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Do We Really Need More Scientists or Do We Already Have Too Many?

The conventional wisdom holds that we need more scientists. An article about retractions shows we may already have too many.

Yesterday I was trying to find something interesting to say about the second Philadelphia Science Festival, which starts this weekend. I asked one of the spokespeople what the purpose of the festival was supposed to be, and he said it's intended to get young people interested in becoming scientists.

Seems worthy, but do we really need more scientists or fewer? Or do we just need more good scientists? One thing we don't need are more bogus scientific papers. Yesterday's New York Times had an interesting story about a rise in retractions, and among the many reasons cited for the glut of bad science was a glut of wannabe scientists.

The so-called high impact journals – Science, Nature and the New England Journal of Medicine – have the worst record when it comes to retractions. The article quotes an editor of Science with an excuse:

Monica M. Bradford, executive editor of the journal Science, suggested that the extra attention high-impact journals get might be part of the reason for their higher rate of retraction. "Papers making the most dramatic advances will be subject to the most scrutiny," she said.

Another possible explanation is that these journals gravitate toward the kinds of results that go against conventional wisdom and are so surprising that they can become potential cocktail party tidbits for the general public.

The other problem cited by the Times sources – fierce competition among a glut of students:

Dr. Fang says that may well be true, but adds that it cuts both ways — that the scramble to publish in high-impact journals may be leading to more and more errors. Each year, every laboratory produces a new crop of Ph.D.'s, who must compete for a small number of jobs, and the competition is getting fiercer. In 1973, more than half of biologists had a tenure-track job within six years of getting a Ph.D. By 2006 the figure was down to 15 percent.

Yet labs continue to have an incentive to take on lots of graduate students to produce more research. "I refer to it as a pyramid scheme," said Paula Stephan, a Georgia State University economist and author of "How Economics Shapes Science," published in January by Harvard University Press.

In such an environment, a high-profile paper can mean the difference between a career in science or leaving the field. "It's becoming the price of admission," Dr. Fang said.

I'm still happy we're having a science festival and I still believe understanding science makes people more informed citizens. Science can enhance our appreciation of the natural world, and learning about science can be a great source of wonder and joy. Perhaps we shoud be encouraging this generation of kids to go out and make piles of money and give it to scientists.