Monday, June 21, 2010

Offensive characterizations of diversity in the science workforce

Biochem Belle has articulated this better than I, but I will share here my thoughts on the Miller-McCune article about how the "real science gap" appears to mean a reduction in the white male demographic in the workforce.

It describes exactly what I've seen a lot of people talking more informally about: the system is currently constructed as a pyramid scheme, and it leads many productive, smart people (who don't have the luck factor that helps land a TT position) to go elsewhere and/or leave science because the model is unsustainable. It suggests that we need to figure out how to revamp the postdoctoral experience to be more like a medical residency that trains PhD level scientists for some specific area (and not just uses them as bench monkeys to do our work for us), so they can be retained in a productive capacity and contribute to the growth of innovation.

I can't figure out, though, if it is just telling the story of this pyramid scheme or if it is trying to subtly promote the idea that the 'glut' of foreigners (and supposed 'aversion' of white males to following research careers--their words, not mine!) is the "real problem" here.

from the article: "First, something serious is wrong with America’s scientific labor supply. A prime symptom noted by all: a growing aversion of America’s top students — especially the native-born white males who once formed the backbone of the nation’s research and technical community — to enter scientific careers. Increasingly, foreign-born technical and scientific personnel on temporary visas staff America’s university labs and high-tech industries." if an increase in the diversity of scientists in the US is somehow CAUSING white males to avoid science careers... as opposed to the huge expansion of science productivity in the last 50 years creating a market that incorporates more diverse employees (including the same demographic of white males but also now including other demographics). And, it seems to imply, 'home-grown talent' means 'white males' since the demographic that is causing the 'glut' is implied to be the diverse one (foreigners). I don't see a quantitative analysis of the % of white males in science today, but it would not necessarily be relevant unless the expansion of postdoctoral/graduate opportunities were also compared.

Also disturbing is this quote used in the context of the foreign postdoc "influx": "The director of postdoctoral affairs at one stellar university, who requested anonymity to avoid career repercussions, puts it more acidly. The main difference between postdocs and migrant agricultural laborers, he jokes, is that the Ph.D.s don’t pick fruit."

It isn't clear to me if this article is trying to use those examples as illustrations of how exploitative it can be to postdocs, or to complain about all these foreigners coming in and TAKIN' R JURBS...


EcoGeoFemme said...

I felt the same confusion when I read the article.

biochembelle said...

My general feeling is that Benderly (the author) is mainly making the case for a broader audience outside our fields that the trouble with science and technology fields in the U.S. is too few opportunities, not too few scientists. This is pared down significantly from Benderly's Scientific American piece and, although the Miller-McCune article reads better, it loses many of the caveats and subtleties. It seems to me that Benderly's goal was to demonstrate the complexity of the problems with the current system of research. Several statements, particularly pertaining to diversity of the workforce, were not discussed sufficiently to illustrate how complex those specific points are. I'll give her the benefit of the doubt that this was due to space limitations, but it is unfortunate nonetheless.

Anonymous said...

While not having read the article, I must admit that "TAKIN' R JURBS" is really what sometimes crosses my mind too. My experience is from Switzerland, not the USA, but the "problem" is essentially the same. Science is, and always was, international. In a career talk a prof described science as the "first globalized profession" there was. Now of course the mobility is, per se, bidirectional. But it is hard to deny the fact that for most Americans or Europeans, working in India or China is not as attractive as migration in the opposite direction. So the fact that less "white males" tend to aspire to academic careers is, of course, influenced by the large influx of scientists especially from Asia, which are just as talented as we are and often prepared to work harder. The effect of this "free diffusion" of scientists is just that a lot of people will want to TAKE R JURBS while we are not so much interested in their jurbs. So we make academia even more competitive for us than it already is, just because we are way more picky about jobs than most of the world. Choosing a less competitive path is often what follows naturally.

Anonymous said...

As a rough mathematical model: we have 10 Chinese and 10 US scientists, and 3 TT positions in China and 3 in the US. In effect, a Chinese scientist is competing for 3 positions against 10 people and for 3 positions against 20 people ^= 0.45 positions, whereas a US scientist is competing for 3 positions against 20 people, which equates to 0.15 positions. Attractive choice, eh?