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New hiring and compensation programs make federal R&D managers optimistic about meeting workforce needs
Never better is an apt description for the employment prospects--in both the public and private sector--of today's chemists and other scientists and technicians. And the road ahead looks pretty good, too.
That is great news for job seekers, especially recent science Ph.D. recipients. But the current and projected shortages of skilled science and technology workers mean that R&D managers, particularly those who work in government, are facing daunting new recruitment challenges.
Because most federal R&D money is doled out in the form of research grants, agencies that dispense the money--the National Science Foundation , for example--rely on employees trained in science, math, and engineering to structure the programs and procedures under which the funds are dispersed. But some agencies, like the National Institutes of Health , also maintain intramural research programs and must replenish their in-house scientific staff as people move on to other jobs or retire.
What's more, the U.S. government operates numerous world-class scientific user facilities that depend on highly skilled workers to keep the doors open and billions of dollars of sophisticated scientific equipment in operation.
In other words, government science is serious business. And like their counterparts in industry, government R&D managers now face some serious challenges in the battle to attract and keep employees who are trained in science and engineering fields.
Several government R&D managers spoke with C&EN about the obstacles they face and the steps they are taking to recruit and retain a viable scientific workforce for the 21st century--including measures to ensure a diverse workforce. Their methods--and their success stories so far--rebut many shopworn stereotypes about government employment: low pay, limited intellectual freedom, and a glacial bureaucratic pace to career growth or to the R&D work itself.
A government research career is not for everyone. The pay is adequate, sometimes competitive, but government work is not generally for those with an entrepreneurial spirit. Although many government labs offer scientists wide-ranging intellectual freedom, there are boundaries given the national security aspects of some government work.
||Sandia National Laboratories researcher Ron Manginell examines a preconcentrator with an active area only 2 mm by 2 mm that is used to collect sample gases for analysis. The device is part of Sandia's initiative to build a handheld chemistry lab. [SNL photo]
Overzealous measures designed to ensure security have had a dampening effect on the recruiting ability of some agencies, the Department of Energy in particular. The specter of polygraph tests for government scientists as well as restrictions on publishing and interaction with scientific colleagues has met with strong opposition from the scientific community at large.
But some government R&D managers have been the most vocal opponents of unnecessary security precautions. From their positions on the inside, they have argued persuasively against measures that would do more to harm science than they would to enhance or protect national security.
"I think we're in transition mode over this," says DOE's Mildred S. Dresselhaus, director of the agency's Office of Science . "We're now in the decay cycle," she says, emphasizing that DOE laboratories, like all science employers, "need to reach the very best people."
"We're hiring," says Timothy Coffey, research director at the Naval Research Laboratory in Washington, D.C., with a confident smile when asked about the situation at his lab. Indeed, some government laboratories, for some research disciplines, may need to hire twice as many recent Ph.D. scientists as they normally would in a given year.
A report, "Ensuring a Strong U.S. Scientific, Technical, and Engineering Workforce in the 21st Century," issued earlier this year by the White House Office of Science & Technology Policy (OSTP) , outlined the scope of federal R&D efforts and thus some of the recruiting challenges:
"Many federal agencies have substantial R&D programs needed to carry out such missions as maintaining a strong U.S. science and engineering enterprise, improving health care and quality of life, national defense, environmental protection, improving the efficiency of energy conversion, improving food supplies, and space exploration. These agencies need a high-quality pool of scientists, technicians, and engineers from which to recruit staff.
"In 1995, the federal government employed 8% of all employed scientists and engineers having at least a bachelor's degree," the report continues. "These more than 252,000 scientists and engineers included 53,000 computer scientists and mathematicians, 38,000 life scientists, 28,000 physical scientists, 17,000 social and behavioral scientists, and 117,000 engineers."
It is not just Ph.D. scientists but rather a range of people with science and math skills who are critical to meeting the employment demands of both the public and private sector, says OSTP's Arthur Bienenstock, associate director for science, commenting on the report. But he also speaks from experience. Before joining OSTP in 1997, Bienenstock was director of the Stanford Radiation Synchrotron Facility in California, a DOE user facility.
