Lo bueno y lo malo de la crisis en el doctorado y la universidad (comentarios hoy en Nature)

En épocas de crisis muchos estudiantes, al acabar la carrera ven su panorama laboral “oscuro,” por no decir “negro,” y deciden seguir estudiando. Lo ideal: matricularse en un postgrado o en un doctorado. Nos lo vuelven a contar en Richard Monastersky, “The lure of the lab. Recession boosts applications to US graduate programmes,” Nature 457: 642-643, 2009 .

Science and engineering doctoral programmes in the United States are seeing a surge in applications for the coming academic year. The rate at which applications has risen has surprised some analysts.

Algunos ejemplos entre las 5 universidades norteamericanas que más doctorados en ciencia e ingeniería defienden al año (según la NSF).

The University of California, Berkeley, awards the greatest number of science and engineering doctorates in the United States. [This year] the applications for doctoral programmes climbed by almost 7% from the last one. The University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, the second-largest awarder, saw overall application numbers climb by 16%, with Engineering applications leapt by 21%. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, the third-largest awarder, received 9,475 doctoral applications this year, a 6% increase. At the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, another top-five doctorate awarder, domestic applications rose by 25%, whereas foreign ones rose by 13%.

No todo es bueno cuando hay más estudiantes solicitando hacer el doctorado a tus puertas. Algunos rectores piensan que no tienen recursos suficientes para sostener un incremento tan grande de la demanda, más aún en plena recesión y consiguiente crisis de financiación.

Most universities are unlikely to expand the number they enrol because they lack the resources to support more graduate students. The application surge “is happening right at the same time that most universities are undergoing the most serious financial constraints they have faced in decades and decades”, says Debra Stewart, president of the Council of Graduate Schools in Washington DC.

El gobierno norteamericano de Obama (como ya hizo Bush) apuesta por la ciencia, la tecnología y la innovación como parte de su solución al problema de la crisis. Hay que inyectar dinero público a mansalvas. Pero esta inyección de dinero no es necesariamente positiva, ya que las inversiones en ciencia y tecnología son siempre a largo plazo. Habrá también dinero mañana o nos dirán “no hay más dinero, ya os lo dimos.” Nos lo cuenta David Goldston, “Beware politicians bearing gifts. The windfall for research in the proposed US stimulus package could backfire if not handled properly,” Nature 457: 649, 2009 .

 The economic stimulus package now working its way through the US Congress looks to be a bonanza for scientists: more than $13 billion in research-and-development spending. They include funding for ongoing research programmes that are not usually seen as part of a stimulus effort.

A stimulus bill usually consists mostly of one-off projects. The idea is to inject money into the economy now that will not create long-term obligations. A brief boom could be followed by a prolonged bust.

The most troubling issue is that inclusion in the stimulus bill means the science money must be awarded with unusual, perhaps even reckless, speed. National Science Foundation (NSF), for example, would have to allocate $3 billion – a 50% increase in its budget – in four months. The NSF was still figuring out how it could do that.

Más dinero para la ciencia y la innovación pero ¿también más dinero para los laboratorios y las universidades? No, necesariamente. ¿Contradictoria? Quizás. Estamos en recesión y el dinero parece “congelado” en el sistema financiero. Nadie quiere invertir y algunas instituciones tienen problemas graves de financiación. Laboratorios y universidades que están empezando a echar a gente (investigadores) a la p. calle. ¡Se siente! Estamos en recesión. Nos lo cuenta Meredith Wadman, “Research funding: Closing arguments. The battle to keep a lab funded can be long and painful. Meredith Wadman meets two researchers who may be close to hanging up their coats,” Nature 457: 650-655, 2009 .

Jill Rafael-Fortney had tried, and failed, to renew the R01 grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) that supported her work on mouse models of muscular dystrophy. At nearly 39, she wrote an e-mail to Michael Ostrowski, the chair of her department at Ohio State University in Columbus: “Mike, I didn’t get either of my grants. I just found out about the second one a few minutes ago. My career in research seems to be over. It is all I ever planned to do from the age of six.”

Darcy Kelley, a 59-year-old professor at Columbia University in New York, has a score of 135: this was outstanding on a scale in which 100 is the highest and 500 the lowest. But the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS) was only funding proposals that scored in the 10th percentile or higher. Hers was in the 10.6th. It was her third and final attempt to renew the major grant that supported her studies of the brain circuitry that produces and decodes sounds.

Between 1998 and 2003 the US Congress doubled the NIH’s budget to US$27.1 billion and research institutions went on a hiring boom, recruiting faculty members, postdocs and graduate students. But the NIH budget flattened. In 2000, scientists such as Rafael-Fortney and Kelley who were applying to renew a previously funded R01 had a 53% chance of success on their first submission; in 2008, according to recent NIH figures, that success rate had fallen below 24%.

