Taken for Granted: Creating Opportunities

CREDIT: Kelly Krause, AAAS

In this tough economy, finding a path to a stable scientific career can be a real challenge. But here's a thought: Why don't universities do more to help? University-level efforts generally aim at training more scientists, even though lots of those already trained are facing hard times. Such training programs just exacerbate the employment problem. So why not do something for those who are already trained?

One program in our current pair transforms the conventional postdoctoral appointment into a vehicle for overcoming a major obstacle to launching an independent research career. The other stands the absurd narrative that "Americans can't compete" on its head by seeking to attract investment from abroad, including Asia, in order to boost science employment here at home.

Happily, we've heard about two universities that have developed programs that try to do just that. Both cleverly adapt existing resources to the career needs of scientifically trained people. Here's hoping that many other such efforts exist across the country and that these two can inspire other institutions to come up with their own creative career-enhancing programs. (If your institution has such a program, we'd like to hear about it so that we can spread the word.)

One program in our current pair transforms the conventional postdoctoral appointment into a vehicle for overcoming a major obstacle to launching an independent research career. The other stands the absurd narrative that "Americans can't compete" on its head by seeking to attract investment from abroad, including Asia, in order to boost science employment here at home. It does so by highlighting the unique advantages that American workers offer.

Opportunity in Oregon

The Institutional Postdoctoral Research Associate program at the College of Oceanic and Atmospheric Sciences (COAS) of Oregon State University, Corvallis, now entering its second year, awards a couple of highly competitive positions each year. Unlike routine postdoc jobs, which claim to offer serious training but whose main purpose is to provide labor for faculty members' grants, this one actually delivers career-changing opportunities. Instead of focusing on producing data for the supervisor, it puts the "major emphasis" on the postdoc's "potential for independent, creative research," the program's Web site says. Indeed, Eric Skyllingstad, a COAS professor of atmospheric sciences, says in an interview with Science Careers that the position has a real potential to "change into a research or tenure-track faculty" job.

Eric Skyllingstad (CREDIT: Courtesy, Oregon State University)

Supported by university funds, each 3-year appointment provides a full salary during the first year, 75% salary during the second year, and 50% salary during the third year. The remainder of the postdoc's income should ideally come from "external support generated by the candidate in collaboration with their faculty mentors," the announcement continues. So these institutional postdocs are expected to start applying for grant funding, either as co-principal investigators in conjunction with their faculty mentors or as independent PIs, as soon as they arrive at COAS. Opportunities for collaboration exist, Skyllingstad explains, because COAS faculty members typically work on several proposals at any one time and "we have a lot of collaborative proposals. Almost everyone [on the faculty] is a co-PI," Skyllingstad says.

"The idea of this postdoc was to provide some time and fairly close supervision with a mentor," during which postdocs can learn the make-or-break skill of landing grants, he says. Becoming a sole PI on a very early try is unlikely, he believes, but succeeding as co-PI with a mentor can give the postdoc a real leg up on future funding applications.

"The flip side of it is we don't expect everyone to be successful," Skyllingstad continues. The program provides both postdocs and COAS with a relatively low-risk way to find out, " 'Can you do this? Do you like it?' Without it coming down to 'You're here for 4 years, and, I'm sorry, we're not going to give you tenure.' Then, it's essentially on your record." Should the postdoc realize after a year or two that "it's not working, there really hasn't been anything lost" -- no blot on the resumé, Skyllingstad says. But should proposals succeed and lead to attractive offers from other institutions, co-PI postdocs, who would usually have done the major work on the proposals, "could take the grant with them if they leave."

But they may not leave. From the institution's viewpoint, the program affords a way of evaluating young scientists' suitability for its faculty without the high-stakes risk of dedicated lab space and 4 or 5 years of start-up costs for an untried new assistant professor. From the young scientist's point of view, it returns the postdoc appointment to its original purpose: not doing professors' bench work, but getting mentoring and experience that can launch them on academic careers.