"Our technicians made an enormous contribution to the running of the place," Bienenstock says. People with bachelor's and master's degrees in science "should not turn away from the opportunities that are out there."
In the private sector, stories abound about the high pay and generous benefits offered by companies in order to recruit and retain scientists and engineers. While government R&D managers often cannot match those salaries, increasingly, they can be competitive.
And money is but one incentive, R&D managers say. Government work can sometimes offer scientists unique research opportunities and experiences, free from the demands of teaching or the profit-driven nature of much industry-sponsored research. Those opportunities might span a given scientist's career or they might be just one important stop along the path of career advancement, such as a transition from bench research to management.
The Chemical Science & Technology Laboratory (CSTL) at the Commerce Department's National Institute of Standards & Technology in Gaithersburg, Md., provides the national standards infrastructure for chemical measurements. According to CSTL Deputy Director William F. Koch, the lab conducts fundamental investigations and provides experimental data, new theories, and models on a range of topics related to the measurement of the composition and behavior of chemical and biochemical processes and systems.
The lab employs about 180 chemists, Koch says, about three-fourths of whom hold Ph.D. degrees. But in the past, he adds, "we had difficulty finding new Ph.D.s with skills we specifically want. We needed a program where we could grow our own."
|Alexander (left) and Koch
To that end, Koch manages the CSTL Graduate Fellowship Program. The program, started in 1993, currently provides a salary of $32,000 with annual cost-of-living adjustments. It requires a one-year tenure at NIST prior to receiving full-time support--salary plus $5,000 tuition assistance--while pursuing a Ph.D. in any science or engineering area related to chemical science and technology.
So far, five students have joined the program. The requirements include that students be college juniors or seniors pursuing careers in any science or engineering area related to chemical science and technology and that they have a grade point average of 3.3 out of 4.0 or better.
Koch, who is a 25-year veteran of NIST, says he became convinced in his first year that he had found a good place to work, "but until you come here you don't know that. There are lots of advantages, but we have to get you through the front door first."
NIST offers many of the advantages of academic life--a sprawling and beautiful suburban campus and the ability to pursue many research interests over the course of a career without any, or at least few, of the hassles. CSTL scientists work in a new laboratory building with state-of-the-art research equipment at their disposal.
And contrary to stereotypes of slow government advancement, Koch says he can reward deserving employees with pay increases of as much as 10 to 15% each year with a minimum of paperwork. "I'm not stuck with steps," he says, referring to the graduated pay increases that must be followed at many government agencies.
In contrast to scientists such as NIST's Koch, government scientific work doesn't have to be long term. At the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) in Arlington, Va., midcareer scientists are recruited for four-year stints as program managers who can design, build, and direct R&D programs worth on average $20 million. The bottom line: The research must advance national security through the rapid development of cutting-edge technology.
"We are looking for people who are the best in their field [to work at] one of the most exciting places in the field," notes DARPA Deputy Director Jane A. Alexander. She compares DARPA to a venture-capital firm that is willing to risk significant amounts of money on people and projects that agency leadership believes can deliver technology breakthroughs to enhance national security.
There is an esprit de corps at DARPA that is rare for any workplace, Alexander says. Indeed, rather than some supersecret black hole for government largesse, the DARPA lobby is abuzz with people, many of them scientists, who are chatting about their work over coffee at the delicatessen or milling about during break time for a conference that seems as open to the curious wanderer as one that might be taking place at a university.
The challenge, Alexander says, is that the agency, by virtue of the high-risk, defense-related research it funds, most often looks to recruit industry scientists and engineers. And industry salaries can range as high as $200,000 per year--far above the salaries available on government pay scales, including DARPA's.
But DARPA has an advantage over other government agencies. Congress has granted the agency an exemption to federal personnel rules. Until 2005, DARPA Director Frank L. Fernandez can directly hire up to 40 employees, thus streamlining an otherwise months-long hiring process. Now the process is down to an average of 34 days after an offer has been made. In this and other respects, Alexander says, "we look a lot like an industry employer." In addition, the exemption allows DARPA to offer salaries up to $130,200 per year, "which can be competitive," she says.
