Remarks before a Panel Discussion
National Science Foundation
Deputy Director


AAAS Annual Meeting, Association for Women in Science, Baltimore, MD

February 9, 1996

Young Scientists in Transition: Career Challenges and Science Policy Implications

Good morning. I'd like to thank Eliene for giving me the opportunity to join you this morning. A friend asked me if I was at all uncomfortable about speaking on an issue where NSF has such a checkered history. My only reaction was that after this winter of blizzards, train wrecks, furloughs, and shutdowns, this is a warm and friendly audience.

I am here today as NSF's Deputy Director, but I have long experience working on this issue as a professor, mentor, and especially a graduate dean and Vice President for Research at the University of Minnesota before coming to NSF. This experience might be even more relevant, as the University of Minnesota ranks 6th in the production of Ph.D.'s.

In that role, I first heard from many graduate students. We worked to empower them for change, with some success, as we published a "survival guide." I also worked with faculty to change graduate education, an effort in which I cannot claim complete success.

At this point, I believe that we are seeing a striking sea change in views on graduate education. The issue has always brought out strong opinions--and there remains a divergence of opinion on the topic.

But there is also no denying that the tenor of the debate has shifted substantially. Until quite recently, much of the discussion centered on who should take responsibility for addressing the problems and challenges young scientists and engineers are encountering. It was like a game of hot potato. The funding agencies would toss it to the universities, the universities would toss it back to the government or drop it on the faculty. In the end, the hot potato usually fell on the students, who were the only ones getting burned to begin with.

It might be more accurate to say we were all engaged in an elaborate dance--but our feet were stuck in place because we couldn't decide who should lead. We would just eye each other and wait for someone to take the first step. There was a sense that if somebody would just get out in front and take the lead, we would be able to waltz through changes to the system as effortlessly as Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers danced across the movie screen. Unfortunately, with no one willing to take the lead, all we did was stumble around, muddle through, and the whole thing looked a lot more like Fred and Barney than Fred and Ginger.

Today, the thinking is very different. We've stopped waiting for each other to take the lead and started to look to ourselves, and ask what we can do to encourage progress. Just as there is no one root cause of the challenges we face, it's also true that no single institution or set of institutions can address them or remedy them unilaterally. The COSEPUP report stressed this point when it encouraged individual departments, institutions, funding agencies, and private sector employers each to examine their role and contribute to a full-scale reassessment of graduate education. In my view, we need radical change.

So, to return to my dance metaphor, it's safe to say that instead of being a dance where one partner leads and the other follows, we are now concentrating on our own individual steps. Instead of ballroom dancing, this is more like a line dance. You each dance individually, but in synch with everyone else on the dance floor. There's lots of room for improvisation and different approaches, but it's also worth adding, anyone who falls out of step usually ends up looking foolish.

Before any of you start to picture your favorite professor, dean, or department chair doing the Electric Slide, let me move on and discuss some of the steps we have begun teaching ourselves at NSF.

First, the National Science Board's Task Force on Graduate and Postdoctoral Education has issued a set of preliminary recommendations for changes in NSF policy. The full Board is expected to discuss these recommendations at an upcoming meeting. An important recommendation was that NSF experiment with alternative modes of graduate support, such as increased use of traineeships, to gain broader experience.

Several programs--including mathematics and chemistry--are already doing this, thanks in large part to input we received at a workshop on graduate education hosted last June by our mathematical and physical sciences directorate. As we begin to design experiments on a larger scale, we need input from the people--like many of you here today--who have blazed new trails for careers in science and technology. Your feedback will be invaluable for shaping new directions for our programs. We recognize that to be effective, any new NSF programs will require a partnership with all parties, including students in universities.

Another area where NSF has begun re-examining its role is data collection, specifically our surveys of doctoral recipients. I've taken a strong personal interest in this topic. As some of you may know, my educational background is in statistics and evaluation, and I've specialized in longitudinal research on human development, with a focus on adolescence.

From all the surveys I've directed, I've learned one valuable lesson that applies directly to NSF's career surveys. There's always a tradeoff between consistency and relevance. Even when tracking a particular construct over a period of years or even decades, you need to take into account new trends and changes affecting your sample populations. Otherwise, you may have consistency on a characteristic that no longer has value or meaning.

At NSF, we are now examining whether our surveys have leaned too much in the direction of consistency at the expense of relevancy. We know that 60 percent of recent Ph.D.'s are moving out of academia to obtain full time employment. But we know very little about the jobs they are taking. For example, according to our surveys and analyses of census data, the fastest growing job categories often fall under headings like "other" and "n.e.c.," for not elsewhere classified. Results like that speak volumes about how times have changed, and they compel us to take a new look at our own efforts.

I'd like to conclude by mentioning the talk Neal Lane will give this evening. It's entitled, "Science and The American Dream: Healthy or History," which is as provocative a topic as the one we are addressing this morning. During just the past few months, we've witnessed again and again how science can shape our dreams and improve our lives. Astronomers have confirmed the existence of planetary systems in distant galaxies; biologists have unveiled the gene that causes plants to flower and bloom; and physicists have added the top quark to the basic building blocks of matter.

While we can't predict how these discoveries will affect our daily routines, we do know that they are just part of the way that all of us as scientists and engineers will shape the future. Consider how quickly the World Wide Web has taken hold. This year, every commercial break during the Super Bowl seemed to flash a different Web address at us.

Now more than ever, preserving the health and vitality of research is no trivial task. It requires generous taxpayer support for research and education as well as a renewed commitment to public understanding and outreach by the scientific community. But we need to change the system. We also know it requires swift and substantial progress on the issues we are discussing this morning. America's scientific prowess will rapidly deteriorate unless science and engineering can offer rewarding careers to our most talented and creative young people.

I want to thank you once again for allowing me to join you this morning, and I look forward to continuing this discussion in many other settings.

Thank you very much.

Return to list of Dr. Petersen's speeches.