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Nearly a fifth of scientists are considering abandoning the U.S. (salon.com)
96 points by mvs 1542 days ago | hide | past | web | 52 comments | favorite

I agree with the idea that we should invest more in scientific research in this country.

But the 18% considering leaving the country metric is insane. This is like the percentage of people who claimed they were moving to Canada when Bush was reelected, and the percentage of people who said they were leaving the country when Obama was (re)elected.

People talk big all the time when they're unhappy about something.

EDIT: just to be clear, because a couple of the comments sound like maybe think I'm making the opposite point: I think the metric of "18%" considering to leave is a silly metric. I think that at any given time, even when research is "good" or "better than now", you're probably somewhere near that number, especially (as one of the commenters pointed out) a lot of people who do research in this country are from other countries. The only way we could actually derive meaning from this statistic would be to have a time-based reference (i.e. compare what percentage plan to leave this year vs. 5 vs. 10 years ago), or to switch the metric - measure how many people actually left last year vs. 5 years ago.

Except for the fact that, you know, a move by a scientist would likely be a career move, and not through some misguided knee-jerk reaction.

I work at a national lab. Half my coworkers, maybe more, are foreign. If we all got laid off, you could easily bet they'd go back to europe. If I got laid off, I'd either look for a different industry or look to Europe. I know several places I could drop into in Europe with a better success rate than trying to switch to a different lab in the US.

I'm not disagreeing with the fundamental point you're making: obviously a skilled professional is not just going to throw their hands up and bail for no reason.

But I think that highly skilled professionals of all stripes grapple with frustration and consider changing locales, industries, etc. - and not that many actually do.

I work in the tech industry in NY, and the number of times people I know (myself included) have said, "Man, the tech market here is (boring/too adtech based/too corporate/not worth the cost of living), we should move to (the bay area/austin/the middle of nowhere/the caribbean)" is huge. Very few of us have actually moved, because you become invested in a particular place, you like your lifestyle, you fear change, etc.

Again, not that scientists can't leave - but the article (and the HN headline) throws up the statistic of 18% considering leaving like it means something tangible.

Scientists have much more portable skills than many other professions, they're very used to working in multinational teams, and a large number of scientists in the US come from other countries to begin with.

I suspect it could be because so many scientists are foreign-born. If I traveled to a foreign country to do science research, and then got laid off, I'd certainly consider returning home.

Also, considering a course of action is far from following through with it. I've considered all sorts of actions that I would never commit.

At least 40% of the people I went to (grad) school with were non-natives. Many of them (about half) went back to their home country (to get academic jobs, typically). So, it could simply be that the base rate of people leaving is 20% now, just like it was before, and the article is reporting on a non-issue.

Then again, I left academic 6 years ago for the exact reasons listed- I wasn't able to spend my time doing science.

> the percentage of people who said they were leaving the country when Obama was (re)elected.

I don't get this. Most of these people were presumably conservatives, that were unhappy with Obama's election, but at the same time, most of their ideological/political views would seem incompatible with living anywhere other than the US.

[ I realize that this is probably horrible stereotyping, but I would be interested to talk to someone that held this view. ]

It is mostly a twitter joke that idiots said, along the lines with the (fairly small as an actual percentage of the american populace) who said, "Keep government out of my medicare!" (medicare is a government healthcare program).

I was being more tongue in cheek than anything.

I remember having the same reaction, especially after hearing many conservatives "considering" emigration to Canada, a nation much more socialist and tolerant than the U.S.

I agree. We should invest more in science and the metric's kind of insane. I bet more than 18% of people in ANY industry consider leaving the country for various reasons... Maybe the 18% referenced in article will leave the country with the fed-up 99% of the rest of the country...

How do you know they didn't leave?

> they're unhappy about something

emphasis added

Story time? I'm a graduate studentat a US college. I study quantum computing, and have for the past year. I went into quantum computing despite the primary investigator being unsure of HHS funding situation, because it was something I had wanted to study for a very long time and I liked the opportunity too much to pass it up.

