Tuesday, May 21, 2013

The Real STEM Crisis

Contrary to the hysteria being whipped up by President Obama, Congressional leaders and the media, there is no shortage of competent Science, Technology, Engineer or math (STEM) graduates. There is, however, a crisis in funding of STEM research—a crisis that is causing record numbers of young scientists to lose funding and their jobs, while preventing many more from obtaining jobs in the first place.

Declining research funding at the University of California system, for example, has prompted several UCLA neuroscience researchers to move to the private University of Southern California (USC). Overall, budget cuts have not resulted in a large exodus or professors from the UC system (of the 306 faculty members receiving offers from other schools last year, UC was able to retain 72% of them, according to the Los Angeles Times). However, UC has failed to replace faculty as quickly as it used to. For example, in 2010-11, UC lost 428 faculty members to retirement, but due to budget cuts was only able to replace 189 of them.

A study by the National Science Foundation (NSF) found that state per-student funding for the 101 major public research universities dropped by an average of 20% between 2002 and 2010. 10 states had declines ranging from 30-48%. California was #10, with a 30% drop in per pupil spending. Colorado was #1, with a 48% drop. New York and Wyoming were among the very few states bucking the trend. They increased per-student funding by 72% and 62%, respectively. NSF’s report expressed concern about the ability of universities to conduct basic STEM research as a result of the cuts.

Public universities perform 60% of all federally funded STEM research. While federal funding did increase slightly between 2000 and 2007, the pace of the increases slowed dramatically going into the recession and failed to keep up with inflation and the growing number of STEM students and STEM researchers. In constant 2005 dollars, federal research funding actually declined between 2004 and 2008, peaking momentarily in 2009 with an influx of cash from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, and then declined another 10% since 2010 (Data from Stand with Science). The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) projects an additional $12 billion cut to Research and Development funding due to sequestration this year, with a $60 billion overall decline through 2017.

Consequently, competition for grants has intensified dramatically, with the success rate for NIH (National Institutes of Health) grants declining from 30% in 1998 to 18% in 2012 (see graph below). Part of the reason for this is that the number of applicants increased from less than 30,000 before 2003, to 40,000-50,000 after 2003, while the number of grants funded each year held steady at just below 10,000 or declined, as in the last several years.

The problem is expected to grow worse in the coming years. With the number of scientists requesting grants increasing, there needs to be a sizable increase in the amount of federal and local dollars available for basic research. However, the opposite is occurring. NIH’s budget is set to drop 7.6% over the next five years, according to the Atlantic. NASA’s budget is projected to drop to its lowest level since 1988. And the NSF, which currently provides 20% of all federal research funding for universities, recently announced that it was cutting back on 1,000 new research grants.

The STEM crisis is a sham, at least as portrayed by the media and politicians. Encouraging more students to major in STEM fields or to pursue STEM careers without substantially increasing funding is only going to increase competition for scarce resources and grants, thus driving down wages for scientists, and forcing increasing numbers into the unemployment lines or out of academia and into lower paying STEM “support” careers in private industry (e.g., production or quality control).

In all likelihood, this is precisely the intent. STEM is big business, (e.g., aeronautics, biotech, pharmaceuticals and computer technology). For the past few decades public universities have been moving away from “pure” science and relying more and more on deals with private industry (e.g., biotech companies) for research funding, while simultaneously focusing more on developing their own marketable patents. Blockbuster drugs, software and weapons require large cadres of highly skilled workers who, historically, have earned relatively generous middle class wages. However, these products are worth more to their patent-holders if they can be produced with minimal labor costs, something that is facilitated by the growing numbers of professors, post-docs and graduate students who can no longer fund their own research or maintain secure jobs at public universities.

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