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[Image: Getty Images]

A new report from Indiana University Bloomington, USA, cites data suggesting that half of the people starting careers as scientists at academic institutions will leave after five years (Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. U.S.A., doi: 10.1073/pnas.1800478115). That’s a stark difference from five decades ago, when it took 35 years for half of the people entering the field at the same time to “drop out.”

The temporary workforce

More Ph.D.s are awarded now than ever before, yet you would never be able to tell looking at the number of available academic positions. This competitive environment has led to the rise of a “temporary workforce”—which the authors define as scientists who leave the field prematurely due to the inability to maintain a research-active career.

The team analyzed bibliographic data from the Clarivate Analytics Web of Science database to track more than 100,000 scientific careers across 50 years. The researchers found that science is increasingly a revolving door. According to the study, the number of supporting scientists, such as lab technicians, research associates and postdocs, has risen from 25 percent to 60 percent over the past five decades. Moreover, the report revealed a 35 percent uptick in the number of scientists who are never credited as a primary author—particularly jarring in a “publish or perish” culture.

Approximately 70,000 names in astronomy, 20,000 names in ecology and 17,000 names in robotics were tracked. The dropout rate, the team found, varied by sector, but trended high across the board. For example, roboticists, who presumably can select from a slew of high-paying private-sector opportunities, had a higher dropout rate than astronomers.

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Staša Milojević [Image: Ann Schertz, Indiana University]

A stagnant academic model?

One contributing factor to the rise in the dropout rate and number of supporting scientists, the report suggests, is the reorganization of scientific work—which has not been matched by a reorganization of university career structures, according to the team. “Traditional academia works on an apprenticeship model—people trying to reproduce themselves,” lead author Staša Milojevic said in an accompanying press release, “but this system represents a disconnect with the newer ‘industrial model’ of science, which requires large teams of specialists with narrow areas of expertise.”

The authors cite a growth in team size and specialization compared with past decades, in turn, increasing the need for supporting scientists. While specialized technical knowledge of, for example, complex instruments or data may be essential to a team, a supporting scientist doesn’t enjoy the same long-term career prospects as a lead researcher.

Although the study doesn’t provide a solution, according to the authors, the rate of scientists leaving academia is not slowing. The team argues that these troubling trends will eventually need to be addressed at the policy level.