I would argue that we don’t know. Quite surely our biomedical research work force study a couple of years ago did show that only about a quarter of the people that we trained ended up in tenure-track academic positions, although most of them assume that’s what they are being trained for.
Maybe you could argue that if we are bringing more people on board in a research-intensive university, we need to clarify that there aren’t enough [tenure-track] positions for that to happen. But there are lots of other opportunities out there that we need to expose students to that may be beneficial for many of them anyway. And they are not “alternative careers,” they are just careers. So I would be loathe at the moment to say we have enough data to be able to dial up or down our training pipeline.
First point–because we like helping!:
In the most recent data, there has been no increase to speak of–job creation has stalled out. If someone can convince me that either a massive increase in private foundation or VC funding is going to ride to the rescue and bring us back to the glory days of massive year-to-year job increases, I’m all ears. But I’m not seeing how that happens. And the very alternative jobs have already been taken for the most part. So I think we have some data regarding what we should do with our training pipeline.
But the other thing Collins’ question reminds me of is the debate over whether inflation is about to spiral out of control (no, really). The weird thing about that debate is that we know how to bring inflation to a halt–the Fed cranks up rates. In other words, there’s a lot of concern about a problem we know how to fix (and which doesn’t yet exist). So how does this relate to training scientists?
Easy. We know how to train PhDs, lots of them if needs be. It’s much harder to figure out what to do with a bunch of surplus PhDs–just ask humanities PhDs. So maybe we should err on the side of scarcity. And before anyone shrieks TEH SCIENTISMZ ARE IN CRISIS!!, as Michael Teitelbaum describes in Falling Behind? Boom, Bust, and the Global Race for Scientific Talent (if you’re a scientist, science policy maker or science journalist, you must read this book along with Paula Stepan’s How Economics Shapes Science), science has always been in ‘crisis’, which is to say, there probably isn’t an immediate crisis at all.
So why don’t we dial down that pipeline a bit?