DARPA's exemption appears to be working. A report on the so-called 1101 authority--named for the section of congressional legislation that authorized the program--finds eight employment acceptances from a total of 12 offers made in 1999. Family issues and a more challenging offer from industry defeated the other four offers, the report says.
Aside from streamlined hiring, the agency also offers qualified scientists a unique opportunity. "One of our senior managers calls this 'technology fantasy camp,' " Alexander says, and that's one of the main reasons scientists choose a stint as a DARPA program manager. In work that spans the range of scientific disciplines, including chemistry and chemical engineering, the agency seeks to create breakthrough technology that enhances national security and military capabilities. Examples include programs in materials science, sensor technology, biological warfare defense technologies, optoelectronics, and laser systems.
"But the most exciting part," Alexander says, "is that this is a place where you can get things done."
While DARPA considers a potential project's impact on national security first, Alexander says, that aspect of the work usually does not present a problem in terms of recruitment. Most people, she says, understand that developing such technology is an essential and laudable national goal.
The one requirement for program managers hired for a DARPA rotation under the 1101 authority is that they not carry any post-DARPA employment agreements--for example, returning to their previous employer. In many cases, Alexander says, such agreements could become an unfair advantage in future Defense Department subcontracting.
The impact of DARPA research, however, often extends beyond potential defense applications. Many consumer technologies--Alexander cites components of the cellular telephone, the Internet, and the computer mouse as examples--had their origins in DARPA-funded research.
At the Naval Research Laboratory (NRL) --which bills itself as the Navy's corporate laboratory--Coffey sees opportunity in the staffing requirements the lab now confronts. With a revamped personnel system and recent renovation of laboratory facilities, he hopes to bring scientific staff on board who will help NRL chart new research directions.
"The last opportunity for renewal on this scale occurred in the late 1960s," Coffey says. "The track record of NRL over the subsequent 30 years provides solid testimony that the laboratory took proper advantage of that opportunity."
NRL has indeed enjoyed a rich history of scientific achievement, including the 1985 Nobel Prize in Chemistry to Jerome Karle for his work in using electron and X-ray diffraction methods for understanding the structure of complicated organic molecules. Other areas of research have included nuclear science and cosmic rays, upper atmosphere research with the use of rockets, radio astronomy, surface chemistry, antisubmarine warfare, and electronics countermeasures.
The lab opened for business in 1923 after it was first proposed in discussions between Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels and inventor Thomas A. Edison. A bust of Edison greets visitors at the entrance to the lab.
Current research programs include such diverse topics as monitoring the solar corona and its impact on Earth's atmosphere, biomolecular engineering, artificial intelligence, remote sensing, oceanic climate, virtual reality, and superconductivity. According to a visitor brochure, "NRL has been involved in nearly every area of science and technology needed to help the Navy attain the advantage over a potential adversary."
NRL employs 101 chemists in a total workforce of about 1,550 people, Coffey says. That's down about 15% from a peak of 1,850 employees in 1992. The attrition rate at NRL is expected to grow as the "Sputnik generation" of scientists begins to retire. But it has been exacerbated by flat funding for the lab, which has held at about $800 million per year since 1992.
"We don't intend to let this decline continue," Coffey says. "We want to stabilize at about 1,500 to 1,550 employees." To reach that goal, Coffey estimates that NRL will need to begin hiring as many as 120 scientists per year, perhaps 12 to 14 of them chemists. Most of NRL's hires are recent Ph.D. recipients.
The lab's new personnel system, he continues, should help it overcome "cold hiring" difficulties. By compressing several pay grades into one continuum, "it allows the lab more flexibility" in terms of what compensation can be offered, generally $51,000 to $72,000 per year with a signing bonus of up to 25% of salary available.
"I think we're more competitive because of that," Coffey says. "Our objective is to be in the middle of the pack [in salaries], but we do want to be competitive."
