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Hungry for Jobs and for Change, Scientists Join the Occupy Movement

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Traffic backed up along Baltimore’s inner harbor last week as protestors from the “Occupy” movement waved signs and shouted at the passing drivers. And among the protestors were scientists and science students, unhappy with their job prospects, their funding prospects, and the way science is viewed in America.

I had heard about the protests on the news, and hadn’t paid too much attention. But as I drove by the crowd, a sign held by one of the protesters caught my eye:

“PhD \ne \!\, job.”

That’s a shorthand way of saying what has become all too familiar to us scientists: lengthy training and academic credentials no longer suffice to launch a career in science.

This message is a new tone in the Occupy movement’s chord.

Brandie Cross held the sign. She is in the 5th year of a PhD program in biochemistry at The Johns Hopkins University. Her specialty is breast cancer, a traditionally well-funded specialty. But she’s sure her job prospects are dim. “I’d like to start my own biotech company. I have tons of inventions, and I want to be funded by NIH. But there’s no money.”

I also spoke with Dr. Troy Rubin, a neuroscientist at Johns Hopkins who also showed up at the protest, and I heard a different angle; Rubin was more worried about the long-term future of America. I asked him why he was participating and he said, “We live in a society where wisdom is less appreciated than money. An economically driven society is fundamentally unsustainable.”

The Occupy protestors view corporate greed and the disproportionate power of the wealthiest 1% of Americans as the causes of a wide range of problems in America. Since September, protests have sprung up in more than one hundred cities around the country. Baltimore is a small city with many institutions of research and higher learning, so perhaps it makes sense that Baltimore’s version of the Occupy movement would involve scientists.

And scientists have certainly had much cause to protest during the last decade. With the sidelining of the American Competes act, the failure of Congress to pass climate change legislation, and the nationwide crisis afflicting science, technology and math (STEM) education, many of us are feeling helpless and angry, not just Cross and Rubin.

As an astrophysicist, I’ve watched funding sources in my field wither and my own students struggle to stay employed. Studies show that only half of U.S. adults can correctly answer the basic question: How long does it take for the Earth to go around the Sun? This statistic disheartens me. And the recently threatened closing of physics departments in Texas and Florida would not help the situation. I’m almost ready to protest too.

Even so, I was still surprised to see scientists engaged in the Occupy protest. We’re generally a quiet bunch, more comfortable with armchair discussions than rabble rousing.

Of course, there are some potential reasons to shy away from joining the Occupy movement at this stage. Critics have called the movement disjointed, and lacking in focus. Indeed, at the Baltimore protest, I spotted signs addressing gay rights and hemp use right next to signs about big pharma and climate change. (The international climate campaign 350.org has urged its supporters to join the movement.) These may all be worthy causes, but one wonders how a single movement can effectively represent all of them.

Yet the protestors seem to view the movement’s breadth as an asset, and perhaps scientists and other academics find the movement’s open approach appealing. “Part of what drew me to the movement is that they were acknowledging that there are a lot of issues,” said Jesse Crow. Crow is working on a Bachelors degree in Environmental Science and International Relations at the University of Maryland Baltimore County.

There is more than one way to approach the current crises for science in America, and the best path forward remains unclear. But scientist participation in the Occupy movement shows that scientists have begun to embrace new techniques and join with new allies in an effort to influence public opinion and government policy. We have long been unhappy with the neglect of science in America and the effects of this neglect on American well-being. And now this growing movement has become a new outlet for our frustrations and a sign of our determination to overcome them.

Marc Kuchner About the Author: Marc Kuchner is the author of the book Marketing for Scientists published by Island Press. For more information, go to www.marketingforscientists.com or follow him on Twitter @marckuchner. Follow on Twitter @marckuchner.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.






Comments 28 Comments

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  1. 1. DrDwight 1:36 pm 10/24/2011

    I generally sympathize with (what I perceive to be) the goals of the Occupy movement, but it’s not clear at all why Ms. Cross expects the government to fund her biotech startup company. If her ‘tons of inventions’ are truly novel and useful, one would expect venture capital to be beating a path to her door.

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  2. 2. scigeek 2:29 pm 10/24/2011

    It’s not just about Ms.Cross, it’s about many who sees little or no prospect of a “meaningful” job in the area where they have been trained……..it has to be accepted that money is more respected in our society than wisdom, as so rightly pointed out by Dr.Rubin (in this article).

