The Overproduction of PhDs and the NIH’s Failure of Governance

Last week, I briefly mentioned that the overproduction of PhDs is a failure of governance. As the whole issue of the PhD glut has spread around the intertoobz, one of the points I’ve seen raised in comments sections is that the NIH shouldn’t be concerned about the overproduction of PhDs, since its job is to fund research, and as much research as possible. I’ve argued that the NIH has internalized this mindset and that over the short-term, it makes the NIH very productive–a cheap, high-skilled labor force is good for budgets.

But what this represents is a failure of the concept of governance. Obviously, a for-profit business will be concerned with keeping labor costs down. Non-profit funders, such as the Gates Foundation, have a particular mission: improving human health. They are not a training program, nor is the long-term sustainability of U.S. science part of their mission. They want to direct the existing research apparatus towards solving health problems.

But government agencies have a much broader scope of action. One can not care about ‘Science’ yet have low regard for actual scientists, any more than one can claim to support the military, but not care for our servicemen (that this does happen far too often is shameful, but a topic for another day). NIH has never been solely concerned with research output. It has always had other missions, the most obvious of which is to funnel money to universities and local communities (politicians recognize this even if most scientists don’t or won’t–there’s a reason why NIH’s RePORTER system breaks down grants by congressional district). To put this another way, the overheads and indirect charges on grants at many institutions add another forty percent to the cost of a grant, so that a $250,000 ‘modular’ R01 grant (the bread-and-butter grant that academic labs receive from NIH) typically yields the university an additional $100,000. Does anyone really think that entire $100,000 is required to pay for the costs of doing research, especially when the labor, much of the equipment, and supplies are already paid for by the direct budget of the grant?

So NIH has never simply been about funding research. It has had other missions, including the funneling billions of dollars to academic institutions, which supports those universities’ other activities (science and other) as well as providing local, non-science jobs. That is part of its governance role, just as defense contracting (in principle, anyway) isn’t just about building weapons, but also maintaining technological infrastructure and expertise (analogous to support for universities), as well as providing decent jobs and economic stimulus for local communities.

So how about we the NIH realize that another part of their governance role is to assist the scientific workforce by not driving down wages, job security and working conditions? Something that the National Academy of Sciences realized was a problem in 1998.

Because you can’t do Science without scientists, and at some point, what economist Paula Stephan has called a pyramid scheme, will stall out. And that’s not good for anyone.

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2 Responses to The Overproduction of PhDs and the NIH’s Failure of Governance

  1. 40% overhead is reasonable as an estimate of total costs of research – we forget the people who aren’t paid directly off grants (maintenance, cleaners, security, recruitment, and, yes administration. When some places were claiming 80+% it was a problem and the excess $$ were used to finance new buildings to recruit more researchers to generate more overhead. That’s part of the underlying problem of unsustainable expansion.

    As to PhD students, it’s easy to blame NIH but this is an international problem. All expansions hit a wall and the hoped for soft landing turning into the unforgiving concrete of the recession. But no one guarantees anyone a profession or a job. There have always been “disappointed” trainees but this disappointment may derive from our arrogance in setting expectations for academic careers. Given the lengthy life-cycle of postgraduate training, it’s difficult to match input to output. Indeed, attempts in the past have typically overshot or undershot – each creating issues. The solutions are not simply to limit the number of trainees or their “length of stay”. We are lousy at such management and who is to determine the numbers in say astrophysics or regenerative medicine? Instead, we need greater transparency in actual outcomes for incoming students as well as greater recognition that not landing a TT job is not in any way a failure or necessarily the ideal outcome. But I think we are also underestimating the trainees awareness. Most know what they are getting into. Perhaps some become charmed by the experience but many are realistic and honest about their options.

    What is perhaps most worrying, though, is that the knee-jerk response to economic downturns is to shut off hiring taps. This creates a truly lost generation and is short-sighted in so many ways as well as being disingenuous to the very people who are depended upon for the majority of scientific productivity. It’s always someone else’s problem, where in truth, it is ours.

  2. Pingback: The PhD Glut Makes the Big Time | Mike the Mad Biologist

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