Trim or 'Fatten' the Pyramid?

A blogger summarizes a recent discussion on the academic research workforce.

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With the current research

With the current research funding levels that developed countries have decided to support through their granting agencies, charitable organizations and private companies, there are too many scientists at present. Moreover, we are training new investigators at a faster rate than ever before, which is exacerbating the problem. While encouraging senior scientists to retire earlier might create more job opportunities for junior investigators, I suspect that the rate of discovery and translation of new knowledge will suffer in the long run. True mastery of a research field can take decades of study and experience. While there may be a decline in cognitive ability and health with age, senior scientists that are dedicated to life long learning represent some of our societies greatest assets for improving the health as well as material and intellectual wealth of humanity. A recent study performed by Drs. Benjamin Jones and Bruce Weinberg published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (November 7, 2011, doi: 10.1073/pnas.1102895108) revealed that in recent years, almost of the Nobel prize winners for scientific research received their awards for work that they undertook after 40 years of age.

One factor that has probably hindered the translation of academic research into practical benefits for society at large is the inexperience of the vast majority of academics in industrial settings. These are the same individuals that we often look to train the next generation of scientists to work in industry, which is where most job opportunities exist. An increase in private-public partnerships is one means to improve the situation, but rising concerns about conflict of interest for academic researchers with more rigorous restrictions will probably render such partnerships even more difficult.

Entrepreneurial scientists commonly emerge from academia, and are often the founders of new technologies and companies. However, building companies is a very risky business that requires a combination of factors that can thwart even the most determined. However, when things go right, the job satisfaction is incomparable. Research for its own sake is a noble pursuit, but when it can lead to the betterment of many others in society, then it is especially meaningful.