Who Will Do Science in the 21st Century and Where and How Will They Do It?


The issue of who will do science in the future, and in particular biomedical science, is one that has concerned the National Institutes of Health (NIH) for many years. It led, first of all, to the development of a broad array of research training programs in biomedical areas in the last half of the 20th century. In recent years, one concern that has been raised is whether the number of new trainees in biomedical research is sufficient, or if it is more than the employment market can support. The National Academies of Sciences/Institute of Medicine have been charged by the Congress of the United States to make this assessment every few years and have generally upheld the status quo in regard to the appropriate research labor needs.

However, over the past 10 years, new concerns have been raised about the role of postdoctoral fellows, whether in formal training programs or, more often, as "research associates" supported by NIH research grants. Concerns include the extended length of the postdoctoral period; the level of stipends or salaries and benefits paid; whether postdocs will be able to succeed on the academic track, or whether other career options--full-time teaching, science writing, science administration and peer review, science policy, industry--are viable and ought to be considered. What is clear is that opting for a traditional academic career delays the start of independent research productivity to about 37 years of age or more, leading to ambiguity in the term "young scientist."

In October 2003, NIH held a conference on training and opportunities for postdocs in the 21st century. There was a consensus that the responsibilities for postdoctoral training were shared by several parties: the postdoctoral mentor/adviser, the sponsoring academic institution, and the individual postdoctoral fellow. In addition, funding agencies also have responsibilities. Representatives of all these entities actively participated in the conference. Postdoctoral fellows, represented by the organizing members of the National Postdoctoral Association (NPA), played a prominent role, along with institutional officials, mentors, representatives of a number of private and public funding agencies, and representatives of the major federal science agencies (e.g., NIH, NSF).

A number of suggestions were presented, of which the most important are these:

  • Mentoring of postdocs should be a formal requirement for receipt of federal funds in support of research, and mentoring plans should be submitted as part of the application for such funds. A reward system for good mentors should be established.

  • A uniform benefits package should be made available to all postdocs, regardless of appointment mechanism.

  • A data-collection system regarding training and career pathways for postdoctoral fellows should be established to allow funding agencies and others to assess the training received by such fellows; these data should cover employee postdocs on research grants as well as recipients of postdoctoral fellowships.

  • Reasonable and appropriate stipend levels must be paid and should be linked to the length of time beyond the doctoral degree.

  • The length of postdoctoral training should be limited, probably to no more than 5 years.

  • Portable or transitional grant awards to promising fellows should be considered as a means of facilitating their advancement into independent positions at academic institutions.

  • One-time grants to encourage the establishment of postdoctoral offices at academic institutions; these offices would be expected to establish clear and uniform standards and policies for postdoctoral training.

All these suggestions are under consideration by the senior staff of NIH and the Advisory Committee to the director of NIH.

In addition, Elias Zerhouni, director of NIH, has, on a number of occasions, indicated his commitment to reducing the age at which investigators become independent, as well as his support for young scientists to move into nontraditional careers that bring physics, chemistry, mathematics, and the computing sciences to bear on problems in the life sciences, biology, and medicine.

As we all continue to explore who will do science in the future, and where and how it will be done, NIH will join the National Academies of Science and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute to explore, in greater depth, the transition of young investigators to research independence in an era when the old definition of independence may not fit everyone, and the academic route to a scientific career--namely, the orderly progression from advanced degree to postdoctoral training to tenure-track to tenure to full faculty member--may no longer be the standard. In the future, a variety of ways by which young scientists may assert their independence may prevail. It is our expectation that this variation will contribute to and enhance the totality of progress in improving the health and well-being of humankind.

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