Is American science in decline?

A new book suggests our prospects are brighter than you might fear

Topics: Scientific American, Science, Religion, Immigration, China,

Is American science in decline?
This article originally appeared on Scientific American.

That is the title of a new book by two quantitatively oriented sociologists. The Harvard University Press offering goes beyond the reflexive and often  pessimistic assumptions that often imbue discussions about future prospects for U.S. science and technology.  Yu Xie of the University of Michigan and Alexandra A. Killewald of Harvard answer the self-posed query by supplying a decidedly upbeat answer, one derived from a massive crunching of data sets.

Scientific American Things aren’t perfect, but when were they?  By most measures, science in the U.S. is pretty good. We’ve got competition that we didn’t have before. But, that’s only a problem if you somehow deny science’s societal niche as a nominally open endeavor, one enriched by contributions from a highly diverse workforce from all continents.

The book transcends the ponderous quality often encountered in assessments of the state of the scientific enterprise. The authors even include a capsule history of science beginning with Copernicus, a recapitulation that emphasizes that science did not become fully professionalized until the twentieth century, which may affect current attitudes of non-scientists toward it. The researchers’ anti-Chicken Little take on this perennial question was intriguing so I set up an  interview with Killewald.  An edited version follows.

Let me start with the obvious question: Is American science in decline?

No I don’t think so. I think the evidence that we put together is pretty convincing that, by most measures, American science continues to be very strong and in some spheres even  improving. We do find some areas of  concerns in terms of the wages of scientists. And when we turn to the international perspective, that’s a little bit of a different story. Other countries are gaining on the U.S. but compared to the position that science has held in the past in this country, it’s still quite strong from a historical perspective.

But, even so, is the once dominant position of the U.S. eroding?

The U.S. still ranks number one on many measures of scientist output, excellence of higher education facilities, Nobel Prize winners. In the areas it’s number one, it’s number one in many cases, by a large margin. There are other areas that many people are familiar with like the test scores of adolescents and there the U.S. tends to be in the middle of the pack.

One of the reasons that you engaged in this study was because of concerns that the U.S. was not generating an adequate scientific labor force. Your findings largely contradict that, though.

We do find that the share of the American scientific labor  force that is composed of immigrants has risen. If you are committed to having a scientific labor force of only native-born Americans, then those numbers [of American scientists] have been more constant among the college-educated population. If we had a change in immigration regime and we were unable to attract top foreign scientists, then that could pose a problem.

Some people are concerned about that and I think that’s a legitimate thing to worry about.  In the current system, though, we have large number of scientists, the labor force is growing, and we continue to graduate large numbers of scientists at all education levels. They continue to transition to scientific careers and science continues to attract high-achieving students. We don’t see a lot of evidence for concern and women particularly have made large gains.

Why do you think there are lingering worries?

So often science is conceptualized as a pipeline. If you think about it that way, anytime anyone who wants to be a scientist doesn’t end up as a scientist, that’s considered a statistical loss. In that way, you’re going to see a lot of losses. But it’s not necessarily true  that every 12- year old who wants to be a scientist should grow up to be a scientist. The pipeline analogy doesn’t work in other ways as well.  This is true for women in particular. Half of the women who end up as scientists didn’t think in the twelfth grade  they were going to be scientists.  I think it just kind of depends on your perspective. If you think about it only as a pipeline, this conceptualization sort of puts emphasis on the losses.

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Some analysts see the problem differently. They talk about a surfeit of scientists?

The growth of post-doctoral appointments has been a concern for many people, that these appointments are becoming a kind of holding tank where you’re delaying your first real job longer and longer and folks who aim to become academics are unable to find permanent employment. On the other hand, it’s not clear that it’s bad to have people with PhDs in non-academic positions So I think it certainly can be a concern as relates to an individual’s choices. If someone makes an investment that retrospectively they wouldn’t have made, that certainly is a cost to the individual and society. But I think the fact that individuals who get PhDs end up in other places is not by itself a bad thing.

You make the point in the book that most people who study science end up using their degrees in a science-related career, even though that career might not be in academia.

We count those who end up doing research or teaching. If you were a researcher at IBM then you would still be considered to be doing research and making use of your doctorate. I think that’s an appropriate way to think about the way people make use of the advanced training in science they’ve received.

What about salaries for scientists?

