Dr. Norm Matloff : "Best And Brightest" Scientist Found Driving A Shuttle Bus

From Norm Matloff's H-1B/L-1/offshoring e-newsletter.

Norm Matloff writes

Some of you may have heard about this news item in the last few days: The 2008 Nobel Prize in Chemistry was awarded to Martin Chalfie, Osamu Shimomura and Roger Tsien for their work on the gene green fluorescent protein (GFP). Douglas Prasher, who played a key role by discovering the gene, and contributing it to Chalfie and Tsien, was snubbed for the prize. Much worse, it turns out that he is currently not in science at all, working as a shuttle bus drive for a Toyota dealership in Alabama. [Shuttle driver reflects on Nobel snub By Aaron Gouveia, capecodonline.com October 11, 2008]

But here is the rest of the story.

The fact that a Nobel Prize is involved gives this story glamor (and pathos), but the story's true significance lies in its connection to the false claims by industry lobbyists that "Johnnie Can't Do Science" and thus the U.S. needs an expanded H-1B program to bring in scientists from abroad. These claims are false, and though Chalfie and Tsien are U.S. natives, they are the exceptions, with Prasher being much more representative. His case illustrates everything that is wrong with our current policies on H-1B.

The Urban Institute report [PDF]released last year (along with earlier research by others showing similar results) showed that plenty of Americans major in math and science in college, but most don't continue in the field. There are two main reasons for this. First, as the National Research Council showed (for the computer field), pursuing a PhD produces a net loss in lifetime income. Second, as was discussed on NPR when the UI report came out, there are major issues of career security in the science field: these days a scientist must work several years as a post doc in addition to earning a PhD, so one typically reaches one's early- to mid-30s before even knowing whether one will even be able to start a career in the field, much less sustain one. If one has started a family by then, it's difficult to keep pushing on for low pay and an uncertain future.

All of this ties in directly with H-1B. The reason PhD wages aren't worth the years of study are that the NSF, as I've stated before, advocated bringing in foreign scientists for the express purpose of holding down PhD salaries. This also suppresses graduate stipends for doctoral students, and post doc wages too. As was pointed out in the NPR piece by Shirley M. Malcom, head of education and human resources at the American Association for the Advancement of Science, these low wages, 15-year training periods, poor career prospects and so on are direct evidence that we have an OVERsupply of scientists, not a shortage as claimed by the lobbyists. And again, this oversupply was deliberately planned for by the NSF, back when it asked Congress to establish the H-1B program. [Glowing Gene's Discoverer Left Out Of Nobel Prize, NPR, by Dan Charles October 9, 2008]

Prasher was a casualty of this oversupply. There were too many people applying for grants, and he saw that the situation was just going to get worse, so he left the Woods Hole lab to take a "safe" job with the USDA. Unfortunately, the funding issue continued to bite him anyway. In his last science job, with a NASA subcontractor in Huntsville, funding cuts again left him unemployed. He now works for the Toyota dealer in the same town.

The oversupply of workers also contributes to the cutthroat nature of the competition. Chalfie and Tsien were able to do quite well in the system, good for them, but as an academic I can tell you that for many in the field, part of success comes from a willingness to throw some elbows here and there, and play hardball. I'm not saying that Chalfie and Tsien necessarily have sharp elbows, but it's quite telling that Tsien now says he was "amazed" when Prasher quite willingly give him the gene--and maybe equally telling that Tsien stopped short of saying that Prasher should have shared in the prize. (Though Chalfie, to his credit, did say, "They could've easily given the prize to Douglas and the other two and left me out.")

At one of the science blogs discussing the Prasher case, here someone named Lisa brings up the H-1B connection:

Ah, this scares me. My husband is a research scientist with the govt right now in plants. We had to move to Canada for two years recently because the US just doesn't want to hire its own citizens anymore. We got back here on a temp. job. This story made me cry. We are about to be between jobs again, and it's tough to find one. My husband has done some really great work in genetics, but it doesn't seem to matter. I am angry at the way our nation has chewed up and spit out so many of its great scientists in search of cheap labor.

And again, though it makes for good newspaper copy to have a Nobel almost-laureate discovered driving a van for $10 an hour, this sounds painfully familiar to many readers of this e-newsletter. One of my PhD readers could only find work packing boxes at minimum wage--at the peak of the dot-com boom, no less. Another PhD reader did manual labor in a winery. Those "Johnnie Can't Do Science" claims by the lobbyists have a bitter ring to them.

In the last presidential debate, moderator Bob Schiefer took it for granted that "Johnnie" indeed can't do math and science, and sadly, neither presidential candidate objected. Maybe Obama and McCain, who both strongly endorse an H-1B increase, ought to pay as much attention to Prasher the Ex-Scientist as they did to Joe the Plumber.

I also recommend his Wikipedia entry, and a beautiful page on GFP, here, which has some great pictures as well as a History section explaining the contributions made by the various players.