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The Economy a Factor in Pursuit of Academic Career in Science

by Kristen Bole

More than 70 percent of postdoctoral scholars and graduate students at UC San Francisco have a decreased desire to pursue an academic career in science, specifically due to the economic environment for science, according to an October 2013 survey run by UCSF postdoctoral scholars.

The poll, which received 229 responses from members of the UC basic research community, represented about 10 percent of all postdocs and 15 percent of all grad students at UCSF.

The study comes in light of the five percent budget cuts through last year's government sequestration, which resulted in a drop of $9 billion in federal science funding nationwide, accoriding to statistics provided by the 10 major U.S. departments and agencies. The National Institutes of Health (NIH), which is the primary source of UCSF federal funds, represents $1.55 billion of that.

UCSF is the second-largest recipient of NIH funding, receiving roughly $500 million in grants last year.

Jason Porter, PhD

"It wasn't necessarily surprising, but that doesn't mean it isn't alarming," said Jason Porter, PhD, a postdoc who works in the laboratory of Jim Wells, PhD, who is on the advocacy subgroup of the Science Policy Group at UCSF, a group of roughly 30 postdocs and graduate students who are interested in a variety of topics related to science policy. 

The study was conducted by the advocacy subgroup, which includes Porter, as well as Bradley Webb, PhD; Dai Horiuchi, PhD, and graduate student Ibrahim Ali.

"Morale is down. People have to work more to write grants. They have to cut back on what they do," Porter said. "So the fact that the numbers came out that way was sobering."

The survey found that one-fifth of the people had an increased desire to pursue a career overseas, which Porter said could fuel a brain drain of the best scientists. "Whose going to fill that void? What's going to happen to academic science?"

The survey did not calibrate the findings according to students' level in their career (whether they're first year or actively looking for jobs).

Among the other findings were that 67 percent of postdocs have experienced an overall decrease in productivity, due to the sequester. More than half of postdocs have had to increase the time they spend writing grants, while 22 percent said they were unable to perform necessary experiments, due to the lack of reagents and other resources. So they have more to do, fewer resources and a lack of motivation overall because of this.

Porter said the group is reaching out to other postdocs and graduate students throughout the UC system to get a more statistically significant sample. They are also planning to reach out to their contacts in policy groups like theirs at University of Pennsylvania, University of Washington, University of Michigan and University of North Carolina.

"We've been thinking we'll take what we learned with this, rewrite the questions to create a better poll, and roll that out throughout these schools," Porter said. "The power lies in the numbers -- if we can have 1,000 postdocs from UC, from Penn, from UW, from Michigan -- that will tell us it's not isolated to UCSF."