Both Rafael-Fortney and Kelley have solid publication records, including a paper each in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in the past three years. Stuart Firestein, one of Kelley’s colleagues in Columbia’s department of biological sciences, says: “You get a score like Darcy’s and you find yourself in an unfundable position, and you have to say that there’s something wrong with the system, not the individual.”

 “Peer-review committees tend to be conservative and in bad times they become very conservative.”

Rafael-Fortney may have been penalized because she proposed projects that were deemed too scientifically adventurous by grant reviewers. After writing and rewriting grant applications, the reviewers of her R01 renewal had said that the project was risky because the genetically engineered mice might not have a muscular-dystrophy phenotype. “We were asking for money to make the mouse, but they wanted it made already,” she says.

Kelley’s sole R01 came due for renewal as she was in the throes of a divorce from her husband of 33 years. She found it almost impossible to focus on the application. Her application was ‘triaged’: assessed by three or more peer reviewers but then returned to her without being scored by the full ‘study section’ of reviewers (between 40% and 60% of grants are routinely triaged before each study section meets.) That rejection put her at a significant disadvantage as she started re-writing the application. “When it is not scored, they don’t give you the nitty gritty details of what they want you to do to improve it,” says Kelley.

 “Why does NIH promote such a boom-and-bust scientific economy?”

La recesión también tiene sus ventajas. Los gobiernos van a exigirle más a los científicos. Quieren que sean la garantía del desarrollo e innovación en el país a largo plazo. Es una gran oportunidad para esos genios que se encuentren entre los científicos más jóvenes. ¿Sabrán aprovechar la oportunidad? Nos lo cuenta Gene Russo, “Hope in the recession. Could the financial downturn be a window of opportunity for scientists?,” Nature 457: 749, 2009 .

The international economic downturn could have a curious by-product: more demand for top scientists – at least in the short term. Governments are now looking to scientists to help them build solid investments for the future. A top-notch science workforce is viewed as a reliable path to innovation, economic growth and cutting-edge industries. Some researchers will be able to benefit from governments seeking the best and the brightest science and engineering talent to help boost sluggish economies. Scientists, especially young researchers, may have a better – albeit fleeting – chance to earn grants and establish themselves and their careers.

Buena oportunidad para los jóvenes investigadores. Pero la ciencia es un trabajo mal pagado. Si va a haber más jóvenes haciendo el doctorado, ¿qué harán cuando acaben? ¿Un postdoctorado? ¿Con un mísero sueldo? El problema de los salarios de los postdocs es un grave problema en Europa donde son tratados como personal “de segunda.” Nos lo cuenta Paul Smaglik, “Salaries in the balance. Postdoc salaries vary widely at every level, from countries down to individual teams,” Nature 457: 750-751, 2009 .

Postdoc stipends start at a base of about US$40,000 in the United States and 30,000 in Europe. But varies between countries, funding agencies and even grant types within an agency. Differing policies on taxation, health benefits, pensions and supplements can all combine to make calculating the take-home pay for potential fellowships a complex prospect.

Yegor Domanov moved from Ukraine to the University of Helsinki on a fellowship funded by the Academy of Finland four years ago, he received a monthly stipend of 2,000 € . The good news was that he didn’t have to pay any taxes on it. The bad news was that he received no benefits like health-care coverage. Now, he is in the second year of a 4,500-a-month Marie Curie fellowship administered by the European Commission. However, because taxes, pension and health care are deducted from his stipend, his take-home base salary is 2,200 a month. But he also receives a non-taxable monthly ‘mobility supplement’ adds another 600 a month to his pay. The resulting 2,800 € base will be taxable.

The National Research Service Award provided by the US National Institutes of Health (NIH), has remained flat for the past three years at about $3,083 (2,300 €) per month for new postdocs. The scale increases incrementally for those with more experience, topping out at $4,250 a month for postdocs with seven or more years of experience.

Los tiempos están cambiando. Antes en los EE.UU. un doctorado eran 4 años y un postdoctorado 2. Ahora la media en ciencias de la vida está en 7  y 4 años, respectivamente. Lo que uno está dispuesto a cobrar durante 6 años es muy diferente a lo que está dispuesto a hacerlo en 11.

Maxine Singer, author of the National Academies of Science report Enhancing the Postdoctoral Experience for Scientists and Engineers and emeritus president of the Carnegie Institution in Washington DC,  says that “when people did their PhDs in four years and a postdoc for two years, low stipends weren’t such a big deal, but in the life sciences, the time it takes to earn a PhD has now grown to an average of seven years and the length of an average postdoc has nearly doubled to four.

La carrera investigadora esa gran asignatura pendiente en España y también en Europa.

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