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  3. 3. WildCard355 3:20 pm 10/24/2011

    Agreed with every word and deeply hurt.

    There is no room for ideas if they are not profitable; that is our society. I envy countries where knowledge and culture are valued higher than money.

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  4. 4. Aeronomer 4:01 pm 10/24/2011

    “There is no room for ideas if they are not profitable; that is our society.” Wish this were true. We’d all be a lot better off without some of the “unprofitable” ideas floating around right now.

    “I envy countries where knowledge and culture are valued higher than money.” Like…?

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  5. 5. Izzivolving 4:14 pm 10/24/2011

    @DrDwight – I think the value of venture capitalism for science is limited by the fact that a great deal of research, so-called ‘basic’ scientific research, is often several degrees away from profitable applications. Funding sources like the NIH exist because society decided that the long term benefits of such research were worth the cost. Basic science lays the foundation for profitable innovation; losing sight of that will not only harm scientists, but our society as a whole. As far as finding the ‘right’ way to address the devaluing of science in the US, I think we should express the value of science and the cost of ignoring it as loudly and as often as we can, including supporting the ‘Occupy Movement’.

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  6. 6. Boomer2298 5:21 pm 10/24/2011

    Respectfully, why do these people think we owe them jobs? Plenty of people in industry and the private sector had to retrain or retool themselves for different functions. This is not a communist country, and we know how well that worked out. Nothing in life is guaranteed. If you really want to protest with credibility, start at the white house and this administration. They are the 1%.

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  7. 7. ms bonn 6:50 pm 10/24/2011

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7e3KrWaijPg This promises to make you smile. Just posted this vid on youtube in honor of scientists and the Occupy movement, and then stumbled upon this article right after. Coindidence? Not even sure how to spell the word.. :-)

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  8. 8. rloldershaw 6:57 pm 10/24/2011

    The majority of these posts seem to miss the whole point of the Occupy Movement.

    The main complaint of the majority of the Occupiers is that “Too-Big-To-Fail” Corporate Interests have gamed the system and have slowly but surely undermined the democratic processes, like a virus inserting its code into a cell’s code to co-opt the host.

    The Big Money people have co-opted the political process with their money, and their lobbyists insure that the get everything they want.

    The Occupiers want their democratic country back.

    The Occupiers want long-term wisdom instead of short-term profits.

    And the Occupiers want sustainability – enironmental and economic.

    I think we should stand with them. It is in our own enlightened self-interest.

    Robert L. Oldershaw
    Fractal Cosmology

    Link to this
  9. 9. mitchyde 7:28 pm 10/24/2011

    I think your observations about the lack of science knowledge in our population have more to do with the failure of our K-12 educational system than with corporations.

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  10. 10. Joseph2009 9:02 pm 10/24/2011

    I just sent an E-mail to President Obama, as requested by the National Parks and Conservation Association, NPCA. The message was a request to the president to continue the ban on uranium mining in the area of the Grand Canyon. NPCA asked writers to personalize the message. So, I asked the president why it was necessary so often to have to remind our elected officials in Washington about protection of our environment, our health, and our national treasures. These are human rights. I’m sure that the Occupy Wall Street people in the cities all over this country know the answer. I trust that the president does. As for the right-wingers in Congress and their so- called “Tea Party” supporters, I have serious doubts.

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  11. 11. biobot 11:09 pm 10/24/2011

    Ms. Cross maybe missing some other skills like running a business. Just having a PhD and being good at ideas in no way qualifies her to employ and manage people or run a profitable business.

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  12. 12. biobot 11:19 pm 10/24/2011

    #8 I agree with you completely. However, too many posts take a simplistic view of the problems of scientists getting jobs, such as a lack of a belief in science that started way before Obama got into the White House (yeah one comment, #6,actually claimed that).

    NIH funding, *all* funding for basic research in fact any research, let alone updating our infrastructure have been co-opted by a Wall St. personality of short term profits and that for some odd reason having an MBA is more valuable to *any* society than STEM.

    It is certainly in our own best interest to support the Occupy movement. As #8 says the movement is about greed and too big to fail for banks but not for the masses.

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  13. 13. alan6302 2:35 am 10/25/2011

    post secondary education is a scam

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  14. 14. Postulator 4:37 am 10/25/2011

    It’d be nice to see decent taxwes paid by those most able to afford them. Not necessarily the 80-90% tax rates of the past, but at least get rid of all the exceptions that mean a person of means can get away with paying less tax than a person on average wage.

