April 2012

Indications of a bright future through science


As scientists and science educators, we strongly value rational decision making based on reliable data. Both in and outside of academia, we depend on research and development and education funding from a variety of sources to conduct our work. As we perform research and teach science, we mentor and advise students at many levels of training and expertise on why and how to become a practicing scientist. One source of current and reliable data with which to reinforce both our funding justifications and our education and professional development advice is the biennial Science and Engineering Indicators from the National Science Board, the governing body of the National Science Foundation. The SEI are factual and governing policy-neutral. Here, I’ll highlight a few points from the 2012 SEI that influence several aspects of my own scientific career development and the advice I give to aspiring scientists (1).

Scientific investment and the U.S. economy
In this election year, with tight budgets in both the U.S. government and private industry, how do we justify our investments in R&D? According to the 2012 SEI, the U.S. has spent about $400 billion on R&D in each of the past few years, with industry contributing 62 percent, the federal government 31 percent, nonprofits 3 percent, colleges and universities 3 percent, and nonfederal governments 1 percent.

The most important justification for continuing and increasing these expenditures comes from considering that fields based in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, collectively referred to as “knowledge- and technology-intensive industries,” or KTI, contributed about 40 percent of the $14-trillion-plus U.S. GDP in each of the past few years (1). As today’s KTI investments lead to tomorrow’s breakthroughs, our nation’s total annual R&D budget currently affords a 14:1 return on investment. That’s comparable to the investment returns from building the U.S. interstate highway system (2). Today, our current R&D investments constitute 2.8 percent of U.S. GDP. To put this in perspective, several other countries, including the members of the European Union, have set goals of attaining and maintaining a level of R&D investment equal to 3 percent of GDP (1). As the U.S. competes globally for KTI market share and aims to attract, train and retain the best and brightest human capital, it is critical that our nation expand R&D expenditures at rates that will stay near or above 3 percent of GDP over the long term.

Educational investment on a personal level
In the early spring of my senior year in high school (14 years ago now), my parents and I visited several Midwest colleges to which I had been accepted. Given that my parents weren’t in a financial position to put me through college, a difficult decision arose. I had a comparatively cheap option, thanks to scholarships, where the biochemistry professor assured my father that I would be a “big fish in a small pond.” At a decidedly higher caliber but more expensive school, a biochemistry professor talked about the challenges and rigor of the program along with the high expectations of the faculty members and the superior capabilities and track records of typical students there. The clincher for my father was when he said, “Don’t just consider the tuition costs over the next four years but also the opportunities that will help your son develop a satisfying and financially rewarding lifelong career.”

I eventually chose both the more challenging school and a career in science, and I have remained very happy with both decisions, even with some lingering college debt. I’ve also recently written about weighing the costs and benefi ts of going to graduate school in the biosciences (3).




Scientific training: the human capital driving innovation
Well-trained human capital is vitally important for the sustained success of R&D initiatives in the U.S. Robust economic growth that outlasts fi nancial-sector upheaval requires innovations that will be developed only if our highest-caliber students choose careers in R&D rather than fi nancial derivative packaging and sales. The route to successful R&D careers includes undergraduate training with hands-on research experiences in STEM disciplines and possibly additional graduate school (1). Careers in R&D pay higher median salaries and historically exhibit lower unemployment rates than other jobs that require at least a bachelor’s degree (1). Earning a STEM-discipline Ph.D. further increases the likelihood of landing and keeping R&D employment, along with even greater job security and a progressively higher wage distribution for many years after receiving the degree (1, 3). The majority of all STEM degree holders, including Ph.D.s, must ultimately develop careers outside of academia (1). Therefore it’s critical to advise students and mentees to consider several career possibilities, conduct informational interviews, pursue internships and expand their nascent professional networks by all means possible. As China begins to train more STEM degree holders than the U.S., from bachelor’s degrees to Ph.D.s (1), the U.S. must develop policies aimed at attracting and keeping large numbers of highquality students on a scientifi c training and career path over the next decade (4).

Whether you’re conversing with students, parents or U.S. senators, it’s important to build and reinforce your advice and arguments with accurate data. Such information helps high school seniors make college choices, undergraduates select majors, graduates select areas of specialty and young scientists select career paths using rational logic. The 2012 SEI provides an excellent resource for understanding how STEM disciplines are impacting the U.S. economy and being shaped by fi scal and societal forces.

As many of us know, the initial stages of new discoveries are built upon the foundation of new knowledge attained through basic research. While industrial investment in basic research is an important component, for the past few decades federally funded academic investigators have conceived and conducted most of the basic research performed in the U.S (1). Although the majority of STEM undergraduates, graduate students and postdoctoral fellows ultimately will work outside of academia, during their training they have the opportunity to participate in formulating and solving the motivating questions that will increase our understanding of many important issues driving our economy and transforming our society.

  1. 1. Science and Engineering Indicators 2012. www.nsf.gov/statistics/seind12/.
  2. 2. Surowiecki, J. The New Yorker. Published Feb. 14, 2011. Accessed March 11, 2012. www.newyorker.com/talk/fi nancial/2011/02/14/110214ta_talk_surowiecki.
  3. 3. Bradley, M.J. ASBMB Today. (August 2011).
  4. 4. Drew, C. The New York Times. Published Nov. 4, 2011. Accessed March 11, 2012. www.nytimes. com/2011/11/06/education/edlife/why-science-majors-change-their-mind-its-just-so-darn-hard.html.

Michael-BradleyMichael J. Bradley (michael.bradley@yale.edu) is a postdoctoral fellow in the department of molecular biophysics and biochemistry at Yale University.

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