A Waste of Talent: The Prospects for American Scientists


Last week, Jonathan I. Katz, a physicist at Washington University in St. Louis, was first named to and then quickly fired from Obama's oil spill dream team. The charge: being politically incorrect while in public, as evidenced by writings like "In Defense of Homophobia." Katz also wrote an article a few years back which recommended that young people shouldn't bother with the arduous task of becoming a scientist.

Are you thinking of becoming a scientist? Do you want to uncover the mysteries of nature, perform experiments or carry out calculations to learn how the world works? Forget it!

Science is fun and exciting. The thrill of discovery is unique. If you are smart, ambitious and hard working you should major in science as an undergraduate. But that is as far as you should take it. After graduation, you will have to deal with the real world. That means that you should not even consider going to graduate school in science. Do something else instead: medical school, law school, computers or engineering, or something else which appeals to you.

Katz claims that "American universities train roughly twice as many Ph.D.s as there are jobs for them," a statement borne out by the pitiful salaries and fleeting employment prospects of anyone with a Ph.D. in the natural sciences. A few years ago, Daniel Greenberg, a Brookings Institution scholar, said that, despite repeated warnings from concerned members of the American elite, there is no shortage of scientists.

But the much-lamented turn away from science also reflects sound economic calculation. The post-college route to a science PhD usually takes five to seven years. Postdoctoral fellowships, now a commonplace requirement for most academic and many industrial jobs, run for two to three years. Postdoctoral wages average around $35,000 a year, without benefits.

At the postdoctoral stage, fledgling scientists are well into their thirties, some in their early forties. With good luck, the next step will be a tenure-track academic appointment, which, after seven years, may or may not result in a secure job. No wonder fewer and fewer Americans opt for a career in science. Even so, jobs remain scarce.

For scientifically talented foreign students, especially from developing countries, a scientific career based on training in the United States is a wondrously appealing opportunity, usually financed by their home countries in the hope that they will bring back the benefits of science and technology. In droves, however, they choose to make their careers in the United States.

The alarmists of scientific shortage have been warning for decades that a homeward exodus of foreign scientists will someday occur. But contrary to this expectation, the "stay" rates of foreign doctoral students have actually increased, according to the National Science Foundation, which reports that 71 percent of foreign citizens who received their PhDs in 1999 were still in the United States two years later -- up from 49 percent in 1987.

Aye, there's the rub: foreign students. Immigration promoters have been telling us for years of the importance of admitting and allowing the stay of foreign graduate students in the sciences. For example, Vivek Wadhwa, of Duke University, has made a small career for himself out of bemoaning America's meanness with H-1B visas for scientists and engineers. Perhaps the best known of the promoters of skilled immigration is Thomas Friedman of the New York Times, who has often written of the need for the displacement of American scientists -- not that he puts it that way. He thinks that we need more "smart risk-takers" and that the American people have fallen down on the job.

It isn't drastic, but it is a decline - at a time when technology is allowing other countries to leverage and empower more of their own high-I.Q. risk-takers. If we don't reverse this trend, over time, "we could lose our most important competitive edge - the only edge from which sustainable advantage accrues" - having the world's biggest and most diverse pool of high-I.Q. risk-takers, said Mundie. "If we don't have that competitive edge, our standard of living will eventually revert to the global mean."

Right now we have thousands of foreign students in America and one million engineers, scientists and other highly skilled workers here on H-1B temporary visas, which require them to return home when the visas expire. That's nuts. "We ought to have a ‘job-creators visa' for people already here," said Litan. "And once you've hired, say, 5 or 10 American nonfamily members, you should get a green card."

The reality is that, as Katz laments, the influx of foreign students as well as the promotion of the idea that a shortage of scientists exists has led to the lack of native-born talent going into the sciences, and those that do find themselves underemployed or simply unemployed, without any great prospects. Yet pundits like Friedman constantly call for more visas for foreigners, a call echoed by elite American institutions. How was it that the U.S. was the world's scientific powerhouse before we started allowing foreigners entrance en masse?