by Raywat Deonandan
November 26, 1999
A career in science is a dead end. This is the terse opinion voiced by Alan Hale at highschool career days, on Internet discussion groups and on public radio. Understandably, Hale’s declaration has proven to be a source of consternation for educators, and perhaps a needed slap in the face for we who have ventured down the uncertain road of professional science.
Hale is the astronomer who gained instant fame as the co-discoverer and partial namesake of the Hale-Bop comet. His comments come at an already uncertain time for career scientists. With the deaths of media stalwarts Jacques Cousteau and Carl Sagan, only physicist Stephen Hawking remains as a living household name who bridges both popular culture and real scientific research. The dearth of such names is a real indication of the growing alienation many scientists feel from the institutions of society: media, business and government. The love affair between society and nerds, which peaked during the days of Einstein and Oppenheimer, is apparently over.
Further symptomatic of the malaise that has befallen this formerly tight relationship is the media attention given to John Horgan’s book, The End of Science. Horgan, a senior writer for the popular lay magazine Scientific American, contends that all the great empirical scientific discoveries have already been made. All that remains is the mundane refinement of existing knowledge. Engineers, computer developers and various technical professions are growing in number, power and prestige because they are involved in this important latter task: the polishing of existing technologies.
If Horgan’s premise is true, that groundbreaking new sciences are unlikely, then society’s devaluing of experimental scientists is almost understandable, and Alan Hale may be on to something.
Hale points out, quite correctly, that recent science graduates with Ph.D.’s can expect to linger in low-paying support jobs until they are lucky enough to find a university appointment. In some basic science fields, a job advertisement for an assistant professor can expect to receive thousands of applications. Unless they are directly specialized in an area of immediate commercial importance, such as gene therapy or medical imaging, a young Ph.D. scientist can expect to find very few inroads into industry, and a long line-up to get into the university’s ivory tower.
With the excellent job prospects open to graduates of any MBA or law program, society’s values are clearly demonstrated: the production of new knowledge is not as important as the management of old knowledge.
It’s not surprising that many scientists are frantically jumping ship, looking for innovative ways to sell their unique skills to a corporate world that doesn’t know how to evaluate them. Some are returning to school for yet another university degree, often in medicine, business or law, to cash in on the growing opportunities in health care, equities research and patent agency. Others are stretching their resumes to grasp for positions in management, business development or even sales. Not surprisingly, there exists a website called Science’s Nextwave, registering hundreds of hits daily, which is dedicated to getting science students out of pure science.
When competing with those who have more specialized credentials, a pure scientists’ chances in the corporate world are not good. And yet career counselors and public service announcements continue to tell students that post-graduate work in science will allow them to apply their creativity to answering the big questions in nature. No mention is ever made of the years or decades to be spent as an over-trained and underpaid lab assistant.
If Alan Hale’s position is an indication of the future, we are soon to suffer a deluge of highly educated and highly skilled newcomers to the welfare rolls. Of course, in the wake of his new fame, Hale has risen from the ranks of the impoverished, and is now Director of New Mexico’s Southwest Institute for Space Research. In his case at least, an education in science appears to have been a sound investment.