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Summit proposes steps toward biomedical workforce sustainability

WASHINGTON, D.C.—The idea that “hypercompetition” and lack of opportunity for aspiring scientists have made the biomedical research enterprise “unsustainable” has gained increasing acceptance since the publication of an influential 2014 article. Last week, two of that article’s authors—former Science Editor-in-Chief Bruce Alberts and former Princeton University President Shirley Tilghman—joined 25 other prominent figures from academe, the National Institutes of Health (NIH), scholarly organizations, industry, and disease advocacy groups here to work on initiatives to help improve the situation. Attention focused on funding, postdocs, staff scientists, and training for nonacademic careers.

Sponsored by the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology (ASBMB), the summit followed on a December 2015 Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences article by five ASBMB members who participated in the meeting. In that article, titled “Toward a sustainable biomedical research enterprise: Finding consensus and implementing recommendations,” the authors examined a number of recent reports on the state of the biomedical enterprise and distilled their recommendations into a list of what they believe constitute “consensus” proposals. Some of these include higher and more predictable federal research funding, shorter graduate and postdoc training periods, greater use of staff scientists, and better career training for students and postdocs.

In preparation for the summit, the participants, who represent a wide range of expertise, divided into working groups focusing on workforce structure, training, and research funding. These groups collaborated for several months via Internet and telephone to discuss their ideas and decide on proposed action items that they believe can be feasibly undertaken in the near future. Now that the summit has ended, participants plan to produce a document giving “a detailed advocacy platform that the scientific community can use to initiate real change,” in the words of an ASBMB statement. That report will presumably present specific plans and proposals for moving toward the stated goals.

Working for change

A major goal of the “Optimizing the Workforce” working group is to increase the use of staff scientists, thereby allowing less dependence on graduate students and postdocs, but they note that there is some resistance to this approach. At the summit, participants considered a wide range of issues related to encouraging principal investigators (PIs) and institutions to accept this change. Major challenges include convincing lab chiefs that higher paid staff scientists are as good an investment of scarce grant dollars as lower paid postdocs or graduate students. Data on staff scientists’ productivity and effectiveness are, however, inadequate at present, and participants agreed that gathering this information is essential to any campaign of persuasion.

Another important obstacle is an academic culture that does not presently value or respect a career that places a scientist in a secondary position within a lab. One participant, for example, wondered aloud why any researcher would want a staff scientist position, which does not permit full research independence. But postdoc and Future of Research activist Gary McDowell responded that, to the contrary, the question for many postdocs in today’s highly competitive, relentless atmosphere is, “Who wants to be a PI?” Staff scientists enjoy much better work-life balance, making theirs an “attractive job” for many young people, he believes. Participants agreed that culture change is needed to build respect for staff scientists within academe. Especially helpful to that process, they noted, would be developing best practices to give staff scientists job security and recognition, in addition to acquiring better data about staff scientists’ effectiveness and productivity within the lab.

Participants agreed that culture change is needed to build respect for staff scientists within academe.

Participants also noted that staff scientists are much more common at research institutes in other countries, such as Germany’s Max Planck Institutes, where grants to institutions rather than to individual investigators are a common funding mechanism. One widespread and highly successful role of staff scientists in Europe, and also in some places in the United States, participants noted, is managing core facilities used by many labs. In other cases, European staff scientists are involved in the work of several different labs at the same. Substantially increasing the use of staff scientists in this country will thus require changes in funding and administrative practices as well as culture change.

Concerning postdocs, the working group had two goals: unifying the dozens of titles currently in use for postdoctoral researchers into a single, widely accepted designation, and encouraging a 5-year limit for postdoc appointments. Accomplishing the former would aid in gathering data about postdocs, facilitate more uniform treatment, and make it easier to enforce the time limit. For example, postdocs at NIH are already limited to 5 years, but they can spend another 3 years working as “research fellows,” which are defined as “temporary full-time employee[s].” But, as illustrated by the experience at the University of California, for example, this task, which the 10-campus system undertook in order to provide all postdocs with uniform health insurance and other benefits, can be monumentally complicated and requires strong support from university administrative personnel. 

The “Enhancing Training” working group focused on methods to better prepare graduate students and postdocs for the broad range of nonacademic careers open to Ph.D. scientists. The group emphasized that academic culture must change to recognize the need for effective career development opportunities for graduate students and postdocs and that participating in these activities is a valid, even necessary, way for trainees to spend their time. They also worked on developing a plan for a proposed online hub or center that would collect and disseminate information and resources, including a speakers bureau of scientists in nonacademic careers, to help institutions provide better career development services. The “Research Funding” working group focused on defining a sustainable funding level and aligning the academic community with industry and patient advocacy groups in support of increased and stable funding.

Action for the future

The action items approved at the meeting do appear to constitute a pioneering effort to bring substantive change to the culture and practice of academic science. The proposed steps, however, are rather modest and incremental. Still, given the widespread resistance to reform among senior academics who benefit from the current system, the gradual approach that summit participants embraced, which emphasizes gathering and disseminating data to convince the skeptical that change is necessary and practical, may well be the most feasible means for actually getting something done. The participants, especially some who have been fighting this fight for decades, deserve credit for their patience and persistence in what appears likely to be a long campaign.

Some or all of these cautious and incremental suggestions may actually be doable, though it is unclear at present exactly who would bring them to fruition. After many reports identifying problems, even small steps forward would be welcome progress. But, although each of the summit’s goals is worthy in itself, they only treat symptoms, without directly attacking the underlying cause of the problem. That, as numerous experts and reports have argued, is the “pyramid” system of depending on the cheap labor of temporary trainees financed by professors’ grants to do the work of funded research. This system has for decades produced many more Ph.D.s than the academic labor market can absorb.

One obvious solution—graduating fewer Ph.D.s—of course threatens the system undergirding thousands of institutions and tens of thousands of careers. Any proposal to cut graduate enrollment, a summit participant told me, was rejected as too controversial for the current project, which focuses on undertaking goals small and unthreatening enough to be possibly attainable in the near future. 

So the good news is that a group of prominent individuals is at least trying to bring change rather than merely talking about it. The present situation, as one participant noted, took generations to develop. “We’ve been busy and lazy, and we’ve allowed this to happen,” said Gregory Petsko of Weill Cornell Medical College in New York City. Unwinding the current mess could therefore take a long time, too, if it is in fact possible. For now, whether and to what extent the current effort succeeds, and what additional steps follow, remains to be seen.

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