Grinding Out Researchers

Peter Wood

Before we had power plants we had windmills. Harnessing the power of the wind, they produced enough energy to grind grain and pump water. Today we also have wind turbines which generate electricity. America’s tiptoeing concerns about footprints may lead to a revival of the windmill as a source of sustainable energy. That’s all well in the suburbs of Chicago, but what about Georgina Island

p>In any case, writers for a New York Times blog think there’s another kind of energy we should be harnessing: the enthusiasm of young college graduates. Sam Wang (associate professor of neuroscience and molecular biology at Princeton) and Sandra Aamodt (former editor in chief of Nature Neuroscience), guest writing in Olivia Judson’s “The Wild Side” New York Times blog, propose that windfall for research in the stimulus package should be used to fund what they call “Research for America.” Instead of using the money for more grants, they argue, it should go toward a new program in which college grads attend science research boot camp and work a stint as part of a corps of researchers-in-training. Wang and Aamodt explain: 

Our proposal emulates Teach for America, which harnesses the energy of college graduates who are willing to give a little time before moving to the next stage of their careers. Teach for America boasts that 60 percent of its teachers continue in education in some capacity. Research for America could serve a similar purpose of giving smart young people a chance to see if research is the right career for them, without committing five or more years to getting a postgraduate degree. 

Perhaps they have something here. With today’s unfriendly job market and the general debt-wariness, a short-term, paying venture in research doesn’t sound bad. Wang and Aamodt foresee three additional benefits:

1.       It could be adapted to the structure of existing grants.
2.       Hiring thousands of workers fits perfectly with the intent of stimulus package legislation, which calls for the money to be spent to create jobs right away.
3.       It provides a way to enhance research without generating more career scientists than the system can support over the long term.

The stimulus bill has already summoned much creativity. In an article last week, Peter Wood imagined how the Department of Education could spend the $44 billion allocated in the bill for education. And the folks at AIG certainly thought of a way to use their bailout money. So what about Research for America?

We are, however, a little hesitant. “Research scientist” isn’t exactly a burgeoning field. The U.S. Department of Labor Occupational Employment Statistics suggests just how narrow the opportunities are. The 2004 report for Biochemists and Biophysicists for example identified 6,680 researchers employed in the field in the U.S. Other biochemists and biophysicists employed in fields other than research might be doing research too, but add in all the other related occupations for these folks, from pharmaceutical manufacturing to hospital work, and total employment was still only 16,340. The Department of Labor statistics for other scientific research fields paint a similar picture. 

This is not to say that we don’t want and need more highly-qualified researchers. We do. Bu the actual labor needs—and the realistic opportunities—are nothing like those in teaching. 

Another reason to be hesitant is that research laboratories have very limited need for unskilled or marginally skilled labor. Perhaps we need to defer to Wang and Aamodt on this, but isn’t the support work in labs usually performed by lab technicians, who are indeed college graduates? No doubt some labs would be overjoyed by having substantial new funds to hire more techs, but lab techs are not usually seen as “researchers in training”—certainly not by many of the research scientists who run the labs. The technicians typically are trained to carry out specific and often not very glamorous tasks, and the opportunities to learn about “research” in a more meaningful way are reserved for advanced graduate students and post-docs. Thus the Wang and Aamodt proposal suggests a mismatch and a high likelihood that many of the participants would end up spinning their wheels.

Be this as it may, we have one other concern—one that arises from Wang and Aamodt’s source of inspiration. Wang and Aamodt want to model Research for America after Teach For America, “a national teacher corps of recent college graduates who commit two years to teach and to effect change in under-resourced urban and rural public schools and become leaders in the effort to expand educational opportunity.”  

One immediate point of favorable comparison: “Research for America” unlike “Teach For America” doesn’t violate the centuries old convention of not capitalizing short prepositions. A latitudinarian trend has emerged in recent years, as witnessed by this misleading “writing tip” from ten years ago:   

There is no general agreement about capitalizing prepositions in titles. Some books say that none of them should be capitalized. Others suggest (or require) that prepositions of five or more letters be capitalized (e.g., "after," "through," "between," and "during"). Whatever style you choose, be consistent.

Nor is there “general agreement” about whether to bring squalling infants to movie theaters, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a good rule. As someone called Dwillgolf recently noted in a response to an annoying glitch in Microsoft Office Online, “Capitalizing prepositions in a title just makes one look stupid.” It is even worse if one’s organization sets itself up to teach for America, and announces in one’s name either disdain for literate convention or, worse, ignorance of what the conventions are. Wendy Kopp, we blame you. You were great as a 21-year-old with a bright idea and the persuasiveness to raise $2.5 in your first year. But how could you let things get so out of control?   

