Scientists, like all workers, have seen their jobs transformed by neoliberalism. The academic scientific workforce is increasingly employed in low-paying, temporary jobs with increased competition for the few coveted permanent tenure-track jobs. One of the most dramatic symptoms of this neoliberal restructuring of the scientific workforce is the expansion of graduate students and postdoctoral scholars who form a cheap reservoir of highly-skilled, exploitable labor. Postdoctoral scholarships, started as temporary positions designed to help recent Ph.D gain additional skills before starting a permanent academic job, provide a reserve army of highly-trained, low-paid scientific workers . This process has been fueled by a dramatic increase in the number of Ph.Ds during this same period. As Shirley Tilghman, the former president of Princeton, succinctly stated “ there is a tremendous bias in favor of the cheap labor that graduate students and postdocs represent.” This exploitation is doubly felt by foreign postdocs whose need for visas often traps them into poor working conditions and long hours. Whereas a Ph.D was a guarantee for a stable academic career, now it is common to have scientist occupy poorly paid positions well into middle age.
There has also been a dramatic increase in the number of “soft money” positions in academia (especially Medical Schools), positions where salaries and expenses come from resources outside the hiring institute or university (largely the federal government). Scientists in soft-money positions must continuously raise funds at the expense of everything else. If they cannot secure funding, the university or institute can simply terminate these employment contracts. Thus, all risk is born by the employee and none by the institute. Paula Stephas has shown that the rise of soft-money positions also creates incentives for universities to take on increased debt to construct new buildings and make increasingly speculative investments. Mirroring the larger economy, this creates a deeply unequal scientific workforce where few highly-compensated “superstar scientist-managers” co-exists with a large low-paid, highly exploited workforce
Beyond academia, STEM workers often have highly-specialized skills that are crucial to profit-making in some of the most dynamic sectors of the modern economy from Tech to Pharma. As such, they are often in a much better position than most of the workforce to bargain for wages and benefits. For this reason, there is a vested interest in industry of increasing the potential labor pool and weakening the position of workers. One strategy employed by business to counteract this is to loudly proclaim that there is a shortage of skilled STEM workers. Yet, as the Center for Economy and Policy Research (CEPR) “when employers complain about not being able to find workers, what they really mean is that they can’t find workers who meet their requirements at the wage they are willing to offer.” In fact, Tech companies have done everything in their power to weaken the bargaining position of workers. They have illegally colluded with each other to avoid hiring each other’s employees and widely employ non-compete clauses. Tech companies commonly hire large number of precarious STEM workers on temporary H1-B1 visas ( by some estimates this is as large as 12-13% of the tech workforce) and pay these workers much less than the prevailing wage for identical work.