At all stages, the pipeline into a natural sciences career favors people who can follow a prescribed career path that does not fit for everyone. U.S. graduate schools have been producing more Ph.D. graduates than there are academic positions, across fields. Staying in science is more difficult now, with the half-life of research careers decreasing from 35 years in the 1960s to 5 years in the 2010s (Milojević et al. 2018). Lead authorship, critical to survival, declined from almost 80% in the 1960s to below 40% in 2010s (Milojević et al. 2018). Highly published and cited researchers’ laboratories win more grants, which amplifies disparities in representation. Increasingly, there are also problems with citation inequality (Nielsen and Andersen 2021), which has seen the top 1% of authors of 118 scientific disciplines responsible for increased proportions of citations for their peer-reviewed papers from 2000 to 2015 – and is particularly bad for the natural sciences and medical/health sciences. This means that those who are highly cited will get more grants, produce more research, which then leads to more grants – meaning that they are also the best candidates for positions in the minds of hiring committees – a positive feedback loop that favors those who area already well-connected.
With advising of students primarily focusing on increasing a temporary workforce that is only developed for academia, many of our colleagues are dropping out of science completely – a tremendous loss in expertise, and often investment of public money. There are few apparent career options to continue on in their chosen field. However, as Shane Hanlon (2019) notes: they are still scientists! While the production of Ph.D.s does not seem to be slowing, providing meaningful ways to continue to be involved in scientific work (publishing, hard research, scientific outreach, education, applied conservation, etc.) is a way to provide alternatives to the current model of publish or perish. It is also an impetus to move toward a less hierarchical structure, a “flat” team structure, which has been show to improve scientific advancement and improve innovation (Xu et al., 2022), and a greater emphasis on applying the knowledge we have generated in the act of conservation and changing lives.
That these structures have not been adopted is a function of where funding comes from and the positions available to people at all stages of one’s career. It is a “chicken or egg” problem, as those junior scientists who are from the most productive labs receive more funding, and be more likely to have no gaps in place in their resume. This means they are also never outside the system, as most grant RFPs do not allow eligibility for unaffiliated individuals.
As Remote Ecologist, we are aiming to provide a supplemental advising structure, collegial environment for collaborations, non-profit affiliation, and a broader idea for what success really is in science, and I truly believe that we can keep more scientists from a broader swath of society "in the game." We've already helped 5 people in our short existence - follow us as we work our way to working with 500.
Hanlon SM. 2019. Scientists who leave research to pursue other careers in science are still scientists. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 116:17624–17624. DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1909427116.
Milojević S, Radicchi F, Walsh JP. 2018. Changing demographics of scientific careers: The rise of the temporary workforce. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 115:12616–12623. DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1800478115.
Nielsen MW, Andersen JP. 2021. Global citation inequality is on the rise. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 118:e2012208118. DOI: 10.1073/pnas.2012208118.
Xu F, Wu L, Evans J. 2022. Flat Teams Drive Scientific Innovation. DOI: 10.48550/ARXIV.2201.06726.