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  15. 15. pokerplyer 10:32 am 10/25/2011

    The movement seems unfocused and without reasonable goals. Their overall goal seems to be to have those paying taxes to pay more so that the goals of the movement can be funded. Interesting, now we have yet another group that wants something for nothing.

    Many governments have been operating under this same philosophy for many years, think Greece; and it simply cannot last. Long term political stability and influence are based upon a strong financial base and that means the USA must balance its budget. A lot of people want more from government, but few seem willing to pay for what they want in services

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  16. 16. pokerplyer 10:46 am 10/25/2011

    I have to laugh at some of the comments- let’s examine one:
    They wrote: “The main complaint of the majority of the Occupiers is that “Too-Big-To-Fail” Corporate Interests have gamed the system and have slowly but surely undermined the democratic processes, like a virus inserting its code into a cell’s code to co-opt the host.

    ”My response- The generalities written about are without actionable meaning. If there is or was a specific government action that you believe is unwise, then complain about the specific action and expenditure.

    They wrote: “The Big Money people have co-opted the political process with their money, and their lobbyists insure that the get everything they want.”

    My response: Then get off your tush and vote in politicians that think as you do!

    They wrote:” The Occupiers want their democratic country back.

    My response: Then get off your tush and vote in politicians that think as you do!

    They wrote: “The Occupiers want long-term wisdom instead of short-term profits.

    ”My response: Then get off your tush and vote in politicians that think as you do!

    They wrote: “And the Occupiers want sustainability – enironmental and economic.

    ”My response: Then get off your tush and vote in politicians that think as you do!

    They wrote: “I think we should stand with them. It is in our own enlightened self-interest.

    My response: Get down to specifics and stop expecting our nation or the world to be a utopia in which thinking is optimized for the long term interests of the species overall. That simply is not reality. Independent nations look primarily after their own self interests.  

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  17. 17. jimbobobie 8:16 pm 10/25/2011

    Of course the focus of the Occupy movement is broad. It’s focus is the neoliberal, corporatist domination of the world. That’s why the 99 percent. The focus is the 1 percent in all their myriad machinations.

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  18. 18. jimbobobie 8:26 pm 10/25/2011

    To those offers of “vote your people in.” Do you really believe that “Citizens United” has made that possible?

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  19. 19. Jerzy New 9:31 am 10/26/2011

    Breast cancer continues to kill thousands of people every year. If society cuts funds for such problems, then it is really rotten.

    I wonder what DrDwight and others expect to do if they get breast cancer? Billions accumulated by wealthiest 1% give them not a single day of life, when new drugs are not invented.

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  20. 20. Jerzy New 9:45 am 10/26/2011

    BTW, commentators criticizing Brandie Cross – please read about such terms as barriers on entry, patent litigations, credit etc. Worth understanding business if you think are liberal.

    You may then understand that even if Brandie Cross had MBA and each of her ideas really would result in functioning breast cancer drug, it is still impossible for her to bring this drug to market. Best she could do is to sell her idea to big pharmaceutic corporation for a few 1000.s of dollars, and watch it later generate billions for that corporation.

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  21. 21. Catalyst23 1:01 pm 10/27/2011

    Good! Scientists need to get out there and start getting involved with politics. Otherwise they will always be underfunded, misunderstood, and mistreated in the political sphere. I want a scientist in the oval office!

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  22. 22. David Marjanović 4:24 pm 10/27/2011

    Respectfully, why do these people think we owe them jobs?

    Let me approach this from an entirely different angle:

    The world as a whole, and the USA in particular, needs more science and more scientists. Why, then, aren’t there more jobs for them? Why are there so many unemployed scientists?

    Plenty of people in industry and the private sector had to retrain or retool themselves for different functions.

    They’re not guaranteed a job either. Nobody, no matter what their skills, is guaranteed a job anymore, except maybe in Angola.

    Nothing in life is guaranteed.

    This is not about guarantees, it’s about priorities.

    If you really want to protest with credibility, start at the white house and this administration. They are the 1%.

    LOL. They’re a very small part of it. I’m with comment 14 and Warren Buffett.

    Their overall goal seems to be to have those paying taxes to pay more so that the goals of the movement can be funded.

    Don’t you think it’s a good idea to take the needed money from those who actually have any to spare?

