Following up on a call for reform

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Credit: G. Grullón/Science

In April 2014, four leaders of the scientific establishment issued a clarion call in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) about the current plight of early-career scientists and its likely impact on the future of research. 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, called for “rescuing” the nation’s “unsustainable” biomedical research system “from its systemic flaws.”

In December, Tilghman told Science Careers that the foursome hoped “to stimulate as much serious, roll-up-your-sleeves, what-are-the-right-solutions thinking as we can within the community.” On 17 February, in a new PNAS essay, they report their early efforts in that direction. In August, for example, “30 relatively senior” scientific figures spent 2 days at a meeting organized by the four, assessing “the validity of the case that we made in our article … and the prospects for convening a much larger and more inclusive meeting to produce a concerted plan for remedial actions.”

The not-so-good news is that the foursome’s hope for prompt remedial action was overly optimistic.

The good news: Pretty much everybody at that meeting agreed about the glutted market for young scientists, the lengthy training for academic jobs (largely futile for the majority who won’t get them), hypercompetition for grant funding, and widespread reluctance to undertake risky research. “It was generally conceded that without some concerted action, this problem will only get worse,” the authors write.

The not-so-good news is that the foursome’s hope for prompt remedial action was overly optimistic. “[T]he continued need to advocate for increased federal funding of research” got much support, even though “it was recognized that increased funding would not solve the underlying structural problems.” Those problems, one participant noted, exist because “the current ecosystem was designed at a time when the biomedical sciences were consistently expanding, and it now must adjust to a condition closer to steady state.” True to scientific tradition, participants called for more research.

“[T]he time is not yet right for the large ‘Asilomar-type’ meeting” on the structural issues “that we originally proposed,” the authors conclude. But, in keeping with Tilghman’s December statement to Science Careers that she is “absolutely unwilling” to “continue [talking] about this and not really start getting policy changes,” the article outlines a series of steps they intend to take “to collect essential data, develop policy recommendations, and create the momentum needed for change.” These include a series of “focused meetings” in various parts of the country for a wide range of stakeholders in the research enterprise, similar to the citywide, postdoc-organized Future of Research conference held in Boston in October 2014. Also planned are a “high-level meeting with members of the American Association of Universities” and other efforts to “encourage … university deans, provosts, and presidents to contribute to solutions, whether by modifying training programs, restricting growth and expenses, or attempting to reshape the research environment in which their faculty and trainees work.”

The four have constituted themselves as an “oversight group” for the effort and are recruiting other members with “a strong interest in working on remedies.” A major goal of the group will be to create a website to organize “relevant data and outcomes of relevant workshops and experiments.” These combined efforts “aim to make sustained progress against the various logistical, administrative, and conceptual logjams that have thus far prevented the implementation of effective solutions to the major problems that many have clearly identified.”

Their energy and clout thus continue to create buzz around the issue, but dislodging the deeply vested interests that benefit from and support the current system will likely take massive, sustained exertion over years. There’s no evidence that it’s happening yet.

While their elders hold conferences and collect data, young people may already be voting with their feet: What economists call “market signals” from the dismal academic labor market may be reaching students. A study published 17 February in Frontiers in Psychology finds that, as of the 1990s, “The bachelor’s to Ph.D. STEM [science, technology, engineering, and mathematics] pipeline no longer leaks more women than men.” This is happening, write authors David Miller of Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, and Jonathan Wai of Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, not because the percentage of women college graduates who persist to the Ph.D. has risen to match the rate for men but because the men’s formerly much higher rate has fallen to match that of the women. Indeed, “women’s representation at the Ph.D. level has been recently declining for the first time in over 40 years.”

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