Coffey also is looking to the future. He says emphatically that NRL must become more proactive in its recruitment efforts. "We have not been as aggressive in hiring as we should have been," he says. To change that, Coffey wants to strengthen the lab's ties with undergraduate institutions so that future scientists become aware of the lab and its opportunities for scientists at a much earlier stage.
"We really need to get people early in their careers, support them, and let them become the scientists and engineers who run the place," he says. "If you look at our senior staff, you will find that most of them 'grew up' here."
Although the work of NRL will not appeal to every scientist, Coffey can articulate clear reasons why a scientist would want to choose NRL as a place to spend a research career. For one, the work offers unique scientific challenges in its mission to support the Navy's military readiness, he notes. NRL scientists also have a good measure of intellectual freedom, he says.
In addition, scientists at the lab are well recognized in a range of disciplines. And with the recent renova-tion, Coffey adds, all researchers have access to first-rate facilities and instrumentation.
National security also is an issue for employment at NRL. As a laboratory that supports military readiness, NRL scientists must be cleared at the "secret" level, which Coffey says amounts to little more than a background check to ensure that "you're not a felon or that you're not involved in a current criminal investigation."
"There have been concerns that we could get swept up in some of the backlash of the Wen Ho Lee situation," Coffey says, referring to the DOE physicist who was suspected of espionage but who later pleaded guilty only to mishandling secret information. But so far, that has not happened, he notes. There is a level of security clearance where a person does have to submit to a polygraph examination, Coffey says, "but it is not an automatic requirement."
There are a range of programs available at all Department of Energy laboratories to bring in scientists, usually at the postdoctoral level, Dresselhaus says. In all, DOE employs nearly 4,000 Ph.D. scientists--about one-third of them chemists--at its various facilities around the country.
The human resource staff at the various laboratories, some of them at universities that act as contractors for the agency, are responsible for designing and promoting recruiting programs that will bring on board the needed scientific staff. "To some degree, it is the situation of a lab" that determines its precise needs in terms of scientific and technical staff, she says.
Because of the changing nature of much of DOE's research--it currently is shifting from weapons-related research to waste management--chemists who are interested in actinide chemistry are in particular demand at the moment. It is a field that until recently has been in some decline, but "the labs are the place where actinide chemistry is done," Dresselhaus says.
In fact, she notes that five DOE national laboratories are of particular interest to chemists: Argonne National Laboratory, Brookhaven National Laboratory, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, and Pacific Northwest National Laboratory.
In addition to having access to world-class facilities, such as the Advanced Light Source facility at Lawrence Berkeley, chemists increasingly have the opportunity to work in clusters in such emerging fields as nanotechnology and catalysis. "The bottom line is, there's a lot of chemistry we support," Dresselhaus says.
Achieving a diverse workforce
Like other government R&D managers who spoke with C&EN for this story, Dresselhaus emphasizes that hiring a diverse workforce--each manager has specific numeric goals for hiring women and minorities--is a centerpiece of agency recruitment programs. In fact, several recent studies of the nation's science and technology workforce show that hiring and promoting women and minorities is a necessity if both government and private-sector scientific workforce needs are going to be met.
Recently at DOE, chemist Lura J. Powell was named director of Pacific Northwest National Laboratory . And at the starting gate for the recruitment of scientists, the department hired 53 students this year to take part in its technical summer intern program, 58% of whom were women.
Furthermore, DOE Secretary Bill Richardson announced this fall a series of actions to help the department attract, retain, and develop highly qualified candidates--particularly women--in science and technology fields:
Collaborating with NSF to use DOE's national lab facilities for hands-on science education and working to modify the teaching culture to bring real applications of science to life.
Working with the Office of Personnel Management and Congress to obtain the authority needed to cut bureaucracy and better compete for highly qualified technical personnel at DOE.
Undertaking aggressive outreach and recruitment while filling key technical positions, including 50 DOE R&D managers.
Establishing a formal training program for scientists and managers serving as volunteer mentors.
Creating a database system--or report card--for lab directors, contractors, and departmental managers to monitor the progress made in eliminating barriers to equal opportunity across the entire DOE complex.
