The Corner


Can We Have Too Many Scientists?


It is obviously wasteful to graduate large numbers of students in many fields, especially pseudo-disciplines such as women’s studies, but could the same be true in science? Scientists, after all, put their college training to productive use.

Nevertheless, we have overexpanded in science education, argues Duke University professor John Staddon in this Martin Center essay.

New scientists are cheap, disposable labor for research universities. Whereas in the past, nearly all graduates in scientific fields could look forward to landing faculty positions with excellent career prospects, today a large percentage become adjuncts who do little more than manual labor in department labs.

“The basis for the current oversupply,” Staddon writes, “is that the ‘reproductive rate’ of academic scientists is very high. Each lab director during his or her career produces five or more new scientists. Researchers will hire as many assistants as they can afford. As research support has grown, so have the number of PhDs looking for a tenure-track job.”

Among the adverse consequences of this is a rising tide of dubious scientific research that can’t be replicated. Rather than leading to advances, this profusion of published papers is just a lot of noise in the system. Staddon writes, “Methods may be crappy because scientists in the current environment need to get results they can publish — replicable or not. But if the ratio of scientists to soluble problems is increasing, real results may be harder and harder to get.”

I agree completely with Staddon’s conclusion that perverse incentives in our higher-education system lead to an oversupply of graduates who want careers in academia. My only quibble is that he doesn’t pin down the root cause more precisely — government subsidies.

George Leef — George Leef is the director of research for the John William Pope Center for Higher Education Policy.

Most Popular


If Amy Wax Is Wrong, Let’s See the Data

Regarding the kerfuffle Jason Richwine addressed here earlier, the economist Glenn Loury has posted an impassioned plea to his Facebook page. Loury, you may recall, hosts the video blog where Wax made her controversial claim that black students at Penn Law School rarely graduate in the top half of the ... Read More
Politics & Policy

San Francisco Bans Fur Sales

San Francisco has banned the sale of fur. From the CBS-SF story: San Francisco has become the first major U.S. city to ban the sale of fur clothing and products. Tuesday, the Board of Supervisors unanimously approved a measure that prohibits the sale of fur clothes, accessories, even souvenirs in stores and ... Read More

For the First Time in Weeks, Relief Sweeps over Austin

Making the click-through worthwhile: The Austin bomber is done in by one of his own devices; some new numbers suggest that a small but significant portion of Trump voters are tiring of the chaos and aren’t showing up to support other Republicans in 2018; and the mixed news for conservatives coming out of the ... Read More

The Baleful Effect of #MeToo on Campus

Remember the series of hurricanes that pounded the Caribbean last summer? Something like that has been occurring on college campuses, as they're hit by one destructive mania after another: diversity, Title IX, anti-speech protests. Now it's the #MeToo Movement. In this Martin Center article, British academic ... Read More
Politics & Policy

A Time for Choosing

This year’s Conservative Political Action Conference was controversial. Invitations to European nationalist populists such as Nigel Farage and Marion Maréchal-Le Pen (the niece of Marine Le Pen) caused many longtime conservatives to question whether they still belong to the conservative movement. Vocal critics ... Read More