    Many governments have been operating under this same philosophy for many years, think Greece

    Greece has an incredibly bloated military; its budget is no less than 5 % of the GDP. Reminds me of the USA and of Israel (another place where the middle class keeps getting poorer and poorer).

    The generalities written about are without actionable meaning. If there is or was a specific government action that you believe is unwise, then complain about the specific action and expenditure.

    There are too many of them. It’s a pattern.

    Then get off your tush and vote in politicians that think as you do!

    Try to get elected to Congress or the White House without being a millionaire. Go ahead, try.

    I wonder what DrDwight and others expect to do if they get breast cancer?

    BTW, men can get breast cancer. It’s just not as common as in women.

    Good! Scientists need to get out there and start getting involved with politics. Otherwise they will always be underfunded, misunderstood, and mistreated in the political sphere. I want a scientist in the oval office!

    Seconded – except that the last sentence runs into the problem of how election campaigns work in the US.

    Link to this
  23. 23. Informationaddict 8:08 pm 10/27/2011

    This goes way beyond politics and voting. After all, these are global protests. This is about money, how currencies are created and manipulated for the benefit of just a few. The political parties are not relevant.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l37RhdFGVsM This series is kind of tedious, but if you hang in there, you will understand the money flow much better, and how it gets to the rich from the rest of us.

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  24. 24. FleningH 6:11 pm 10/28/2011

    “Studies show that only half of U.S. adults can correctly answer the basic question: How long does it take for the Earth to go around the Sun? This statistic disheartens me.”

    How do you like the statistic that less than half of U.S. adults could pick a qualified person for President? They voted for CHANGE and they got what they deserved.
    A CHANGE

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  25. 25. FleningH 6:19 pm 10/28/2011

    (continued) A CHANGE for the worse.

    We’ll have real Science in the U.S. when the government stops supporting science with money! Political money corrupts science. The belief in AGW is a prime example.

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  26. 26. asmith45 2:47 am 10/29/2011

    I can understand the frustration some scientist are feeling with the way things are being handled in this country. It’s great to see that they are joining the occupy movement. Science in this country is heavily controlled by politics, and on top of this many people who have slaved away to get a Ph.D are no longer guaranteed a position due to budget cuts. Gone are the days when you just wanted to spend your life in the lab exploring your wildest hypothesis. Now, you must look at the news to see where are the interests of the government this year, and how can I write a grant that will be funded based on those interests, all while trying hard to compete against fellow colleagues because if they publish their paper first you will be that much more vulnerable in getting funded. First take money out of politics, then take politics out of science, then let scientist do what they were made to do, which is work in order to make this world a better place without any kind of worry of competing for grant money, but instead work together to make the discoveries that people so desperately need.

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  27. 27. ertdfg 7:24 pm 10/29/2011

    “I’d like to start my own biotech company. I have tons of inventions, and I want to be funded by NIH. But there’s no money.”

    I’d like to start at the top, not work my way there. I’d like to have everything I’d need handed to me, people should pay me without me having to prove myself first or really put in any effort… that seems to sum this up.

    Really? You’re shocked that this isn’t the way the world works and that you can’t just start off on the top rung without working your way up to it?

    Sorry to make your day worse… Santa Claus isn’t real either. We’ll hold off on talking about the Easter Bunny until you’ve had a chance to process this information.

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  28. 28. BrandieMCross 4:22 pm 11/10/2011

    Hello Everyone,
    I did not notice the comments until I tried printing this article for my mother. =0)
    Thank you for your support!
    I was surprised to see my interview here..lol.
    I am actually incorporating my business now. Although, unpopular for some, we are a lab that approaches medical Cannabis from a scientific perspective in order to further the prescribing of Cannabis products.
    We are also focused on staying ‘green’ and forming sustainable alliances with several other green labs and businesses. We believe in a world where natural remedies are studied thoroughly and recommended appropriately for the diagnoses.
    Which is why I am not getting funding from anyone- just my own pockets.Raised on Welfare and foodstamps, I started from an impoverished family, went to community college then State.I worked for 5 years in Biotechnology prior to grad school. I have physically worked more than most people giving hateful comments here- LOL. So I am not even offended/shocked by these comments. They are severe and bitter because these people know nothing of hard work (isn’t that always the case).I do not expect handouts- I work extremely diligently for everything I have.
    Anyone interested in knowing more- please contact me or visit our website.
    thepotlab.com
    Thanks again!
    *SPARKLES*
    We are the 99%!

    Link to this

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