Matthew effect) will glorify the name of the PI and institution. Failure to participate in the scheme means no grants --> no tenure (or, if tenured extreme marginalization). 
  • Untenured university research faculty, researchers at soft-money research institutes, and medical school faculty are in the most precarious position because their salaries are sourced directly from grants (most university tenured professors need only cover their summer salaries).
  • Universities get 40-60% indirect cost on grants. These funds are a major component of university budgets. Loop holes allow for perverse incentives, like taking on building/mortgage debt to inflate indirect cost and attract senior (read: making it rain) faculty with space.

Funding: Fuel for the fire: 60%/Federal, 20%/Institutional, 5%/State&Local, 5%/Industry, balance of Other, mostly non-profits and foundations.
  • Most graduate students, and the vast majority of postdocs, are supported on individual PIs grants, not training grants. 
  • The whole system is founded upon the tournament model, wherein small differences in fitness are magnified into huge differences in reward [laymans: 1].

Science Policy: Somewhat amorphous catch-all for the management of stake-holder expectations (read: Mr. Public, I swear the cures for cancer will be here next year...promise!), and the dominant funding model (peer-reviewed competitive government grants/contracts) which came about following WW2 [2, laymans: 3].

Government: "He who has the gold makes the rules."
  • Rationale is that, as a socially desirable, public, non-rivalrous good, knowledge, particularly basic knowledge, will be under-produced by Mr. Market. 
  • Under-production of knowledge is 'bad' since innovation and knowledge are key drivers of economic growth.

Foreign Supply: Foreign graduate students (over 1/3 of total) and postdocs (over 1/2 of total, about 2/3 in Engineers) streaming into universities because of a deal with the devil between government, industry and universities.
  • Current US immigration policy allows for an unlimited number of HB1 Visa sponsorships to non-profits/universities. These are also known as cap-exempt visas. 
  • Dr. George J. Borjas, among others and despite some initial debate to the extent of substitutability, have established that this foreign supply is perfectly substitutable for their native-counterparts when controlling for field [4,5,laymans: 6]. The effect on trainees in both the labor market and university laboratories, is depressed wages.

Firms: Profit maximization by holding down labor cost. Trade associations, in bed with universities and most disappointing of all, the NSF, spin utterly unfounded tails of crisis in S&E labor shortfalls, and the pressing need for tax loopholes, tax breaks for research, more visas for foreign labor [laymans: 7].

Giant Box: All of the above are subject to economic constraints.
  •  Up until the 2009 stimulus, movements were all procyclical. Bad economy = lower funding for universities and a soft labor market for industry hires. 
  • Interestingly, the tap of foreign supply remains open, even in recessions. 
  • Note that the S&E market is also subject to strong cohort effects. Be born in the wrong year at your peril. The late-2000s recession cohort, of which I'm a member, will almost certainly be a bad crop.

And back to the plight of the lowly Trainee: All of these forces conspire to make life very unfortunate for the native-born trainee.
  • While foreign supply from low-income countries are better off than back home (born out in the numbers: foreigners from high-income countries tend to return home; low-income comers stay; detailed analysis in Chapter 8 of How Economics Shapes Science by Paula Stephan), the plight of the native-born is evident. 
  • There is a complete misalignment in the incentive structure of universities/firms to native-born trainees. 
  • Universities want cheap, temporary, disposable labor to feed the grant/indirect cost/self-glorification cycle. 
  • Firms want specific skills with no frills, also known as pin-point hiring.

Rise of the postdoc: The plight of the trainee is not new. Postdocs and temporary research positions, a rarity pre-1970s, have exploded in the past 40 years. Stripping away all the B.S., the postdoc is a holding pen for scientific talent without the skills and stable aggregate demand to take non-academic jobs. This holding pen is anchored by:
  • University demand for cheap, temporary, disposable labor for grants
  • The broken dream of a tenure-track position
  • Lack of aggregate demand from industry
  • Lack of skills necessary to compete outside of academia.

That's all for today's 5,000 mile view, but I will revisit many of these issues in more detail.

