Down in the trenches, they call it The Myth. It's the idea, which started to make the rounds about 1987, that the nation faced a shortage of scientists. A wave of retirements in academia, plus a burgeoning demand for scientists and engineers in high-tech industry, would create a short-fall of 675,000 scientists and engineers, crippling industrial competitiveness and threatening national security. Heeding the nation's call (and lured by a vision of recruiters beating down their dormitory doors), students labored through organic chemistry and differential equations to earn a bachelor's degree in science and, in many cases, pushed on to graduate school.
Now The Myth has met reality, and reality bites. With the defense industry downsizing, thousands of engineers and scientists are out of work. The death of the Superconducting Super Collider, the gigantic particle accelerator being built in Texas, threw 1,000 physicists, computer jocks and engineers out of work. The prospect of health-care reform led pharmaceutical and biotech firms to downsize and merge, shedding thousands of jobs in 1993. But the biggest disappointment is in academia. Many professors hired in the '60s did not, as advertised, collect their gold watches -- and for every three that did, cash-strapped universities replaced only one with a permanent hire.
It isn't hard to see where all this leads. Unemployment among chemists is at a 20-year high of 2.7 percent, up from 1.1 percent in 1990; 2.4 percent of physicists were jobless last year, up from 1.5 percent the year before. But the slaughter of the innocents is even greater. New Ph.D.s, reflecting a culture that denigrates any but an academic job, have unemployment rates like tailors at a nudist colony. Last year, 12.4 percent of new math Ph.D.s -- the highest level ever measured -- had no jobs after graduation; the rate was 4 percent in 1981. Among new physics grads, 12 percent of Ph.D.s were unemployed last year. ""Government and industry have been saying there's this looming shortage of scientists and engineers,'' says Gene Nelson, who has a Ph.D. in biophysics but can find work only as a computer programmer. ""It's a fraud.''
It's also wasteful. Unable to find permanent academic jobs, the embittered young scientists become the lab version of permanent temps. As postdoctoral fellows, they pursue fascinating research in the lab of a senior scientist, but the posting doesn't make them any more employable. When John Black finished his postdoc in chemical physics at Columbia University last year, he applied for close to 60 academic jobs, got one interview and no offers. (Small wonder: one tenure-track posting at Amherst College two years ago drew more than 800 applications.) Black is back at the same Silicon Valley company he worked for before the postdoc. Kevin Aylesworth did his postdoc at the prestigious Naval Research Lab, got no offers for a permanent position and in 1992 went to work for a Boston law firm as a technical expert. He founded the Young Scientists Network, a group of 3,000 disgruntled researchers who bemoan the ""negative economic consequences of a Ph.D.'' on their electronic bulletin board. Of the physicists thrown out of work by the SSC's demise, 28 percent are still unemployed; of those who found jobs, just 55 percent are in high-energy physics. Others are at pension funds, banks and brokerage houses. There are jobs out there for most scientists willing to cast the net widely, but many don't require a Ph.D.
That's one reason the situation among scientists is different from that of other mortals who fail to land the job they trained for. For one thing, the official government line held that more science Ph.D.s were needed -- national leaders never said that about poets or actors. ""Graduate training is encouraged under the assumption that jobs will eventually appear,'' complains Mark Paalman, who just finished his Ph.D. in biological chemistry at Johns Hopkins University. Another difference is that many of the jobs that scientists eventually land do not require extensive graduate training. Underwriting that training costs millions. ""The government and taxpayers make a tremendous investment in educating these students, through government-funded research, stipends and fellowships,'' says Edith Holleman, counsel to the House Science, Space and Technology Committee.
In a perfect world, students would factor the job picture into their enrollment decisions. To some extent, they do have their antennae out for ""hot'' fields: enrollment in traditional geology decreased from 47,300 in 1983 to 26,500 in 1993, as the oil and gas industry fell on hard times, and enrollment in environmental sciences shot from 894 to 2,470 in the same period, notes Nick Claudy of the American Geological Institute. But would-be Ph.D.s seem impervious to the lack of demand for their services. The number of science doctorates started climbing in the mid- to late 1980s and hit a record high in 1992. Because schools make no effort to prune graduate admissions, young grads ""feel we haven't told them the truth about the job market,'' says William Jaco of the American Mathematical Society.
Demand for scientists is beyond anyone's control, but the supply can certainly be fine-tuned. About a dozen of the nation's top physics departments are instituting grad-student ""birth control,'' says Roman Czujko of the American Institute of Physics, hoping to cut by 25 percent the number admitted. Cornell University is going further, taking 19 instead of the typical 40.
More important is to change the traditional view that the only job worth hav-ing is in academia. ""The culture of the [science and math] community considers anything short of academic employment a failure,'' says Jaco. ""We have to change that'' -- especially since there are more than twice as many Ph.D. physicists and chemists looking for employment as there are academic research and teaching jobs open. Students trained as physicists, for instance, can research alternative ener-gy, teach high school and invigorate small business, where a principal barrier to competitiveness is ignorance of new technologies. For any of these jobs, a shortened version of graduate school -- a master's degree that reflects substantive accomplishment, and not failure to continue on to the Ph.D. as it does now -- is perfectly adequate.
But will universities prune the production of Ph.D. scientists? As a cold economic calcula-tion, they have little incentive to. When hundreds of Ph.D.s ap-ply for every faculty opening, schools get the pick of the crop. And grad students make cheap teaching and lab labor. ""Uni-versities are strip-mining intellectual capital,'' says Nelson. ""They're deriving the profit from all these bright, dedicated young people, then throwing them away like yesterday's newspaper because there are more coming.'' For once, the physics department has something in common with the varsity basketball team.
The low demand for Ph.D.s is not a temporary reflection of the business cycle, but a sign of a long-term shift in how the nation uses researchers. America will always need excellent, well-trained scientists, though not necessarily Ph.D.s., and not necessarily for traditional academic research and teaching. To pretend otherwise is not only wasteful but dangerous: if a real scientist shortage hits, no one will believe it.