Too Many Scientists for the Market


August 16, 1993|By DANIEL S. GREENBERG

WASHINGTON — Washington. -- Why are so many scientists gloomy? Because they have finally realized that the go-go days of research finance are over and today's hard times are bound to persist and may get worse.

For many who are already established in the scientific professions, the situation is difficult. For most beginners, it's disastrous as successive waves of newly graduated Ph. D.s compete for jobs in a shrinking, overpopulated market.

Scientists are not alone in feeling the economic aftershocks of the end of the Cold War, corporate down-sizing, and the new era of governmental frugality. But throughout the long postwar period, they usually benefited from the claim that research is the key to the nation's future and must not be sacrificed to short-term budget crises.

Even Ronald Reagan, the bane of domestic spending, bought that argument. With the cooperation of congressional champions of research, government money for basic science doubled during his presidency.

In fact, many of the financial burdens facing science arise from big bills coming due for mammoth projects that President Reagan enthusiastically launched, including the space station and the superconducting super collider.

Science is badly situated in budget politics. Its funds are in the discretionary part of the federal budget, the portion which annually requires a yes or no from Congress, in contrast to Social Security, veterans benefits and other entitlements. With politics obsessed with deficit reduction, discretionary spending is most vulnerable to cuts.

As a result, the annual money growth to which science had become accustomed over most of four decades has come to an end. The big federal agencies that stake science in the universities and in the government's own laboratories have actually lost financial ground because of standstill budgets and inflation. Meanwhile, industry has been cutting back its research spending to protect current profit margins.

Since scientists have been chronic complainers about money, their current wailing is easily mistaken for normal background noise. In reality, the standard complaints have been superseded by sounds arising from a new, deep pessimism.

The ensuing gloom pervades a perceptive and influential article in the spring issue of American Scholar by David Goodstein, a professor of physics at California Institute of Technology.

Noting that Soviet-American hostility provided a rationale for federal support of research, Goodstein observed, ''With the Cold War over, competition in science can no longer be sold as a matter of national survival. There are those who argue that research is essential for our economic future, but the managers of the economy know better. The great corporations have decided that central research laboratories were not such a good idea after all.''

Goodstein concluded, ''For us in the United States, the expansionary era of science has come to an end. The future of American science will be very different from the past.''

His forecasts are similar to those of one of the nation's most experienced observers of scientific affairs, Edward E. David Jr., a former White House science adviser and high-tech industrial executive. Citing the end of the Cold War and industrial risk aversion, Mr. David predicts that ''total national investment in R&D will shrink by 25 to 30 percent over the next 10 years.''

A new and fast-growing threat to the American research enterprise is the availability of highly trained researchers in the former Soviet bloc, India and other developing nations -- at a fraction of the wages customary in the U.S. Top-flight Russian computer and software specialists are delighted to work for American firms for $100 a month, a hefty income in the land of the collapsed ruble.

The impact of these economic changes is felt throughout the research community, but it falls most heavily on those who are just emerging into the job market from the rigors of graduate training. The bitterness felt in these ranks has spawned a nationwide association known as the Young Scientists' Network, with 3,000 members and growing.

One of its principal aims is ''to let the press, public and government officials know that there is no shortage of scientists. Instead, the U.S. is producing at least three new scientists and engineers for every position that is projected to open.''

The Clinton defense-conversion program can absorb only a small portion of newly unemployed scientists and engineers. For the rest, the future is bleak as unemployment, until recently a rarity in these professions, creeps upward. Meanwhile, the administration remains stuck on the theme that American industry suffers from shortages of workers with advanced training.

The thick gloom in science these days is based in economic reality and an awareness that no remedies are in sight.

Daniel S. Greenberg is a syndicated columnist specializing in the politics of science and health.

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