Saturday, February 14, 2009

Squeezing the pipeline

I recently returned from a trip out to the West Coast. I visited three different institutions, and even though I wasn't applying specifically to those departments, at each place the topic of jobs and funding came up and the picture they painted was quite bleak. And I don't think it was simply because of California's own budget problems, because when I came back this week, I encountered both a NY Times Opinion Column and a report on All Things Considered talking about the plight of scientists in these tough economic times.

The NY Times article compared scientists to entrepreneurs:
It strikes me as one of the ironies of modern life that professorial faculty, who by and large lean to the left politically, accept such a brutal free-market approach to their livelihood. If they can't raise grants to support their research every year, they won't get paid. So not only do they have to worry about publish or perish, it's also funding or famine, in the very real sense that without a grant there might not be food on the family dinner table!

It's almost like a small business -- each faculty member is essentially running an enterprise for which he or she must find revenue (grants), manage finances, balance the books and pay expenses like salaries, tuition, rent and even taxes to the university for the space used.

The All Things Considered report also talked about scarcity of funds:
"We have literally 14,000 applications that have been peer reviewed, that have been found to be scientifically meritorious and that have been approved for funding -- but that we don't have funds to support," [Raynard Kington, the NIH's acting director] says.

Stefanie Otto, 29, is right in the middle of a postdoctoral research project at the University of California San Diego. There's a real chance her grant won't get renewed.

"If I don't get funding by October, which is when the fellowship I'm on now runs out," she says, "I'll have to try to find another postdoc at another lab, or jump ship, period."
It turns out that Otto is a neurobiologist, but she could just as well have been speaking for me.

So why bring this up as a women-in-astronomy issue, when really it's an everyone-in-science problem?

Well, "women" are a subset of "everyone" in the first place. Secondly, the science jobs that are being cut by tightening of science funding are not those of tenured faculty: it's the grad students and postdocs whose jobs get cut. And it just so happens that most women in astronomy are at these junior levels.

And then there's the article from the recent AASWOMEN about the price of saying "no", the gist of which is that saying "no" in order to juggle work and family can limit your career opportunities:
To be fair, men make career choices and feel their consequences, too, although usually not with the same blunt force as women.

"My husband can say yes at work without too much hand-wringing," one of my stay-at-home friends said of her spouse, a senior manager at a high-tech company, "because I can clean up the mess when he does. Like when he said yes to the Denver transfer. I was packing the house and interviewing new pediatricians and everything else. He didn't have to think about any of that. His yes was easier."

Even my working friends find their husbands can say yes to career choices with less angst because they know their wives will "mop up the logistics," as a partner in a PR firm I know puts it.

Heck, astronomers have to pack up and move every three years until we land permanent jobs, and then if we get denied tenure we have to start all over.  We end up spending years at a time living in places we don't really like just so we can stay in astronomy without any certainty that we'll be able to move on to some place we like better. If it's easier for men to say "yes" to this kind of a nomadic lifestyle and to deal with uncertain economic times, then no wonder so many women leave astronomy.