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Lou Dobbs on "Cheap Science"

by Andre on 12 January 2009

Lou Dobbs discusses the relatively low pay received by postdocs compared to others with similar or less education. He suggests that it is the large number of foreign postdocs allowed to work in the country that is driving down salaries and thus providing a disincentive for Americans to pursue careers in science.

I think the process Dobbs describes is basically correct. If Americans cut off the supply of foreign scientists by making it even harder to get visas, postdoc salaries would increase because of the sudden drop in available labour, but at the same time, labs would no longer be getting the best available people and the quality and quantity of science would decrease. Wouldn’t this drop in productivity in American labs make it harder to justify research spending to the government and general population?

So the question isn’t whether cutting off foreign labour would increase salaries, the question is whether that’s a smart thing to do. Should the US increase or decrease the number of foreign scientists it allows into the country? What is the optimum postdoc salary and why?

  1. hendrik    3089 days ago    #

    I cannot believe that it is lower pay as a postdoc that would prevent Americans from pursueing science careers. The problem surely starts much earlier, in school. It does not seem cool to be a scientist. Granted, most scientists are not exactly rich. But then again, professors seem to do ok in the US in terms of salary. However, money alone is a poor incentive for pursueing a science career.

    A good deal of European postdocs that come to the US do not really participate in the salary game since they come with salaries provided by their home countries. Cutting them off would immediately remove a valuable source of external funding for many American labs.

    Are there NIH salary guidelines?

  2. Andre    3089 days ago    #

    Hi Hendrik,

    That’s an interesting point about foreign investment in American science through postdoc fellowships. I wonder how much money actually arrives that way.

    I certainly agree that money is not the primary motivation for pursuing a science career, but it is a factor. Consider an extreme case in which postdocs made 100k/year. I’m sure more people would apply for postdocs in that case.

    I’ve always heard people discuss an NIH recommended minimum salary for postdocs, but in looking online I didn’t find that wording actually used on the NIH site. Here’s a page from Stanford that refers to an NIH minimum.

  3. Murat    3089 days ago    #

    I do not think that reducing available visas for postdoc positions would have a huge effect. This to me seems like another version of “they took our jobs” paranoia.

    Do not forget that many faculty solicitations post X years of post-doctoral experience as a requirement. So, a scientist willing to become a professor HAS to have this experience no matter what the salary is. Hence, there always be a baseline demand for the position.

    Furthermore, a postdoc appointment is also perceived as a transition position right after getting a PhD towards more lucrative jobs. Frankly, a postdoc does not have responsibilities like teaching, running a lab, funding students, etc. The postdoc position is still part of the training process.

    On the other hand, I also firmly believe that a high salary should NOT be the reason to pursue an academic career.

    So, my position is that the most postdoc salaries are high enough to provide a decent life style and low enough to make people uncomfortable to hold the position for a long time and encourage them to pursue positions where they may be more productive.

  4. Atavist    3089 days ago    #

    As an ex-Brit with UK degrees: I think a significant factor in going (and staying with) the science career route was that I, in contrast to many Americans, didn’t have to use student loans or a part time job for support. We had undergraduate stipends from our counties.
    That has changed – my niece and nephew in UK didn’t get that support and neither did 2nd degrees after first Math and Physics degrees.Also our degrees were shorter in duration than typical US degree (that has good and bad points but it did reduce the chunk of my life spent in college by about 4 years cf USA native).

  5. Sigmund    3089 days ago    #

    The current system has both benefits and disadvantages. If I was an employer or a government official charged with making science competitive than I can’t see how changing things would do anything but make the situation worse. On the other hand for the 95% of scientists that aren’t high flyers or who have not been placed on the correct narrow career path until its too late (and too late for a career in academic research can result from something as simple as choosing one wrong post-doc placement) then its rather bleak.
    What is really needed is a route out of academia for this 95%.
    Nobody the I know complains about salary levels. All the complains are about medium and long term career prospects.

  6. Bongopondit    3076 days ago    #

    <i>I think the process Dobbs describes is basically correct. </i>

    I am very surprised that as a scientist you seem to be agreeing with Dobbs’ deliberate and misleading attempt to confuse correlation and causation.

