Opinion

The Podium | Yuly Fuentes-Medel

Let’s change the system for postdocs

Gary McDowell, 29, a postdoctoral researcher working at the Tufts University lab in Medford, hopes to set up his own lab in a few years.

Jessica Rinaldi/globe staff

Gary McDowell, 29, a postdoctoral researcher working at the Tufts University lab in Medford, hopes to set up his own lab in a few years.

Scientists devote their lives to discover the secrets of nature, to find the cures of devastating diseases, and to create the next generation of technologies. The passions of these highly educated individuals allow them to question the world around us. However, today’s funding environment hinders these brilliant minds and fails to create the environment scientists need to innovate.

A typical path for a researcher is to spend an average of six years in graduate school and then move forward to a transitional position called postdoctoral associate. We hear directly from them in Monday’s story by Carolyn Johnson. This career move is heavily influenced by the dream of being the one who cracks the code of life. For the public, it is surprising to realize that these individuals are earning incomes that barely allow them to afford child care or real estate opportunities. Nevertheless, in the United States alone there are approximately 63,000 affiliated postdocs devoting their life to science. Clearly, scientists are not in it for the money.

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In the current system, professors are the role models to the future leaders of science. For generations, they followed a linear path to achieve their goal of becoming an academic. This has created an insulated decision-making process on how a scientist could benefit society with their talents and disregards other professional roles. This model has proven to be unsustainable when federal financial support decreases. In fact, we fail to educate voters to understand that science is critical to the prosperity of society as a whole. As a consequence, incentives to scientists are being challenged.

The timeline of scientific discovery is not aligned with the timeline of tax obligations, so there is a need to evaluate and innovate the legacy of scientific enterprise. What makes a successful scientific career today will evolve in the future. There are short-term changes that can happen at universities now. For example, professors could look to alternative measures of success and not rely on the number of published research papers. Technology allows us to share scientific knowledge in new forms, and we should be open to creating new ways to measure the return on investment for science. Postdoctoral positions were designed to cultivate independent scientists. With the tools available today, we shouldn’t have to question the chances of becoming employed. However, the wishful thinking continues until postdocs are about to hit 40 and realize that they don’t have a pension or a house for a family.

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Priorities change, and the decisions of this young generation are critical for the future of science. These individuals must take a proactive approach to shifting the system so it would allow them to follow their dreams. It is time to use the ability to crack molecular pathways to also crack the financial collapse of science.

However, this is a systemic problem, not only affecting the scientist but, in the longterm, society as a whole. Without researchers in Japan and the US working on blue LED lights, we probably would not have digital screens as we know them today. We need an interdisciplinary approach in order to evaluate the current problem. We need the collaboration of economists, sociologists, designers, engineers, lawyers, journalists, philanthropist, mothers, and fathers to understand this problem and to think of alternative solutions. In short, it is time to reinvent the metrics of success and start fostering new role models for the next generation of scientists.

Related:

Glut of postdoc researchers stirs quiet crisis in science

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Sheril Kirshenbaum: Postdocs in limbo? Expand your options

Drop in US funding of science thwarts dreams of the next generation

Research community weighs in on the postdoc position

Dr. Yuly Fuentes-Medel graduated with a PhD in biomedical sciences from the University of Massachusetts Medical School and is the executive director of DESCIENCE where science inspire fashion innovation. She trained as postdoctoral associate at the MIT Sloan School. Follow her on Twitter @valueofscience.
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