"Sometimes the best job is in government and sometimes it is not," Dresselhaus says. As a solid-state physicist, she has advised the government in many capacities during her career. Currently, she is on leave from her position as a physics professor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology while she heads DOE's Office of Science. "Working for the government gives you the chance to manage very large projects. When you're doing a project at DOE," she continues, "it's one of a kind."
For young scientists, she says, such management opportunities and the scientific and technical challenges they involve--if they were even available--would be unheard of in industry. Because much of the research at DOE and other government agencies is at the frontiers of science, Dresselhaus says, "there is no project we start that we actually know how to do at the beginning."
A tale of two scientists
Federal government laboratories offer numerous programs designed to attract scientists into government service at various points in their careers. These programs provide the government with top-notch technical people and give researchers--primarily midcareer scientists--an opportunity to develop or use expertise. Here are two examples of scientists who are in such programs.
Paul Kolodzy Project manager, DARPA
Chemical engineer Paul Kolodzy went to work at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) in October 1999 as a program manager for new communications technologies, specifically for research to develop the next generation of cellular telephone technology. He is on a four-year "rotation" or assignment, with an option to work for the agency for an additional two years. Although the 41-year-old manager took a pay cut to join DARPA, he says he had reached a point in his industrial career where "I had too many ideas that I just couldn't execute. They were way too high risk" for his employer. But not for DARPA.
Using the agency's so-called 1101 personnel hiring exemption, DARPA managers can quickly hire people like Kolodzy and then bankroll their cutting-edge research projects expected to directly enhance national security. In fact, he was one of the first hires the agency made with its new authority.
Rapid-fire fashion, Kolodzy lists three reasons he enjoys working at DARPA: "It's for the good of the country, the opportunity for career growth, and the opportunity to get reenergized in technology."
As a chemical engineer--in fact, he says he's the only chemical engineer at DARPA--he finds himself immersed in multidisciplinary work. "The quality of the people is incredible. You really have peers that challenge you to discuss things." Every office, he says, meets every other week to discuss projects, get feedback, and receive advice on problem solving.
"DARPA is the only place that gives you the ability to shape a technology," Kolodzy continues. "I came here because I wanted to get something out of it." In his case, he says, he wants to build his management skills devel-oping a high-risk technology and take that experience back to the private sector when he is finished.
Kolodzy, like many DARPA program managers, will have his choice of jobs when he does return to industry. As he puts it, "Two things entice people: lots of money or rewarding experiences." He is the type of person who will probably always prefer the latter.
Sonya Roberson First graduate, NIST/CSTL Graduate Fellowship Program
Chemist Sonya Roberson, a National Institute of Standards & Technology staff scientist, was enrolled in a Ph.D. program when she started looking for a change. Unhappy with the direction of her research project, Roberson applied for the Chemical Science & Technology Laboratory (CSTL) Graduate Fellowship Program at NIST.
||Roberson [NIST photo © Robert Rathe]
"The CSTL fellowship offered me a chance for a fresh start and was a better option all the way around," Roberson says.
At NIST, she was provided with a salary that was much better than a graduate stipend, and she was able to finish her doctoral degree in chemistry at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. Roberson is the first graduate out of the five people who have joined the unique CSTL program since it began in 1993.
Roberson and her NIST colleagues are pioneers of a concept that might aid other government research labs in their quest for scientific talent. Few government fellowship programs attempt to reach scientists in the education pipeline below the doctoral level. But recent studies show that government and other employers are going to have to start reaching deeper into that pipeline and actively develop the talents of people--especially women and minorities--if they are going to meet current and future scientific staffing needs.
Hard work and determination and the willingness to take a chance brought Roberson to NIST, where she found a mentor. In turn, NIST staff helped sell the idea to Georgetown University, where she was accepted as a doctoral student in chemistry. She met the same academic requirements as other Ph.D. students in the Georgetown program and participated in the research project of a university adviser. In addition, she worked as a teaching assistant and she held group meetings for her fellow students about her work at NIST. Like most pioneers, Roberson went the extra mile.
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