  • All statistics available for free from the NSF. Nifty page for it all here. For example, that 1/3 of PhD STEM trainees are foreign comes from Table 18 from this page navigated to from the very appropriately named "International --> Graduate Students" on the main page. I define STEM as the NSF categories Life Science, Physical Sciences, Engineering, which means I exclude Social Sciences, Education, Humanities and Other. That's 10111 Temporary Visa Holders ÷ 27137 Total for 2010 =0.37, or over 1/3 in Engineer speak (don't use a calculator until you already know the answer / round on the first pass). 
  • Some folks might have heard 1/4 thrown around. That's actually the proportion of all doctorates. Divide 13,625 Temporary Visa holders from 48,069 total graduates in all fields in 2010 and one gets 0.28, or 1/4 in Engineers terms.
  • Feel free to comment if you have questions about the statistics sourcing. I will add an appropriate note.

The Case Study

I'm a grad student. A DPhil student to be precise. Like many grad students, I did not fully consider the ramifications of my decision to attend graduate school [1]. Herein, I present myself, the case study.

First and foremost, I own my mistake. I own my continuing (read: Sisyphean) ascent from naivety, my lack of sufficient due diligence, and my initial arrogance.

I'll take top-down and the bottom-up approaches in parallel. By top-down, I mean to examine the institutions and markets I inhabit. By bottom-up, I mean personal impact assessments aimed at finding my face, however insignificant, within the mob.

In other words, the invocation:
"In our obscurity – in all this vastness – there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves." -- Carl Sagan [2]

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Book Review: How Economics Shapes Science by Paula Stephan

A must read for anyone considering STEM (Science Technology Engineering and Math) training. Stephan systematically deconstructs the S&E enterprise in the United States, with occasional comparisons to foreign systems for context. Long story short, it's a pyramid scheme. Indentured servitude for growing legions of graduate students, post-docs and non-tenure track scientist, slaving for a shrinking elite of tenured/tenure-track faculty, who in turn slave for funding and recognition. Those unfortunate many on the bottom of the pyramid are rewarded with an abysmal shot at becoming a tenured elite, poor pay, a soft job market outside of academia where they are unprepared to compete and a high likelihood of underemployment if they decide to leave the game.

Chapters 7 (The Market for Scientist and Engineers) and Chapter 8 (The Foreign Born) are particularly sobering. If a prospective graduate student or postdoc does nothing else, they MUST read these two chapters. On graduation day, your average newly minted US-born life sciences doctorate can look forward to a poorly paid no benefits postdoc followed, having their dream of a tenure track position crushed, and having lifetime expected earnings no more than an equivalent with a bachelors degree. Sobering indeed. Given the lack of information available from graduate programs on student outcomes and the sinister complicity of universities, growing discontent among the lower-levels of the pyramid are not a surprise. Academia is powered by the crushed hopes, dreams and souls of grad students and postdocs.

Too boot, there is little hope in reform. Universities are complicit in the system because their whole funding model relies on cheap, increasingly foreign labor. In a cruel twist of fate, the in-sourcing of foreign scientific labor is the driving force behind one of America's few remaining bastions of comparative advantage, the production of knowledge.

How long before an American-born scientist is akin to an American-born textile worker? How long before foreign competition slowly creep up the value chain, eventually displacing the US in dominance, a la electronics and semi-conductors industry?

How can universities, which benefit so handsomely from substituting non-tenure positions for tenured faculty and an underclass of temporary 'trainees' for permanent scientist positions be tasked with remedying the situation? The truth is, they can't and they won't; not without external incentives for which the political will does not exist to create or maintain. Indeed, the current state of affairs is only a problem for those ground down to lubricate the cogs of the machine, not for the taskmasters running the racket. In the refrain of the author, "Where one stands depends on where one sits."

Science, in it's truest sense, is a quest for understanding, for making sense of an apparently senseless and chaotic world. It is the noble pursuit for truth. However, humans, the systems and institutions we invent, are anything but noble or truthful. Science is a business. Scientist are somewhat rational actors that respond to incentives. Before continuing your quest, read this book. You'll never look at science the same way again.


I've been having a bit of a quarter-life crisis mid-grad school. This blog is being re-booted to focus on my career exploration and topics of interest.