How President Trump’s Proposed Budget Cuts Would Harm Early Career Scientists

July 13, 2017 | 2:57 pm
Images Money/CC BY 2.0 (Flickr)
Jacob Carter
Research Director

Kaila Colyott is coming close to graduation as a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Kansas, but she’s not finishing with the same enthusiasm for her career prospects that she began graduate school with.  At the beginning, she wasn’t particularly worried about getting a job after graduation. “I was a first generation student coming from a largely uneducated background. I was pretty stoked about doing science, and I was told that more education would help me land a job in the future.”

She wasn’t ever informed that, under the current market, academics graduate with significant debt and without a promise of a job. Ms. Colyott said that she became more concerned about her job prospects as she learned more about the job market in academia, “I became more concerned over time as I witnessed academics hustling for money all the time.”

President Trump’s proposed across-the-board cuts to scientific research and training would make this problem worse. While they are out of step with what Congress wants and have yet to be realized, they would have tremendous impacts on our nation’s scientific capacity  and ability to enact science based policy.

Incentives for scientific careers are dwindling

According to a National Science Foundation (NSF) report, American universities awarded 54,070 PhD’s in 2014, yet 40% of those newly minted doctorates had no job lined up after graduation. There is a connection between funding for scientific research and job opportunities for early career scientists: one can slash the hopes and dreams of the other.

I am fortunate to work in science policy because of the funding and training opportunities afforded to me as an early career scientist. Having received two fellowships as a graduate student from NSF, one that allowed me to take on an internship in the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy, and a post-doctoral fellowship through the Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education, I received robust training in both science and policy analysis.

Such training also offered me a career path outside of academia, made necessary by a limited number of tenure-track positions available at universities. Thus, I view this type of funding and training as essential for early career scientists as many will need to seek career paths outside of academia given the job market. Yet, President Trump’s proposed budget cuts signal to me that these same opportunities may not be afforded to a younger generation of scientists—such a signal is concerning.

Government funding of science is essential to early career scientists

There was a time when most PhD-level scientists would enter into a tenure-track position at a university after graduation. Today, even the most accomplished students pursuing a PhD have a particularly difficult time landing a tenure-track position because there are very few jobs and competition is stiff.

This creates the need for other options. Among those graduating with a PhD in 2014 who had indicated they had a post-graduate commitment, 39% were entering into a post-doc position (a temporary research position most common in the sciences). While many of these exist in research labs at universities across the country, there are also many post-doc positions available in the federal government.

Such opportunities can expose early career scientists to the process by which science informs the policy-making process in government while still allowing them to conduct research. This allows early career scientists the chance to increase both their interest and efficacy in science policy. Additionally, agencies such as the NSF and the National Institutes for Health (NIH) offer graduate students and post-docs fellowships and grants that allow them to build skills in forming their own research ideas and writing grant proposals.

Opportunities for early career scientists to obtain government fellowships or grants in the sciences may decrease under the Trump administration, if the administration’s budget cuts are actualized. For example, President Trump has proposed to cut NSF’s budget by 11 percent. As NSF struggled with its 2018 budget request to meet the 11% cut, the agency decided it would need to cut half of the annual number of prestigious graduate research fellowships offered to PhD students.

Such a cut would significantly reduce the availability of fellowships for biologists and environmental scientists, especially since the NSF biology directorate announced in June that it would cease its funding of Doctoral Dissertation Improvement Grants (DDIGs) due to the time needed to manage the program. Additionally, many other fellowships and grants have been proposed to be cut or re-structured such as the STAR grant program at EPA, the National Space Grant and Fellowship Program at NASA, and the Sea Grant program at NOAA.

These programs have led to many scientific advances that have reduced the costs of regulations, protected public health and the environment, and saved lives. For example, the STAR grant program at EPA implemented several major pollution focused initiatives such as the Particulate Matter Centers, Clean Air Research Centers, and Air, Climate and Energy Centers, which have together produced substantial research showing air pollution can decrease human life expectancy. A recent report by the National Academies of Sciences noted that this research likely saved lives and reduced healthcare costs, having helped to inform policies that improved air quality nationwide.

While many of the extreme proposed cuts to science funding will likely not come to fruition, given bipartisan support of scientific funding in Congress, even small cuts to government programs that offer funding for science could really impact job prospects for early career scientists. And the uncertainty created by these suggested cuts will discourage young people, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds, from pursuing scientific careers at all.

Neil Ganem, a School of Medicine assistant professor of pharmacology and experimental therapeutics at Boston University, described how the realization of these cuts would have a negative economic effect. “It would mean that hospitals, medical schools, and universities would immediately institute hiring freezes. Consequently, postdocs, unable to find academic jobs, would start accumulating and be forced into other career paths, many, I’m sure, outside of science. Jobs would be lost. The reality is that if principal investigators don’t get grants, then they don’t hire technicians, laboratory staff, and students; they also don’t buy [lab supplies] or services from local companies. There is a real trickle-down economic effect.” Indeed, such cuts could be devastating to post-docs and their families, especially in the case a post-doc was offered a position only to see that funding pulled at the last minute.

Early career scientists are paying attention

When asked if Trump’s proposed budget cuts to basic research made her more concerned about her job prospects, Colyott said that they were one of many factors, but she expressed greater concern for the generation of young scientists below her. “These cuts make me concerned about younger scientists who won’t have the same resources that I had at my disposal—like NSF’s Graduate Research Fellowships or the DDIGs. Having the ability to propose my own ideas and receive funding for them built a lot of confidence in me such that I felt I could continue to do science.”

Colyott has been very active in science outreach as a graduate student and is very passionate about this field, and intends to seek a job in outreach after graduation to get first generation students like her interested in science. However, she is now worried about encouraging young students into academia. “Why would I want to encourage others to enter science when I already am nervous myself about my own job prospects?”

Even if President Trump’s egregious cuts to scientific funding do not come true, they most certainly send a signal to scientists, especially young scientists, that their skills are not valued. This message can be particularly disheartening to students attempting to gain a career in science, which may dissuade them from entering the field.

So, I have my own message for these younger scientists. I see you, I hear you, and I completely understand your fears about your job prospects. You deserve a chance to advance our understanding on scientific topics that are vital to better humanity. Your scientific research is valued and it is important, and there is a huge community of others who believe the very same thing. Science is collaborative by nature—I assure you, we all will work together to lift you up and make sure your voice is heard.