Why are so many science jobs and student slots in the U.S. filled by foreigners? For the same reason jobs in lettuce fields and apple orchards are filled by foreigners. Many qualified Americans shun science because, far more than the drum beaters for research let on, science can be a risky, unrewarding career choice.
When it comes to agricultural picking and stooping, our foreign reliance is easily understood even without a rudimentary grasp of economics: The pay and working conditions are so miserable that only impoverished foreigners see the chance of a step up. That’s clear. The reliance on foreigners to fill U.S. science classrooms and staff labs and science and engineering faculties is similarly clear, though a mini-industry thrives on pondering and lamenting the deficit of scientific Americans. Prophecies of national woes from an alleged though non-existent scientist shortage emanate from a thriving conference circuit. The problem isn’t that Americans are ill-prepared for the rigors of advanced scientific training. Sure, inadequate high-school and college science courses drain off potential scientists, but that doesn’t account for the many well-qualified students who steer away from science careers.
Rarely acknowledged is that the route to a scientific career is long and uncertain, the pay is relatively low, and the chances of failure are substantial. Economically, it’s a bad deal.
Consider the career tracks of two new college graduates, both 22 years of age. One opts for law school — a three-year course that, with good grades from a respected school, these days brings a starting annual salary of $100,000 or more. That’s not at all unusual, which helps account for the fact that new law schools are opening and there’s an abundance of applicants.
Now consider the aspiring young scientist. Time to the Ph.D. is rarely less than five years, and often runs to six, seven, or more. Upon receipt of the Ph.D., a postdoctoral appointment, usually for three years, is almost always the next step. With good luck, pay might be $35,000-$40,000, but it can be less, and often comes without benefits. Our aspiring scientist is now over age 30. Since jobs appropriate to his/her training are actually pretty scarce, a second postdoctoral appointment may be the fallback position, as it is in many instances. The serial postdoc is a fact of contemporary science. We’re on the way to a new academic title: Postdoc Emeritus.
Young scientists aiming for an academic career are confronted by a grants economy that’s never been great, but is currently overwhelmed by qualified applicants. Numerous good proposals for research are turned down for lack of money. No grant means no research, which means no tenure. Failure to get tenure after seven years can leave our scientist, now over age 40, looking for work. College students who could succeed in research grasp the realities of the science economy from their young instructors.
For the many young foreign students from developing countries who seek promising careers, science in America is extremely attractive compared to the choices back home. In many science and engineering fields, foreign students comprise half of the enrollments.
No amount of improved high school science is going to fix this problem, which is essentially economic. A doubling of salaries and improved conditions for getting ahead in a scientific career would bring in many more American recruits. But that’s not going to happen. Despite the glorification of science, the marketplace sets the value and the price. Which is why foreigners flock to our schools and labs while Americans seek their fortunes in other fields.