I digress. Well, not really. Stylistic irregularities often indicate deeper problems, and Teach For America does have the equivalent of capitalized prepositions in its current principles. Teach For America, founded in 1990, was founded to “eliminate educational inequity,” but it has been propagating inequity too.  

Wendy Kopp famously came up with the idea in her undergraduate thesis at Princeton, and Teach For America early on gained a reputation as a magnet for privileged, mostly white Ivy Leaguers willing to devote some time to helping the underclass. A vein of nasty criticism along these lines continues. At some point, Wendy and her colleagues seemed to have acquired Diversity Stockholm Syndrome. In other words, they bought into the idea that relatively privileged white college graduates couldn’t possibly teach less privileged non-white school students as effectively as other college graduates whose pigmentation or accents matched the students.

The Teach For America diversity page explains succinctly that students learn better from teachers who share their “racial and/or socioeconomic backgrounds,” and because such teachers are “particularly influential in the long-term push for societal change,” Teach For America gives preference to black and Hispanic applicants. TFA boasts that 29% of the 2008 corps were individuals “of color” and speaks of the special “credibility” that such teachers bring:

At the same time that we value each individual who commits to our mission, we also place a particular focus on attracting and developing individuals who share the racial and/or socioeconomic backgrounds of the students we teach. [...] The impact individuals from under-represented groups have on our recruitment focus is a function of two factors – that they are more likely to bring a deep understanding of the communities in which we are working, and that they are better able to focus others on what matters most because of the credibility that comes from their life experience.

This isn’t quite, “if you’re white, don’t bother to apply,” but it is deep in the fever swamps of identity politics. Is there any evidence that children learn best from teachers of like pigmentation? 

When Sam Wang and Sandra Aamodt propose to create a Research for America like unto Teach For America, we wonder if they have considered the racialist logic now embraced by TFA.   We hope they recognized it—and rejected it. They don’t frame their program as one that would save America from social ills, nor do they mention race as playing a role in selecting participants. But the diversity doctrine is now so entrenched in education that it is more or less the default position. The only way you know that a program is not based on allocation of rewards based on race or identity group is when it explicitly disavows these infringements on equality and personal freedom.

As I write this, readers are submitting news comments to the column. One person just pointed out that the program Wang and Aamodt dreamed up already exists. It’s called the Postbaccalaureate Intramural Research Training Award (IRTA) Program, which “provides opportunities for recent college graduates to spend a year engaged in biomedical research at the National Institutes of Health (NIH).” Good: we have a test case. How does the NIH program handle the “diversity” regime?

As it happens, not so well. The NIH program’s handbook has its own hefty section on diversity (page 33). The section says, “The NIH and the OITE are committed to training a diverse group of outstanding young scientists. You may find that one or more of the following groups can assist you in feeling at home in the NIH community” and presents a litany of sponsored NIH programs for politically correct identity groups. 

So it seems that IRTA, like Teach For America, has bought into progressive ideology.

All this leaves us ambivalent about Wang and Aamodt’s idea. Perhaps the NIH program, despite its compromises with the diversity ideology adequately addresses whatever actual need they spotted. The tone of their article is also a little unsettling. They present scientific research as a wholesome alternative to “careers in finance,” and characterize the latter as driven by greed:

The time is right to call young people into scientific research. At his inauguration, President Obama pledged to “restore science to its rightful place.” In the last few decades, many college graduates have been attracted to Wall Street, lured by the promise of riches. Before the crash, many of our smartest college graduates and doctoral students opted for careers in finance, choosing high pay over work of more lasting value. But this year, the focus on campus has turned away from banking and hedge funds. This change opens an opportunity to make research attractive to the brightest young people. 

The reality is that careers in research are few in number and extraordinarily difficult to attain. When Wang and Aamodt posture as people who speak for nobler ideals and more “lasting value” than helping to run the world’s most productive economy, they open the question of motive. Is encouraging large numbers of college graduates to take low-level, poorly-paid subservient positions in labs where they will have a vanishingly slim chance to ever become “researchers” all that noble? Maybe Sandra Aamodt will find time to think about that during her year-long sailing trip to Polynesia and New Zealand on a 45-foot ketch.  

She will be chasing after the wind—and so will those apprentice researchers if Research for America gets launched. 


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