Some folks have argued that this is related to simple supply and demand. If you have a large inflow of foreign scientists, this may drive drive down wages and make it less attractive to American students.  We do find that compared to other prestige high- education professions, wages have fallen in recent decades. Whether that’s because of  immigration—that’s not something we’ve addressed but other people have looked at this.  One question is whether this is sustainable. As other countries develop scientific education, and a technological workforce, the U.S. may face increased competition for these talented scientists. If we end up in a situation that we’re heavily reliant on foreign labor, where does that leave us? If right now, three in 10 U.S. scientists are not U.S. citizens, that would be a substantial loss if that flow were to decline.

The other point you make, though, is that there are still many enticing aspects to working here.

That’s why we have a large immigrant scientific labor force. The U.S. is an attractive place to receive a scientific education and to work as a scientist for many people from around the world. At present, I don’t think this situation poses a threat and as a result at present we’ve had a stable to increasing scientific labor force. I think the concern is whether this is sustainable in the future.

Isn’t there also some recognition also that science does not have to be pursued, as it was in the past, as a national enterprise  in which the goal is to achieve dominance?

I think what’s going on at CERN is a good example here. Some people raised issues that the collider wasn’t housed in the U.S. But if you look at the institutions involved in this massive undertaking  it’s clearly an international collaboration. To think of it as a race is in some ways to deny the role of important international collaborations, such as pooling money for a large project.  I do think there are ways that the U.S. will have to continue to compete, perhaps to attract good scientists. But I also think there are lots of opportunities to benefit from collaborations and from the fact that other countries are developing stronger and stronger scientific education systems.

Do you think that some of the attitudes toward the scientific labor force—and the fact that wages might be lower—have  to do with the way science is viewed historically? You have a whole section in your book about the history of science and the relatively recent rise of the professional scientist.

There is a legacy of the amateur.  Of course science is a job, but we still have this little bit of an idea that science is a vocation and we  should not just be motivated by making a buck but that there’s something pure about the endeavor and about love of truth and discovery. Understanding the historical roots of the profession as an undertaking of amateurs might help understand where those ideas might come from.

You mentioned in the book that science as a profession is sometimes viewed as boring by U.S. students.

The qualitative literature here which we cite from a variety of places is really engaging, information gathered from talking to students about what what made them think that they might want to be scientists and then what made them decide that they didn’t want to be scientists after all. Sometimes they thought they wanted to be a scientist  because of a particularly compelling high school  teacher who interested them in science and then they went on to college and found that they were no longer motivated in that direction. At the high school level, sometimes they just said that science was boring.

It’s a long grind to get to the point of having your own lab and the nature of science has changed.

One of the outcomes of big science is that you may have very  structured work environments; I’m thinking about the large scientific collaborations, particularly with the Higgs Boson in the news. That’s a quite significant collaboration where everyone has to play a particular role. That’s very different from the humanities or some of the social sciences where you get to work independently from quite an early stage.

What about the influence of religion on shaping science education and attitudes toward science in the U.S.?

We do think that the evolution question in particular is a little bit distinctive in the American context. As we know, Americans are less likely to believe in evolution than other countries of very similar development. But there’s not a lot of evidence that disagreement with scientists on that one issue makes people not supportive of science in general. Although evolution is an important issue and takes a large position in debates of this kind, for the average person it’s only one bit of science. People are also thinking about medical advances and other things they can be very supportive of.

What was most surprising thing you found in your studies?

It was the realization from our data that many things that matter a lot in getting a college education— race, income and your parent’s education—don’t matter that much for your choice of major.  A lot of the things we think about in inequality of access to science are inequality to higher education.

People from rich families are more likely to go to college but people who come from rich families are no more likely to choose a major in science among the pool of college graduates.  So I think we sometimes worry a lot of times about diversity in science and we should but a lot of that is about a meaningful opportunity to become a college graduate and the selection of science is not as much a stratifying force.

Why is that?

The idea that we put forth in the book is the idea of universalism, that within science the ideal is that you should be evaluated not because of your personal characteristics, but simply because of the contribution you bring to science. We don’t find that that’s perfectly true, but we do find that there are relatively small differences by race and by social origin in the pursuit of science, which suggests that there are not  huge hurdles  in access  to science once you cross the barrier of achieving higher education.

We also hypothesized from our results that if students from disadvantaged backgrounds think that science will be fair to them they  might be more likely to go into it as a profession. We do find a little bit of evidence of that. Among women,  African American women [who do graduate college] are more likely to pursue science than are white women. And men from more disadvantaged social origins are a little bit more likely to pursue science.

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