Do we really train more scientists than we really need?

I want to return to this topic once more and share my opinion.

Today I read an article with the title “Postdocs speak up” in the journal Science where the authors discuss a recent meeting focused on opportunities for young scientists. The basic plot is well-known: we train far more scientists than the system (lets say the biomedical system) can absorb.

In general, I would like to point out that the title “Postdocs speak up” is quite to the point. There is definitely a perception that scientists, especially young scientists are vocal people. However, this is quite inaccurate. Science is a very conservative and hierarchical system. Postdocs who “speak up” are rare. Individualism is neither encouraged nor perceived as a positive trait. Basically, people on lower echelons (grad students, Postdocs) follow directives from people on higher echelons (Principal Investigators, etc). This is the standard. Very few PIs allow truly independent thinking. This is the evolutionary stable strategy. Postdocs in biomedical field cannot just write some code in computer and change the world. Research in biomedical science costs money and since PIs bring money, they dictate who can “speak up”.

Now, regarding the number of young scientists, I personally think that training of more scientists is an evolutionary stable strategy and we would need even more of them in the future.

Why is that? I think this trend has to do with the self-imposed reduction of productivity per scientist. We think that scientists (both in academia and industry) work 12h-16h daily. This was true in the past when access to higher education was restricted, and only a very brilliant or very dedicated person was able to complete the training necessary to become a scientist.

However, in the past 20 years, access to higher education became more affordable, not because it costs less but mainly because qualification criteria became less stringent. This change allowed people with ordinary skills, but no zeal, to receive science degrees.

Ordinary people, however, view science as ordinary work, not a vocation. They spend less time in the lab. Where before Postdocs rarely took vacation time, now people take any opportunity to spend time outside the lab. It may be called work-life balance now, but that is just a polite way of saying “I only spend minimally required time in the lab”. However, this leads to productivity decrease. The only practical solution to this dilemma is to hire more people with similar skills in order to maintain the same output with less work per person. This scenario applies equally to both academia and industry.

I predict that in the future, scientists with ordinary skills will work less and less, creating the need to hire more and more people with the similar skills.

So, we actually do need more people with PhD in biomedical sciences. Since it’s far more difficult to find people with zeal, better to train more people with less dedication.

posted by David Usharauli


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