Unscientific America on Jobs in Science

The most unfortunate thing about the furor over Unscientific America is that the vast majority of the shouting concerns a relatively small portion of the actual argument of the book. Far too much attention is being spent on the question of whether Chris and Sheril are fair to Myers and Dawkins, and not nearly enough is spent on the (to my mind more important) sections about political and media culture. Which is a shame, because unlike most bloggers, they make some fairly concrete suggestions about what ought to be done to address the problems they describe.

In particular, they make a fairly specific suggestion after talking about the problem of jobs in academia, which is well documented in countless blog posts about how difficult it is to get a tenure-track position. Mooney and Kirshenbaum see this as not just a problem, but an opportunity:

So, isn’t the solution obvious? On the one hand, we needto relieve pressure on the scientific pipeline, create more opportunities for younger scientists, liberate postdocs from holding patterns, and train newly minted scientists to better compete in an uncertain job market. On the other hand, we need to encourage the scientific community to engage in more outreach and produce scientists who are more interdisciplinary and savvy about politics, culture, and the media.

These goals ought to be one and the same. Why not change the paradigm and arm graduate-level science students with the skills to communicate the value of what science does and to get into better touch with our culture– while pointing out in passing that having more diverse skills can only help them navigate today’s job market, and may even be the real key to preserving U.S. competitiveness?

Meanwhile, let’s encourage public policy makers, leaders of the scientific community, and philanthropists who care about the role of science in our society to create a new range of nonprofit, public-interest fellowships and job positions whose express purpose is to connect science with other sectors of society.

This, to my mind, is a vastly more interesting question than whether the two-page description of the “Crackergate” incident is adequately balanced. Forget the stunt blogging, which has already received far more attention than it deserved, and let’s talk about what can be done to improve the state of science.

I like the general outline of the idea– if we want better communication of science, we need to provide some incentives for communicating science, and there are few incentives better than a paying job in that area. I wouldn’t be much of a blogger, though, if I couldn’t come up with some quibbles about the details.

For one thing, I think there are actually two related problems in academia with regard to jobs. The post-doc “holding pattern” they refer to is not just because there aren’t enough tenure-track slots to go around, but also because modern academic culture attaches some stigma to jobs that aren’t tenure-track faculty jobs. There’s a sense– mostly unspoken, but sometimes stated outright– that anybody who “settles” for something less than a faculty position at a Research I university has somehow failed in their career. This is part of the reason that people will hang on through multiple post-docs, because the culture of academia inflates the value of tenured academic positions way beyond their real worth.

In addition to creating new types of jobs, we also need to work at de-stigmatizing the kinds of jobs we already have– including positions in industry, public policy, and finance (well, maybe not so much finance…). This will take time and effort, but it’s something that can be done– we are science, after all.

The second nit-pick is the problem of displacement. Some of the tasks that Chris and Sheril imagine these “ambassadors” performing are already being done, albeit sub-optimally, by other people– PR officers, civil servants, congressional staffers, etc. Shifting trained scientists into those roles creates problems for the people who already hold those jobs, and makes them another potential source of resistance. This probably isn’t a huge problem, as those jobs tend not to have vast amounts of political power, but it’s probably worth thinking about a little. If more scientists move into the territory partially occupied by science writers, what do we do with the people who are currently becoming science writers?

(The same problem also crops up in de-stigmatizing industrial jobs. If you make jobs outside academia more acceptable, that probably means shifting some people from the academic pool into the industry pool. In which case, you may make the academic job situation less insanely competitive at the cost of shifting the industrial job market from “very competititve” to “extremely competitive.” And in the process, you squeeze out some people who used to get jobs.)

The biggest obstacles, though, are money and demand. While I think the sort of positions they’re talking about are an interesting idea, they’re not something that the political and media worlds are clamoring for. I suspect that there’s an element of “if you build it, they will come” here– if you can get a few of these positions created, and they work out well, people will step up to create more.

The real question, then, is how do you go about creating those first few positions? Chris and Sheril hint at the solution in the last paragraph quoted about, but the devil, as always, is in the details. How do we “encourage public policy makers, leaders of the scientific community, and philanthropists who care about the role of science in our society” to get this sort of thing rolling?

This is something that probably can be done– the Science and Entertainment Exchange seems like a step in that direction, though I’m not sure they’re hiring anybody. And this is the sort of thing where large-scale distributed networks like the science blogging community ought to be able to contribute something positive.

So, let’s have more discussion of concrete ideas, and less about third-rate Borat imitations. I like the idea, I think that it, like the science PAC idea is something that’s worth a shot, and I’m willing to pitch in to do my part. Where do I sign up, and what do I do after I sign?