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Nation needs recovery plan for science faculty jobs

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Over the past few months, many graduate students and postdocs have been receiving letters from department chairs apologetically explaining that the faculty job search at Institution X has been canceled. State and private universities are facing declining tax revenues and falling endowments, and are unwilling to raise tuition on newly impoverished families. From Harvard to small local colleges, junior faculty searches are being put on hold as the nation suffers its worst economic downturn in most of our lifetimes.

Even if the economy were to recover over the next one to two years, the academic job market for the next few years is likely to be bleak. It will probably take several years for university finances to recover. Even more significantly, the collapse of the stock market has led many faculty members to defer retirement plans. Many professors in their late 60s and early 70s who were planning to retire in the next two to three years have decided to stay on and work for an additional few years so that they can recover some of their market losses.

While this choice makes a great deal of sense for each individual, it will likely have tragic side effects. If all of the faculty members who were planning on retiring at age 67 defer retirement to 72, then universities will not be able to hire any new faculty for the next five years! (This claim rests on the assumption that universities are not likely to rapidly grow their faculty size during an economic downturn and early in the recovery.) When the current cohort of 67-year-olds and the current cohort of 62-year-olds retire over the next five to 10 years, this wave of retirements may create a job bump; however, the next several years will be a difficult time for any scholar seeking a faculty position.

Recent days have made many scientists optimistic about the future. In his inaugural address, President Obama has pledged to “restore science to its rightful place” and to “transform our schools and colleges and universities to meet the demands of a new age.” The economic stimulus package includes funds to significantly augment the budgets of NSF, NIH, DOE and NASA. If these funds are directed toward research grants and toward large science projects, they will have a very positive effect but will create primarily postdoctoral positions rather than faculty jobs.

While most of my generation of scientists benefited from spending the first few years after our Ph.D.s as postdoctoral researchers, few young Ph.D.s are looking forward to spending 10 years working under the direction of a more senior scientist and having to move every two to three years to a new part of the country. Facing strains on their family lives, many of our best young scientists and engineers will choose to leave academia and seek jobs in other fields. These pressures will likely have even more devastating effects on the current cohort of promising young women scientists and on young people who come from families with limited financial resources.

The lack of tenure-track jobs in the United States will likely lead many of our best young U.S.-trained scientists and engineers to seek faculty positions in Europe and Asia, or to abandon their scientific careers. Many of our promising young Ph.D.s are foreign-born scientists who will likely return to their home countries. Most other advanced nations have mandatory retirement ages at their universities and do not have retirement pensions connected to the stock market.

What is to be done? If Congress were to direct 10 percent of its planned increase in science spending toward creating junior faculty positions, the resulting new jobs would replace many lost positions and completely alter the job landscape over the next several years. A federally sponsored “advanced” fellowship program to provide support for the first three years of a junior faculty position would create many new academic jobs. As part of this program, universities would commit to providing support for the next three years to guarantee a six-year appointment. The British and Spanish governments have already implemented a program on this model. By restricting the number of government-supported advanced fellows at any given university, this program would foster the creation of new jobs at universities across the country.

This investment in creating new faculty jobs will likely save a generation of researchers and yield long-term benefits. These young faculty members will produce new advances in medicine, new technologies to spur long-term economic growth and new insights that will deepen our understanding of the world around us.

David Spergel is chair of the department of astrophysical sciences at Princeton University.

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