Training Reforms Could Boost Productivity

someone looking through binoculars

Ever since four scientific superstars—Bruce Alberts, former president of the National Academy of Sciences and former editor-in-chief of Science; Marc W. Kirschner, founding chair of the Department of Systems Biology at Harvard Medical School; Shirley Tilghman, former president of Princeton University; and Harold Varmus, Nobel laureate and current director of the National Cancer Institute—urgently called for major reforms to the presently “unsustainable” U.S. academic research system in a high-profile article published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on 14 April, a few observers have expressed concern that the suggested changes would hurt scientific productivity. (Read our analysis of the proposals, here.) Prominent among the proposed reforms, after all, are cuts in the numbers of graduate students and postdocs working in labs, and pay hikes for postdocs. That could reduce the workforce available for doing academic research while also making it more expensive, critics charge.

Tilghman, however, thinks the changes proposed in the article—they also proposed utilizing more staff scientists in academic labs—might even have the opposite effect. “I don’t think you can conclude from this … that labs are going to be less productive,” she says in an interview with Genetic Engineering & Biotechnology News (GEN). “It is a myth that graduate students are amazingly productive. No convincing study has been conducted, but it is my experience that it takes several years before a new graduate student is really producing results. With fewer inexperienced workers in the lab, it is very possible that the average productivity per person will actually increase.”

Productivity is important, but it isn’t everything. Equity matters, too. Postdocs, for example, should receive wages closer to their real value. Just how underpaid are they? “I have estimated that their hourly rate is just short of $16 an hour,” says labor force expert Paula Stephan of Georgia State University in Atlanta, quoted in the GEN article. That makes them cheaper than graduate students, for whom tuition must be paid from research grants. Stephan estimates that staff scientists doing the same work would cost at least twice as much as postdocs do.

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