In July, my advisor told me that our funding had been retroactively taken by the sequester. He had lost funding for 4 graduate students and two postdocs. I am currently transferring to another school as a result of this.

The most promising locations are nearby Toronto and Madrid. Spain. They're broke, but they still fund science better than we do. I guess.

Sequestration has been a particularly blunt trauma. Because of the sudden-ness of it, it hurt some areas particularly badly. Also, it was a particularly stupid action, like a tantrum on the part of the Congress. Sorry about what happened to you.

Yeah. My old department at Caltech cut 15% of the support staff, including some who'd been on staff for decades and nearing retirement. They barely took any new students this year. So it's being felt at even the highest levels. Sorry you're having a rough time.

What a shitty article. I hit "back" when the article went to the trouble of putting up an entire chart to show: "spending on R&D has essentially been flat since 2011 across several countries including the U.S."

Well, remember that the chart was "change in percentage of GDP". GDP is fairly large, and scientific funding is fairly small relative to that, so the change in the percentage of GDP is going to be a fairly small value. The US's GDP is $14.99 trillion; so a -.05% change in scientific funding represents a change of about $7.5 billion, while in the meantime, China had an increase in scientific funding of close to the same amount (.1% of their GDP is $7.3B).

Now, they don't say how much that is relative to what the US or China spend overall on science. But still, that's a fairly big change either way.

If you take a look at the linked report http://www.asbmb.org/uploadedFiles/Advocacy/Events/UPVO%20Re..., it's even worse if you expand the time scale. Between 2010 and the estimated spending for 2013, there's a drop of more than $20B in scientific funding, from nearly $160B to less than $140B. That's a noticeable change; and based on the percent GDP figure, it's not just because the economy has been down, it's gone down more than the economy as a whole.

In fact, in constant dollars, taking inflation into account, funding has been declining since 2004, as funding levels were stagnant for a while and not keeping up with inflation. Now they are actively declining.

The article's shitty but the original report from the Huffington post has a downloadable copy of the report, which is worth reading: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/08/29/sequestration-scien...

To a lesser extent, so is this editorial, notwithstanding the awful headline and axe-grindey nature of the argument: http://www.newrepublic.com/article/114329/republican-budget-...

My general worry is that 'investment' has become too financialized, and political hostility to any sort of industrial policy is hampering economic development. I note that China is planning a lunar landing later this year (http://www.nytimes.com/2013/08/29/world/asia/china-plans-fir...) in preparation for a manned mission. I don't have a very high opinion of the Chinese space program but I really feel we need another Sputnik moment.

Are you referring to the chart that illustrates funding as a percent of GDP? If so, I think that the numbers may be larger than you think. Half a hundredth of a percent of the US GDP is still 7.5 billion dollars per year.

To put this into perspective: The entire annual NSF budget is $7 billion. From Wikipedia:

"With an annual budget of about US$7.0 billion (fiscal year 2012), the NSF funds approximately 20% of all federally supported basic research conducted by the United States' colleges and universities.[1] In some fields, such as mathematics, computer science, economics and the social sciences, the NSF is the major source of federal backing."

The entire NIH budget is 30 billion a year. NASA's is 18 billion.

The second chart of the article shows that adjusted for inflation, the purchasing power of scientific funding has decreased from 10-30% since 2004.

The article is pretty bad, but I wouldn't be too quick to dismiss the issue. If you work out the numbers, it's still an alarming problem.

I think that the article should do the math for the audience to better report on the problem though. Five minutes of following links looks like the Salon article is a summary of the Huffington Post article, which is a summary of the original report by the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology (ASBMB).

It's not just economics. The key to excellence in science is to attract the best, keep the best, and give them what they need to do their best.

Researchers start out as grad-students, and the U.S. is a lot less friendly to foreign students than it used to be. Whether it's increased trouble with permits or being treated like terrorists by the TSA, fewer foreign grad students are staying in the U.S.. Many students considering a move to the U.S. are dissuaded after just one conference on U.S. soil! Overly nationalistic individuals from other countries can take some joy in this since it means better minds for their own nations, but science is a global endeavor and what lessens one nation lessens us all!

