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 is the the director of editorial content at the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal.


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