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Making scientific careers family-friendly

Like most US scientists, I have been distressed by how the Bush administration twisted or ignored scientific evidence on global warming, abstinence-only education, etc. and I am optimistic that things will improve with President Obama. But some problems will be difficult to solve. Today's NYT has an article on under-representation of women in science. Relative to their fraction of the population, my impression is that African-Americans are even more under-represented, but that doesn't seem to get as much attention. Or maybe it's just that the perceived or actual reasons for under-representation are different, calling for different remedies.

One problem that may deter some women from pursuing research-university faculty positions is that these jobs are so demanding they make it difficult to also raise children. Many of my female colleagues are doing both well, but it's got to be hard. A proposed solution from the article:


Dr. Mason and other legal experts suggest that President Obama might be able to change things significantly for young women in science — and young men — by signing an executive order that would provide added family leave and parental benefits to the recipients of federal grants, a huge pool of people that includes many research scientists.

This is the sort of idea I would expect from a "legal expert" unfamiliar with the realities of scientific careers. I'm not sure it would do any harm, but I doubt that it would help much. The basic problem is that only about 10% of NSF grants are funded. This has implications that undermine the value of the proposed "solution":
1) The worst work-vs.-family struggle is usually during the assistant professor years, when someone is trying to earn the long-term job security of tenure. Once an assistant professor gets an NSF grant, tenure is usually assured -- they must have had a strong publication record to get the grant, plus (with only 10% success rates) the grant itself is evidence of scientific stature -- so they can afford to spend more time on family matters, with or without a presidential order.
2) But even then they can't relax that much, if they want to make enough research progress to get the grant renewed in 3 years. It would be great if a presidential decree could somehow put more hours in the day, but it can't. Relief from teaching would help, but who's going to teach those classes? Assistant professors who don't have grants yet and are already overworked?
3) With funding rates so low, how much time should one spend on research? More time than 90% of one's colleagues, who are making the same calculation, spend! This is not a recipe for work/family balance.

Somehow, we need to increase the percent of grant proposals that are funded. Putting more total money into research would help in the short-run, but it would encourage universities to create even more faculty positions, to get a shot at that money. This increase in the number of people competing for grants would bring success rates back down. We should increase research funding, because research benefits society, but a research-funding bubble is not a solution to professors' problems.

Spreading the wealth, making those who already have one grant ineligible (or less eligible) for another, might be a better approach. This would be less likely to encourage excessive growth of faculty numbers. If we assume that grants are now going to the best scientists, then spreading the wealth might mean a net transfer to slightly less able (but still world-class) scientists. But the top scientists could then focus on their best ideas, rather than dividing their time among many projects. The best ideas of second-tier scientists may be better than the second-best ideas of top scientists. Under the present system, the second-best ideas of top scientists may still win grants, because those scientists have published more papers, but have they published more per grant dollar? If not, then spreading the wealth would be a better way to invest in research, even apart from its benefits to work/life balance.

Another common problem is that of two scientists married (or otherwise attached) to each other and unable to get faculty positions in the same city. This was the situation my wife and I faced for many years, before I decided to retire early and move here. Even if each partner is highly qualified, what are the chances of two simultaneous openings at the same place, with one being first choice for one position and the other first choice for the other? If at least one of the partners is really outstanding (a future Obama cabinet member, say), some universities will offer a package deal, but that's far from certain. Any ideas?

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