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production was fairly constant through the 1970s and 1980s at about 5,500 per year. Two changes in the employment market absorbed the trainees who could no longer find jobs in the traditional employment sectors of academe, the pharmaceutical and agricultural industries, and government. First, the biotechnology industry emerged in time to provide new and exciting employment prospects for many PhD graduates in the life sciences. Second, the system adapted to the continued high rate of training by increasing the support available for postdoctoral fellows.
The resulting expansion of the postdoctoral pool has not, however, created permanent jobs for life scientists; it has produced a holding pattern. In its favor, the increased fraction of PhDs who now take postdoctoral work is probably responsible for the finding that an increased fraction of life-science PhD recipients are involved primarily in research (Table F.1). The result has been an economical and highly effective workforce whose research productivity is excellent and whose salary costs are comparatively low. The intellectual fluidity and scientific productivity of the life sciences rests to a great extent upon this cadre of postdoctoral fellows who, with graduate students, operate within the tradition of laboratories that are funded through highly competitive grants to principal investigators for the pursuit of their scientific ideas.
If the annual rate of PhD production had been constant into the 1990s, the number of scientists in the postdoctoral holding pattern would probably have continued to grow. In reality the rate of PhD production has increased. In 1996, 7,696 life-science PhD degrees were awarded, roughly a 42% increase over the 5,500 characteristic of the 1980s. A substantial fraction of that increase was due to an influx of foreign students, partly as a result of a change in immigration law described in chapter 2. In 1995 about 22.4% of the PhD recipients were foreign nationals. Although it is difficult to know precisely what percentage of those foreign-born graduates will return to their countries of origin, the most recent Survey of Doctoral Recipients indicates that, at least at graduation, the majority state an intention to remain in the United States.
The dramatic increase in the number of life-science PhDs has already had a substantial effect on the size and composition of the postdoctoral pool, and the pool is being enlarged by an influx of foreign-trained PhDs who have come to the United States for further training. The inevitable consequence has been an increase in the competition among postdoctoral fellows for permanent positions in all employment sectors. The full impact of the population increase has not yet been felt in that most of the new postdoctoral fellows have yet to face the permanent-job market. That suggests that young people's difficulty in finding jobs that use their research training will get worse before they get better. Moreover, the committee's analysis in chapter 4 suggests that there is no new source of jobs for life scientists lying just over the immediate horizon—nothing like the opportunities provided by industry during the 1980s. If anything, the expected changes in the financing of higher education, academic health centers, and industry will only widen the gap between the number of life scientists being trained and the number of jobs for them to do.
Is there a Problem? an Analysis from Different Perspectives
Should the recent changes in the career paths of life scientists be a cause of concern? Is the dismay that is being voiced by the current generation of trainees a symptom that the system is no longer optimal, or is it simply the normal discomfort of students reacting to the prospect of healthy competition? Opinions about the value, appropriateness, and stability of the current