    Few points of rebuttal:
    1. Science wages have been low much before the change in guest worker visa programs allowed universities ‘unlimited’ access. In fact NIH suggested increases in PhD and post-docs stipends happened around the same time.

    2. NIH set minimum post-doc salaries are in the range of 36-38K plus health for starting PDs not 35K as claimed.

    3. The story does not mention that there are special NSF funded postdocs that can even pay upto 55-70K salaries to postdocs and many of these positions are open only to US nationals !

    4. The story does not differentiate between postdocs with visas who received their PhDs in US universities versus foreign ones. Would it be in US best interests to let PhDs trained here to go elsewhere ?

  7. Andre    3075 days ago    #

    Hi Bongopondit,

    It’s true that H1B visas are probably not the critical factor. In my (limited) experience the J1 is much more common for postdocs. When I said that I think Dobbs is basically correct, all I meant was that I agree that cutting off the supply of foreign labour would temporarily increase postdoc wages as labs fought for a much more limited pool of workers.

    NIH does have a recommended minimum salary that is enforced by some universities or departments, but not all. For example, at Penn, postdocs in the med school must be paid according to the NIH guidelines, but that’s not the case in science or engineering departments, even though they may receive NIH funding. And yes, 35k is a bit low, but only a bit: the median salary in the Sigma Xi postdoc survey was 38k.

    Keep in mind that I didn’t say reducing the number of foreign scientists would be a good thing, just that it would increase salaries for Americans in the short term.

  8. Bongopondit    3075 days ago    #

    Hi Andre,

    Thanks for your reply.
    If you look at my recent blog-post I have addressed the issue of salary increase by restricting foreigners.
    The basic premise is that science salaries have been low even when foreign influx was low. In fact, salaries have increased in the period foreign scientists have increased (admittedly usually an inflation adjusted amount).
    Secondly, the type of market-force driven salary adjustment you are talking about might not hold for post-docs – since it is a mandatory training requirement to obtain an academic (and sometimes, industrial) jobs.

  9. Peter    2498 days ago    #

    If the salaries are because of foreigners why are the NIH grants only for Americans are low as well?
    and why in Europe and in other places in the world the salaries are the same?
    Nobody increases salaries unless they have to, and the low salary was always a “selection” for crazy people that want to get paid peanuts for doing science…

  10. Anonymous    2411 days ago    #

    I am not american but I may provide some insights into this discussion, although at a late stage.
    The main attraction of foreign postdocs and graduate students coming to the US from “developing countries” such as india and china is the chance to find a way staying in the US after their postdoc. It is much easier to find a good paying job in an US company once a postdoc is completed or even after graduating from an US PhD program. All expenses are paid by american taxpayers. Increased competition for jobs drives the wages down, thats a fact, Lou Dobbs is right. Postdoc itself is not a job but a possible stepingstone to get a job in the US as foreign national.
    Second, most important, scientists do not have an union protecting their rights and representing their concerns to the media. Who gets interviewed: Company CEOs and university officials who have an inherent self interest in an abundance of cheap scientists and pushing the H1B cap agenda.
    Licensed professions are much more protected from immigration, because they have an union. The AMA is particularly strong. If I would be born in the US with my interest in biomedicine I would not enter the research path but instead would try to get an MD degree. If I would be born in china, I would pursue a PhD because easily I can enter the US workforce.
    The smartest US students avoid science careers instead flock to licensed professions.

    However, this system will collapse. If unemployment and job insecurity in the US is raising, foreign nationals cannot find science jobs in the US too and will return to their homecountries such as china. They were educated in the US by taxpayer money, now they are building up a competing industry in china.
    Yes, competing. In less than 30 years from now on it will come to an immense competition between the US and other western nations and china on the regulation of global resources. Maybe a war will be at stake. Scientists are needed not only for lab work but to provide policy makers and business people with their knowledge. This knowledge together with creative and analytical thinking skills are invaluable.
    The country which recruited the brightest minds for such a career will win this game. In contrast, MDs, PharmDs, JDs and MBAs cant compensate, they dont make science, they dont have aquired those skills at a young age.
    I believe america will be lost if it does not change soon their education system.

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