Job creation in New Jersey

The program at the Center for Management Development (CMD) at Rutgers University, New Brunswick, in New Jersey has a different goal: "stimulating the growth and retention of good jobs in the U.S.," says David Finegold, dean of the university's School of Management and Labor Relations. Central New Jersey, long the home, Finegold says, of one of the world's largest concentrations of companies "across all of the life sciences, pharma, medical devices, and biotech," has seen pharmaceutical-industry employment implode recently. In a period of months, "Pfizer bought Wyeth, Merck bought Schering-Plough, and then Roche bought the other 49% of Genentech that it didn't already own," Finegold says. "As a result of that, three corporate headquarters that were here in New Jersey have all closed. That is a lot of jobs, thousands of jobs ... all within ... the life sciences or general corporate competencies."

David Finegold (CREDIT: Courtesy, Rutgers University)

Creating new opportunities for "all of these very talented, experienced, displaced workers" requires "getting them thinking creatively about maybe making the move from big pharma, where they've spent their careers," to other opportunities, such as smaller, newer companies created by themselves, perhaps, or other displaced scientists. But creating those new companies requires motivating investors. "There is some venture capital in the state," Finegold continues, "but it's not huge compared to California or Boston." Surprisingly, "the big source of investment is coming from Asia."

Some companies in South Korea and other countries in Asia and elsewhere want to expand into world markets, Finegold says. To enter the large and lucrative American market, drug and device companies must master the long and complex process of winning U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approval. Foreign pharmaceutical companies, even those located in low-cost countries, "recognize that when it comes to drugs that can be worth a billion dollars a year, a lot more important than labor costs [is] how quickly can you get through FDA," Finegold says. If a company can save half a year in a process that often takes 10 years, "that's worth half a billion dollars." And that, Finegold notes, makes an American presence cost-effective and New Jersey's sophisticated and experienced workforce very attractive.

To help executives and entrepreneurs, both foreign and domestic, understand the intricacies of the American pharmaceutical scene, Rutgers offers the Mini-MBA: Global BioPharma Entrepreneurship, an intensive, short course "designed to help individuals and organizations navigate through the entire venture creation process, from idea generation to building viable BioPharma businesses," reads the university's Web site. It is one of a dozen "Mini-MBA" programs that CMD offers scientists, technical experts, and company executives working or hoping to work at the interface of business and technology.

Grant funding has allowed foreign entrepreneurs who can pay for their own travel expenses to attend the BioPharma Mini-MBA free of charge. Experienced New Jersey pharma professionals can attend using funds for displaced workers. "A lot of our top professors and industry practitioners come in and teach ... about how ... you build a successful bioscience business," Finegold says. "We have experts on the FDA, ... experts on intellectual property, ... panels where they meet professors from Rutgers who have new technology that they might commercialize, and people from the large pharma and the executive community." The goal is to attract foreign companies that want a U.S. presence to New Jersey and then match them "with the displaced workers from this sector who have skill sets that they want."

This approach was developed as one part of a much larger project called Bio-1, which combined the efforts of Rutgers and four other universities, plus community colleges, government agencies, and private companies, to "retain and expand the number of high-quality jobs in Central New Jersey's bioscience sector" and help New Jersey's "bioscience-based industries to remain competitive globally," states a project document. Initially funded by a now-expired U.S. Department of Labor grant, the project developed a range of resources and services that are now available through the Bio-1Stop New Jersey Science Talent Network.

Another result of the project was the Rutgers Master of Business and Science degree, which is now offered in 22 different fields across life and physical sciences as "part of a national movement of Professional Science Master's programs that brings together master's level study in science, engineering, and math with 'plus' courses in business and policy," according to the university Web site. The "three-campus comprehensive effort" combines resources and faculty from the Rutgers branches in New Brunswick-Piscataway, Newark, and Camden. The program enrolled 120 students in its first year, Finegold notes.

Connecting science to good jobs is, of course, an old tradition in the state that ranks third nationally in per capita income and fourth in the number of patents filed, behind only the much more populous states of California, Texas, and New York. As chronicled by the New Jersey Inventors Hall of Fame, the Garden State's thousands of job-creating innovations range from major technological advances such as electric light, read-only memory, the television camera, the first antibiotic effective against tuberculosis, and the liquid crystal to low-tech moneymakers such as bubble wrap, condensed soup, and Band-Aids.

"If we don't focus on innovation," Finegold says, "I don't think there's any chance we're going to succeed in the global economy. We're not going to be the low-cost location." Universities using their resources creatively can, as these examples show, help build the careers that bring innovation.

Beryl Lieff Benderly writes from Washington, D.C.

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