Attracting the best, keeping the best, and giving them what they need is economics.

If we don't have a sputnik moment and reverse this trend in the next decade or two, I suspect that in 50 years we'll find ourselves wondering why the next (multi)-trillion-dollar-a-year industry and its silicon valley weren't located in the USA. By then it will be too late.

Researchers start out as grad-students, and even American-born grad-students now despair of ever finding real research jobs in the USA.

That's common in most countries these days with very few exceptions. What few post-doc positions exist are viewed as a transitory positions and aren't very well paid (considering the qualifications required). If you want to do pure research without moving around the world constantly you can just forget about it! Either you get on the tenure-track or you go into industry and figure out how to steal money on the stock-exchange or make people click on banner-ads. Unfortunately, there just aren't that many tenured positions available.

You're probably a technocrat. I'm one too. I firmly believe the U.S. would be far better off if they shut down the NSA entirely and sank those billions into pure, curiosity driven research. Unfortunately, we are a tiny, tiny minority. Most people are very risk-averse and would rather guard a hovel than build a mansion!

Technocrat in the sense that I want to abolish democracy and have the government run by smart science people in the interest of smart science people?

No, I'm not. Bad Things start happening when you take self-governance away from people.

EDIT: But that dodges the point! How can people have the balls to complain about too little science being done while making life a miserable shlep for those of us who actually choose to do science?

Democracy would be nice, but I'd rather have a technocracy than a plutocracy, which is arguably what the U.S. really has right now.

I basically don't see a way to have a well-run country and avoid democracy.

A well-run country requires mature and capable people. People cannot really be mature and capable without participating responsibly in the world around them, including being able to make mistakes. It seems to me like people have to be able to participate in government, or they eventually get degraded into a mad, stupid rabble. The mad, stupid rabble then topple whatever oligarchical government they have and their country collapses from an inegalitarian oligarchical shithole into an utterly insane and incompetent shithole.

Certainly I think that it would be better to have a form of government that can quickly and rationally translate voters' expressed policy preferences into consequences. Problem is, existing systems are bad enough at even letting voters express policy preferences, let alone imposing the consequences quickly and thoroughly enough that voters start learning how to vote!

And yeah, you could try to separate the "brain" and "heart" functions of voting, by having voters vote on ideological/moral preferences and then letting them be translated into policies by a technocratic government. That's what the traditional notion of a democratic republic (and social democracy, and really much of Western democracy) actually tries to do. Problem is, that too has demonstrably led to a somewhat-more-benign form of oligarchy when implemented, albeit one in which some of the oligarchs are reasonably benevolent and it ends up being the politically degraded voters who ruin the country by making bad value decisions (like the Tea Party!) for which they are never held responsible.

And that doesn't even start into the problems of malignant oligarchical elites in our current democratic republics, who have largely decided, "Voters are stupid, so I'm going to govern on the class interests of myself and my social peers!"

Aren't more than a fifth of PhD holders in the U.S. foreign born? The story of immigrants returning home is a lot different from a story of native-born Americans abandoning their country.

You're right that many doctorates in the U.S. are foreign born. And that makes this article even more alarming.

The problem is that since WWII, the vast majority of these foreign born scientists in the US tended to stay and become naturalized U.S. citizens. It was uncommon, if not rare, for them to leave. In fact, there were waitlists for scientists trying to immigrate _into_ the U.S.

The reason for this was very much economic. The U.S., the leader in scientific spending over many decades after WWII, could pay scientists more than how much their home countries could pay. I should also note that in the past, the U.S. was also much more accomodating toward foreign born scientists in regard to naturalization, as well as popular attitude.

Now on every other bulletin board in my building, there're flyers in Chinese advertising very well-paid positions in China, and I get to read about the growing percentage of climate change deniers and creationists in the U.S almost every other week in the NY Times.

I think it's easier to not be alarmed about foreign-born PhDs returning home (if that is indeed where they go when they leave the us) than if it were US natives leaving, but I'm not sure that it's really that much less worrisome. Either way, smart people are deciding that they can earn a better life with their skills in a different country. If it's foreign-born PhDs returning home, it really only says that the natives are staying because of the difficulties of getting started in a new country, not that the long-term outlook of moving isn't bad.

