Existing “brain drain” a reality for sciences, worsened under sequestration

In 2012, months before sequestration was enacted, scientists were already pressed to find jobs. Take the example of “Rebecca,” whose story was featured in a recent Huffington Post article. She had completed her PhD in chemistry and was working in an academic research laboratory. When her lab didn’t get a new grant to allow her to continue the research, she ended up unemployed. In an already tough financial environment, she spent three months looking for employment in research, hoping to utilize her hard-earned doctoral degree.

In the end, she rewrote her resume, removing any mention of her doctoral degree and quickly found employment with an auto parts company, working as a secretary. She has now worked her way up the corporate ladder and is an executive at that same company with a high level of job satisfaction. But making that transition was a difficult and depressing decision. Understandably so, given the 11 years of higher education that led to a degree she suddenly couldn’t use to secure a job.

Rebecca’s story is one that may become commonplace under sequestration. Scientists across the gamut of medical research are having a harder time getting federal funding. Another scientist, Reena Pande of Harvard, has promising research results that she wants to see “to complete fruition.” But without a grant from the National Institutes of Health, her work may be put on hold. Pande’s comments in the Huffington Post reflects the fears of many in the research community that an entire generation of would-be scientists will switch careers because of tight funding made even tighter under sequestration.

What will become of the scientists who have already been trained and started fledgling scientific careers? The “publish or perish” mantra is underscored by a new urgency and is leading many scientists to consider alternative careers. One student from the University of Texas has been quoted as saying he once aimed for running his own research lab at a university, now he’s considering science writing with a goal of writing for the New York Times in the near future. This focus on alternative career options—aside from heading a research lab—has been a topic of growing attention for scientists in training. Attendees of the upcoming NIH Career Symposium to be held Tuesday May 14 at the NIH’s Bethesda campus will learn about careers in industry, science administration, education, policy, science writing and entrepreneurship as well as the traditional academic career route.

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