July 9, 2009

Public Praises Science; Scientists Fault Public, Media

Section 6: Scientists and Their Careers

While most scientists say this is a good time for their profession, a large majority also believes it is a good time to begin a career in science. Despite the poor economy, 67% of scientists say it is a very good or good time to begin a career in their scientific specialty area. Only about half as many (32%) say it is a bad time to start a career in their specialty.

Yet the economy remains a major concern for scientists, as it does for the general public. When asked about the main hurdles for people entering a research career in their scientific specialty, a majority (56%) cites economic issues and more than a third (36%) refers to the tight job market. Far fewer scientists mention educational issues (12%), the personal sacrifices required for a career in research (9%), or the lack of vision and creativity in their specialty (7%) as main hurdles to a career in research.

Biologists and medical scientists (64%) and chemists (61%) cite economic issues more frequently than their counterparts in the geosciences (47%) or physics and astronomy (41%). Scientists in academia are particularly likely to cite economic concerns (62%), while those in industry are least likely to do so (46%).

About as many geoscientists cite the job market (44%) as a barrier to a career in research as mention economic and funding issues (47%). Similarly, comparable percentages of physicists and astronomers say the job market (38%) and economic issues (41%) are the main hurdles to a career in research in their specialties.

Why Science?

When asked about the importance of various factors that motivated them to pursue careers in science, an overwhelming share of scientists (86%) say an interest in solving intellectually challenging problems was very important. This view is widely shared across scientific specialties.

Substantially smaller percentages of scientists say the desire to work for the public good (41%) and the desire to make an important discovery (30%) were very important reasons for choosing science as a career. However, large majorities do cite these factors as at least somewhat important (81% work for public good, 74% make important discovery).

More women (48%) than men (38%) say a desire to work for the public good was a very important reason in deciding to become a scientist. Younger scientists are also more likely to point to the desire to contribute to the public good (48% of those under 35, compared with 32% of those 65 and over).

Perhaps not surprisingly, nearly half (49%) of those who work in the public sector identify working for the public good as a very important factor in their decision to go into science, compared with 45% working for non-profits and smaller percentages in academia (41%) and industry (38%). Applied scientists are also more likely than those who describe their work as addressing basic knowledge questions to attribute their career decision to working for the public good (48% vs. 34%).

By comparison, those who primarily address basic knowledge questions in their research are more likely than applied researchers (33% vs. 28%) to cite a desire to make an important discovery as a very important reason for their career choice. There are also substantial differences by field, as chemists are about twice as likely as geoscientists to say the desire to make an important discovery was an important driver for their decision to become a scientist (37% vs. 17%).

Financial Rewards Less Important

Few scientists say that the desire for a financially rewarding career was a very important part of their decision to become a scientist (4%). However, a third (33%) say this was at least somewhat important in their choice of career.

As might be expected, far more scientists working in industry than those working in other sectors view a desire for a financially rewarding career as very or somewhat important. About half of industry scientists (51%) say this, compared with only about three-in-ten of those working for government (31%), academia (29%) and for non-profits (29%).

More generally, a far larger share of those in the applied sciences (43%) attribute their career choice at least in part to a desire for a financially rewarding career, compared with 25% of those in basic sciences. Among scientific specialties, those in chemistry (40%) are more likely than those in other fields to say financial rewards were a consideration in their career choice.

In addition, older women scientists are less likely than either younger women or men to say financial rewards were important to their career decision (20% vs. 34% of younger women and 35% of all men).

Why Scientific Research?

By a wide margin, more scientists say they are personally motivated by the challenge of answering scientific questions than by the prospect that their work delivers societal benefits. Just over six-in-ten (62%) say they are motivated to conduct scientific research mostly “to address important scientific questions, even if that research may have no immediate benefit to society.” Far fewer (36%) say they are mostly motivated “to benefit society, even if that research may not address important scientific questions.”

Those in academia are considerably more likely than their counterparts working elsewhere to say their main motivation for research is to address important questions (69%, compared with 51% of those in government, 52% at non-profits and just 44% of those in industry).

There also are sizable differences between those who work primarily on research addressing basic questions and applied scientists; more than eight-in-ten (81%) basic researchers say they are primarily motivated to address important questions, while the majority (56%) of applied researchers say their main aim is to benefit society.

Across scientific disciplines, physicists and astronomers (75%) are more likely than those in other fields to say they are motivated primarily to address important questions.

Younger women are more likely than men and older women to say they are mainly motivated to benefit society in their research (45% of 18-49 year-old women compared with 34% of older women and men of both age groups).

Scientists See Their Work as Interdisciplinary

A large majority of scientists say their work is interdisciplinary and nearly all the scientists surveyed say they pay at least some attention to research findings outside their primary field.

Fully 81% say the work in their primary scientific specialty area is interdisciplinary; just 18% say it is not. This view is expressed by large majorities across scientific fields, but is somewhat more widespread among those in geosciences (89%).

About three-quarters (76%) of those in basic scientific research say their work is interdisciplinary, as do an even larger share (88%) of those in applied research.
Academics, who make up a large proportion of scientists in the sample, are slightly less likely than their colleagues in industry or non-profits to say their work is interdisciplinary.

In addition, nearly all the scientists surveyed (95%) say they pay a lot (47%) or some (48%) attention to research findings outside of their primary field. Just 6% pay little or no attention to research outside of their specialty.

While large majorities across scientific specialties and demographic groups say they pay at least some attention to research outside their field, younger scientists are less likely to do so. Only about a quarter of those younger than 35 (27%) say they pay a lot of attention to research in other fields, compared with 43% of those 35 to 49 and a majority of those older than 50 (55%). Scientists who describe their own work as interdisciplinary are, not surprisingly, more likely to pay a lot of attention to outside findings (50%) than are those who do not describe their work that way (33%).