The following HTML text is provided to enhance online
readability. Many aspects of typography translate only awkwardly to HTML.
Please use the page image
as the authoritative form to ensure accuracy.
Meeting the Nation’s Needs for Biomedical and Behavioral Scientists: Summary of the 1993 Public Hearing
however, are often less cynical, and hunger for guidance on how to write a proposal; when to send a probe; if I send a probe, should my name go on the paper?; etc. Collectively the mentors and trainees need to explore the often challenging issues that increasingly surround the practice of science, thereby affirming the principle that in the practice as in the substance of science, open and thorough exploration of a problem is the productive approach.
VINCE J. LICATA, Ph.D.
Along with this committee, I share an avid interest in the direction of the biosciences in this country--both in regard to how the scientific community itself is defining its needs and goals, and in the way the scientific community interfaces with the governmental and industrial institutions which “pay for” the sciences. I’ll preface my remarks by saying that when I speak of a “scientist,” I am generally referring to basic researchers in the academic setting. I define basic research as a knowledge driven, curiosity driven, unrestricted exploration of the structure and function of the universe, which is never initially directed toward any specific applied use.
As well as presently being an NRSA/NIH postdoctoral fellow, I was supported by an NRSA/NIH training grant during part of my graduate work. When speaking about the NRSA program I will be predominantly speaking about the individual NRSAs. This is because while a graduate student on an NRSA/NIH training grant, at least at The Johns Hopkins University, one knows little more about one’s funding situation than the fact that one is “on a training grant. ” Although I was funded by it for three years as a graduate student, I did not really know what the NRSA program was until I applied for a fellowship.
Here are my responses to the questions in your letter of March 2, 1993:
The most significant challenge we face today in the United States for maintaining an adequate supply of qualified scientists to sustain and advance health research is making the profession of being a scientist one of the most attractive career choices for intelligent and motivated people. Obviously the higher the caliber of people becoming scientists, the higher the caliber of the resulting science. Roadblocks to achieving this goal lie both at the level of the scientists themselves and at the level of the general public.
As regards the scientists themselves: the most common opinion that I encounter is that scientists feel they are overworked and underpaid--especially during the “early part” of a scientific career. If one uses the standards commonly used to evaluate one’s “career success,” this is undoubtedly a true statement. When scientists compare their salary to those of lawyers or certified public accountants, we seem rather undervalued. Part of the problem is, however, the incongruity of the comparison. When evaluating their career “worth,” scientists often overlook the facts that they get to set their own hours, choose what they work on, take sabbaticals, become tenured. In short, scientists themselves need a better understanding of their profession--of the fact that they have traded the usual (monetary) measures of “success” for success of a different kind. This may seem a blatantly obvious point, but I have so often encountered the “answer” that we must pay scientists more (which is, of course, also partly true) that I think it worth stressing (to scientists) that society does pay them “more,” just not in money.
Another part of the problem lies at the level of public opinion. Current public opinion toward scientists is horrifyingly low. There is constant press coverage of the apparently massive amount of fraud in the biosciences. All scientists become implicated by this. Scientists are regarded as gold-bricking, elitist snobs, who sit in their ivory towers doing nothing all day because they have tenure and can never be fired--and now it’s been discovered that what little work they actually do is probably faked (so why pay them more?). Such a climate certainly deters good people from entering the field. Such ridiculous perceptions must be vigorously countered by public affairs divisions of universities and national scientific organizations--more vigorously than is being done now. Scientists must begin speaking to the people. Perhaps all NRSA grant recipients should be encouraged to perform some form of public education as part of their training, such as writing a newspaper or magazine article, or speaking to a community service group, etc. Educating the public by educating those presently in school is, of course, a primary answer, and I believe that there has been significant progress in organizing for that goal on the part of several national scientific organizations. What I believe is being somewhat overlooked, however, is the need to educate people who are no longer “in school.”