Wednesday, May 1, 2013

When Money Can’t Talk

In one of my earlier posts, I wondered whether or not K-12 STEM programs are truly effective at helping to plug the leaky pipeline in the United States.  In that post, I referred to the study that found that countries that make economic commitments to science and science education report higher percentages of women in STEM careers. In this current period of continuing resolutions and a sequestration that are dominating the distribution of federal dollars and threatening to cut NSF and NASA (and other) programs, I wonder if an already bad situation in the Uniter States will only get worse.  Specifically, will young scientists in general, and perhaps even women in particular, be disproportionately affected by decreasing numbers of research grants and dwindling STEM education opportunities?

On the planetary side, a recent informal poll conducted by Dr. Mark Sykes at the Planetary Science Institute indicated that the decline in planetary science funding may lead to a loss of a generation of scientists. Sykes asked for personal anecdotes about how careers could be affected by decreased funding levels, and almost all of the respondents said they were considering leaving planetary science. A few are senior faculty who talked about losing the resources to train graduate students, but most are likely within 10 years of receiving the PhD. Eleven of the 16 respondents were women, with one respondent indeterminate (and may be a couple). “Younger planetary scientists in particular face an imminent crisis in their careers”, he reported.

Thoughts about how to save (or protect) young scientists vary.  I remember hearing about how dire the job market for PhDs was in the 1990s; I even remember a post-doc telling me that if he couldn’t find an academic job (after several post-doc positions) he was going back to school to become a patent lawyer. The American Chemical Society recently issued a report that recommended that chemistry departments adjust (i.e., downsize) the sizes of their programs so that graduate students can receive more individualized attention and be better prepared for the job market. A similar sentiment was shared with the AAS readership in a recent letter from AAS President David Helfand, who suggested that in times of shrinking funding,  "brutal honesty and collective will" should be used to determine if departments are "able to support each admitted student through to the PhD".  He also stated, however, that "restricted access often means restricted diversity — in gender, ethnicity, and intellectual proclivities". 

Female scientists face persistent career challenges, and we should all be aware of the studies related to, for example, unconscious bias and outright discrimination, that strive to explain the lack of women in STEM fields and the lack of women in senior faculty positions.  It has also been suggested that gender bias results in fewer women receiving grant awards, whether in science or in the medical field. Sure, there are things we can do to help increase the numbers of women in STEM careers or the numbers of grants awarded to women, but if the federal budget doesn't support science, how will anyone get paid? 

Limited funding, especially if it restricts access to graduate school or affects progress in research, can only be bad news for everyone and perhaps worse news for women.  Without sustained funding for NSF and NASA, a portion of which supports research grants, STEM education, and scientific careers, it will become increasingly difficult to hire more qualified women and minorities, whose numbers are already small, into academic positions. What can we do to make 2014's budget better?