> I think it's easier to not be alarmed about foreign-born PhDs returning home (if that is indeed where they go when they leave the us) than if it were US natives leaving, but I'm not sure that it's really that much less worrisome.

It is a very different situation, and the meaningfulness is likewise different. For a foreign-born PhD holder, they have family back there, they'll become bigger fish in a smaller pond, they already know the language, probably have citizenship, are acculturated, may not have kids and wives deeply embedded into American culture & communities, etc. For an American-born PhD holder, most of these will be false. The cost to an American of moving permanently overseas is, on average, going to be vastly higher to them.

When you hear of some foreign-born PhD holders on the margin deciding to return home, it's no big deal, and is adequately explained by very small shifts in the rewards of being in the US and the rewards of going home. (And a survey means even less.) People simply don't want to leave their home countries for very good reasons. Think of how few Jews left Nazi Germany before it was too late, even when the writing was literally on the wall (in the form of anti-semitic graffiti).

When you hear of a lot of American scientists leaving America permanently, then it's time to start panicking.

I'm an American born graduate student in Chemistry lab at an R1 school and the funding landscape has been a very hot topic throughout the department. No tenured professors have said they would move, but we probably wouldn't receive that information until they had already made the decision (as was the case with my boss and switching schools).

Once I am done with graduate school I will be considering employment at a university oversees that appreciates it's scientists.

And it wouldn't be as difficult for many of these tenured professors to make the transition. They all collaborate with researchers oversees. They already have all the connections needed. Furthermore, the institutions over there would jump at opportunities to poach them.

Moving across the globe isn't nearly as difficult these days as it would have been in the 1930s.

And if moving across the globe would've fixed Americans' problems during the Great Depression I doubt they would've hesitated.

When you hear of a lot of American scientists leaving America permanently, then it's time to start panicking.

I got the hell out of the USA to go to grad school.

One thing that really helped is that when I visited one of my two grad-school options, the one inside the USA, the current grad-students told me there was no hope of ever getting a permanent research position, and that we could all expect to just drift from post-doc to post-doc before being discarded.

And this was a very good department for the field we were discussing. I adore these guys and their research.

At Technion, not only my advisor but other graduate students seem to feel they can safely assume they'll eventually find a well-paying industrial, academic, or governmental job with a Technion grad degree.

So, yeah, funny thing, making aliyah may well have been a good career move, which basically never happens. Oh, and speaking of antisemitic graffiti, once when I visited my cosmopolitan college town of Amherst, I found neo-Nazi graffiti about the Protocols of the Elders of Zion on an alley wall, and learned that UMass Amherst has a secret neo-Nazi club.

Be a little bit afraid.

Did you have to serve, though?

You mean in Tzahal? I haven't been drafted yet, but I will be. It's really not that much trouble.

Foreign-borns returning home seems like an oversimplification. It's true Americans aren't leaving in droves yet, but it doesn't surprise me that a lot of young researchers are willing to do whatever it takes to stay in science when competition for grants is fiercer than ever in the US. It doesn't help that most institutions are top-heavy with old faculty working far beyond the average retirement age who refuse to retire and make room for young blood. I personally know several American-born students from Caltech who've taken post-docs in France and Germany, and some European-born ones who took very cush faculty offers in Singapore when nothing good turned up in the "west". It's not ideal, but when you're ~30ish and heavily invested in your science career you do what's necessary to stay in the game and hope that later you can leverage yourself into a more preferred location when American universities undergo some needed demographic turnover.

The writing is on the wall right now for science outside the top dozen or so universities in the country.

It's definitely not just immigrants returning home. My wife is a neuroscientist, and we emigrated to Canada. Whether we will return is still an open question.

It isn't like that at all. The funding picture has changed dramatically in the last few years. Back in 2003 the NIH success rate was around 30 %, if your idea wasn't too stupid you could count on your getting funded for the next five years. Now it's less than 10 %. If you are not at MIT or Caltech you might consider not even applying.

