Through my own career transition from academic research into science policy, I have realized the importance of universities supporting the next generation of scientists. Over the years, I have written several articles on the needs of early-career scientists during training, professional development and career progression both within and outside academe. In this essay, I want to emphasize the need for the next generation to get involved in shaping the future of science, technology, engineering and mathematics through policy change.
Early-career scientists should have a say in shaping the policies that can help them in the short term as well as benefit the scientific system in the long term. I have always advocated for their voices to be heard and their contributions to be included in policy making, and I want to focus on that idea in this essay.
The future of our country is in the hands of the next generation. Therefore, the involvement of students, postdocs, policy fellows and early-career scholars in shaping education, training and the job market in ways that are equitable and create opportunities for all is imperative for developing a better future for our nation.
In order to empower the next generation to positively influence the future of STEM education and workforce development, several avenues exist. Due to the importance of changing policies in these spaces both by and for early-career scientists, a holistic approach to policy making that can benefit tomorrow’s innovators is necessary.
The effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on the next generation of scientists and their future in STEM have been widely written about. Some of the negative impacts include reduced access to education and jobs that may have been available before the pandemic, as well as an increase in mental health issues and feelings of isolation among a large portion of this country’s early-career STEM professionals.
However, one could argue that the pandemic has also had a few positive outcomes on education and labor, including a shift to virtual learning, which can open avenues for collaboration that may not have existed before. This environment has likely also encouraged a number of employers to offer remote instead of in-person positions, or to shift toward a hybrid work model.
At the same time, given the dependence on technology for scientific education, training and jobs, the pandemic has probably only increased the digital divide. Young scientists from certain countries or particular regions of the world are still unable to take advantage of this technology due to lack of access to the internet, a working computer or other necessary resources that can facilitate their studies and work from home.
In short, due to the pandemic, STEM education and workforce structures have globally changed in a number of ways—both good and bad—that have very likely altered the landscape of this space permanently. In a practical sense, these changes may ultimately lead those of us working in the higher education industry to help broaden avenues for young people into the STEM workforce by shifting away from traditional pathways.
We can encourage K-12 students to enter higher education as a stepping-stone into the STEM workforce. We can also help enhance career and technical education for students in community colleges, supporting their upskilling so that they can enter the STEM workforce. Indeed, we need to broaden the skill sets of students at all levels as they enter the new normal for STEM training and work environment.
Policy changes are also required to support the STEM education and workforce landscape of the future, and we must find or build avenues for these changes to be brought to light. One such avenue is through publishing scholarly work on policies related to this topic.
Recently, the Journal of Science Policy & Governance, for which I am CEO and managing publisher, produced a special issue in partnership with Sigma Xi, the Scientific Research Honor Society. The special issue invited students, postdocs, policy fellows, early-career researchers and young professionals from around the world to submit op-eds, policy analyses and other articles that addressed topics at the intersection of science and policy and which were focused specifically on education and the labor market. We wanted to hear from them about what’s needed to create bold, innovative, timely and equitable policies for re-envisioning STEM education and workforce development for the post–COVID-19 era.
The articles they wrote focused on issues such as civic science, graduate education reform, inclusion of individuals with disabilities in STEM education and careers, and empowerment of STEM workers in the workforce. I invite you to read the special issue to learn what the next generation envisions in terms of problems and solutions to important policy questions that can redesign the landscape of STEM education and workforce development in the future.
I hope this is the start of a discussion in which the next generation of scientists are actively engaged in conversations that shape their own future in STEM, and that we continue to follow and engage with their innovative ideas for effective, long-term policy change in these spaces. And to bring this back full circle, I also hope that universities where many young scientists study and work will continue to encourage the next generation to develop and share such ideas for the betterment of our society as a whole.