Will actions speak louder than words in the ongoing STEM discussion?

Written by Dr. Stacy-Ann Allen Ramdial

Over the last 10 years the acronym STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) has become a buzzword in many circles. Is it possible that like many pop culture expressions,  the clever acronym-word duality that is “STEM” will fade into obscurity once its use (or misuse) has been exhausted?

STEM means different things to different audiences with varying degrees of overlap in meaning. For some it excludes any reference to medical professions; for others, it is an all-encompassing term to mean anything remotely related to science. The acronym was first introduced by Judith Ramaley, the director at the National Science foundation, in 2001 for policy making purposes [1]. Since then the term has become the go to buzzword for policymakers, academics, and the public regardless of whether its use is appropriately employed.

I’ve written, debated, read, and listened to the merits of a STEM educated workforce. But as we look towards the 15 year anniversary of the terms coinage, I sometimes wonder if anything profoundly meaningful will come from the conversation.

Don’t get me wrong, a productive conversation is one worth having; however one must ask at some point: has this STEM conversation really been productive considering how much of it has translated into meaningful action? Have we gotten so complacent with the use of the term that we simply employ its use as a policy filibuster or has the definition of STEM become so “muddled” that many of the key stakeholders are frequently and unintentionally talking past each other?

Today more than ever, as we react to the effects of globalization and rapid technological advances, we embrace the idea that without a sustained STEM educated workforce, the U.S. will fall behind as a global leader. This has been highlighted in President Obama’s past and most recent State of the Union address where he has stressed the importance of both preparing students to succeed in the global economy, and supporting a STEM workforce to optimize economic growth.

If this is our commitment, then how many more articles have to be written, debates had, speeches made, and conferences held about the leaky STEM pipeline, the unprepared STEM workforce, the failure to capitalize on the investments made in domestic STEM graduates, the racial/ gender disparities in the STEM workforce, and the wage gap in STEM fields, before we make measurable headway. I could list more of the STEM issues tackled on a daily basis by policymakers, academics and the public, but I won’t belabor the point in this piece as a simple web search will provide a comprehensive background and update on the discussion. However, as a contributor and a benefactor of the ongoing STEM discussion, I have to ask: will STEM lose its conversational prominence and if so will it be due to passivity, pandering, or progress?

1. Donahoe, D. The definition of STEM, Today’s Engineer, December 2013

Age Ain’t Nothing But A Number: Should the NIH impose an average age for grants?

Written By Dr. Chloe N. Poston

Close your eyes and think of a scientist. What does this person look like? Is this person a man or a woman? Young or old? Stylish or disheveled? I’m willing to bet what you saw in your mind (especially if you don’t know any scientists personally) is something closer to a photo of Albert Einstein or some version of the characters on Big Bang Theory. Rarely do we imagine the stages between a student and full-fledged scientist. However, this “in-between” time often defines people’s scientific trajectories; decisions in this phase can be career making or breaking.

Here’s what it looks like. The classic career path in science starts with an undergraduate degree, followed usually by a masters and then a doctoral degree. After the doctoral degree comes a “post-doc” or post-doctoral position where you train with a more senior scientist in your field to become an independent researcher. In other professions, the equivalent of a post-doc is an actual entry-level position with retirement benefits that counts towards professional experiences. Unfortunately, the post-doc is more like an extension of graduate school, where the pay is meager and the label of “trainee” leads employers outside of academia to ignore these years as “experience”.

You might wonder how long this takes. Let’s do the math. If a budding scientist starts college at age 18, completes a BS in 4 years, finishes a Masters and PhD in 6 years, and trains as a postdoc for 2-3 years, then that individual is ready to start on an independent path at the age of 31 in the most ideal of situations. This means today’s “early career” scientists are 33 years old before they begin to look for work as independent scientists. There are data to support this informal calculation: the Survey of Earned Doctorates shows that in the fields of biomedical sciences and chemistry people are not actually getting their first job after a post-doc until the age of 35.

It is at this point that early career scientists on the tenure track begin to apply for R01 grants from the NIH. For my non-scientist readers, an R01 grant provides an average of $400,000 for a research project that is in line with the priorities of the National Institute of Health. These grants finance the academic biomedical research enterprise and are an important step for new professors to establish themselves with solid research and publications, which are often the measure of scientific productivity. Many universities require that new professors secure an R01 grant within the first five years of being hired to remain on the tenure track.

Of course young scientists are not the only people vying for this funding; the competition is fierce and spans from early career to well established scientists. The average age of R01 recipients has steadily increased. In 1998, PhDs were awarded their first R01 at the age of 36; in 2014 that age is 42. These stats have sparked much debate. Maryland Rep. Andy Harris thinks that the age distribution of awarded grants should be mandated. And others have differing opinions. Some think this is a function of too many postdocs with few realistic employment prospects in academia.

However, there are several other reasons that the average age of R01 recipients is in the 40’s and not the 30’s: 1) if students and post-docs are recognizing that academic prospects are slim, perhaps they are exploring other options that are related to science, but don’t require bench work; 2) perhaps post-docs and younger independent researchers are taking advantage of pathway to independence mechanisms like K99-R00, which provides NIH funding to bridge post-doctoral training and the process of starting a new laboratory; and 3) young post-docs may not be adequately trained to prepare competitive grant proposals to vie for an ever shrinking budget.

Young scientists are facing more difficult grant reviews than their advisers faced at the same point in their career as a function of less money. They are keenly aware of the small number of tenure track academic positions available. They are intelligently weighing their options. Some will work through this difficult era in the academic sector, and they will be awarded R01 grants. Others will begin to explore other career paths like industry, science writing, policy, higher education administration, grant administration, and some may leave scientific research fields all together. None of these people will apply for R01 grants.

Perhaps this is the source of the skewed age. More people are realizing that they can leverage scientific skills in other fields and find success. The age-old scientific career path that leads straight to the professoriate can no longer accommodate all who embark upon it. Young people, who are still training to be scientists are accepting that fact and making other plans.

Trends at the NIH and elsewhere should and do reflect that. So while the stats are interesting, it’s safe to say that age is pretty poor metric to use for programmatic recommendations.

What do you think? Share your comments below.