Folks, we are looking at the end of an empire.

Hey, you know, I hear that <10% NIH success rate number all the time, and am definitely hearing a lot about the effect of the recent sequester, etc. and I completely believe it. But I'm actually somewhat surprised at the published percentage: 20.3% for fiscal year 2012. [0, 1] If I have some time, it would be very interesting to plot the historical success rate trend (if someone hasn't already done that).

[0] http://report.nih.gov/success_rates/ [1] http://report.nih.gov/DisplayRePORT.aspx?rid=601

Economics -> Research priorities

"Because of science - not religion or politics - even people like you and me can have possessions that only a hundred years ago kings would have gone to war to own. Scientific method should not be take lightly.

The walls of the ivory tower of science collapsed when bureaucrats realized that there were jobs to be had and money to be made in the administration and promotion of science. Governments began making big investments just prior to World War II...

Science was going to determine the balance of power in the postwar world. Governments went into the science business big time.

Scientists became administrators of programs that had a mission. Probably the most important scientific development of the twentieth century is that economics replaced curiosity as the driving force behind research...

James Buchanan noted thirty years ago - and he is still correct - that as a rule, there is no vested interest in seeing a fair evaluation of a public scientific issue. Very little experimental verification has been done to support important societal issues in the closing years of this century...

People believe these things...because they have faith."

From Kary Mullis, the Nobel Prize in Chemistry winner(and the genius inventor of PCR) in an excellent essay in his book "Dancing Naked in the Mind Field".

Side note: The book, overall, is ok - some of the stories/opinions he holds are "alternative" and a refreshing perspective.

What are you trying to say about the linked story?

Research allocations by discipline are politically motivated.

The turning point as far as I am concerned was when Leon Lederman resigned as Director of Fermilab to work more on the LHC.

Yet another high energy physicist who thinks HEP is the only science being done. /condensedMatterPhysicistRant

ah, but HEP is the one where you can write the funding proposals for the big shiny toys, which the uni can show off.

I want to make some clever/witty comment here, but science funding is just too messed up these days. To be honest, we HEP folks (at my Uni) had to borrow the toys from the condensed matter folks just to do our homework. They had several SEM, TEM machines, we had none, the machines are quite handy. Also, condensed matter folk make the best wires and magnets (ever see a 5HP motor that can fit in your hand?), but, HEP folk try hard not to care about details like that. Nope, if you want to see cool science-ey stuff, talk to a condensed matter physicist or a material scientist, a fluid dynamics guy, or even (gasp) a chemist. If you ask a HEP guy, he'll just show you pictures of himself standing on a huge metal scaffold looking thing with a bunch of wires sticking out of it. That's his experiment, which he visits two or three times per year, and which is probably located in another country).

Here just for fun, a few more (non accelerator) HEP proposals:

  1. Let's dig a really deep hole, and fill it with big tanks of distilled and purified Perrier, photomultiplier tubes[2], wires, some soda straws, and the most expensive amplifiers[1] we can get our hands on. 

  2. Let's do it again, this time under a mountain.

  3. At the South Pole.

  4. And in Canada.

  5. At the bottom of the ocean?

  6. All of the above, but this time, in close proximity to a Nuke-yoo-lar Reee-acter[3]
(I worked in HEP for almost 10 years, but not as a physicist)

[1] Also, lots of FPGA's. No, wait ASIC's (FPGA's are too slow and expensive). Oh, and High Voltage. Oh, and flammable gases!

[2] If you're Japanese, do it twice! (see: the Super-K PMT disaster)

I'm confused. . .I agree that we should be spending more on scientific research. And I understand that, according to the article, we have reduced our spending on scientific research as a % of GDP. But. . .we are still spending more in real dollars than any other country. So. . .where are those scientists planning to go. . .when other countries are spending less in real dollars?

I find the metric questionable, or maybe established poorly (there is a strong difference between "considering the idea as a far flung possible track" and a visceral near-line option)

That's great but what is the $ of private funding per country?

The remaining 4/5 of self-claimed scientists will stay because they must keep denying climate change and defending intelligent design.

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