Despite Dire Budget Outlook, Panel Tells NIH to Train More Scientists

The world is mired in a recession, U.S. budgets for biomedical research are stagnant and could slide, and senior faculty are sticking around campus instead of retiring. But despite the grim employment picture for would-be academic researchers, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) should maintain or even increase the number of graduate students and postdocs it supports.

That's the conclusion of a new report from the National Research Council (NRC) that reviewed NIH's main training program, the National Research Service Award (NRSA), which supports about 20% of the more than 60,000 U.S. grad students and postdocs in biomedical research. (The rest are funded mainly through NIH's R01 research grants, but the NRSA program sets standards for those positions.) It's the 13th such report, in line with a congressional request when it created the NRSA program in 1973 that NRC review the program every few years.

The latest report notes that the outlook for academic posts hasn't improved since the crunch first hit in the late 1990s. "The previously tight job situation for postdocs looking for teaching or research academic positions is likely getting worse," concludes the report, released just before Christmas. But it points to a silver lining that justifies the current size of the program. The system has been "incredibly successful" in providing "the dynamism, the creativity, and the sheer numbers that drive the biomedical research endeavor," the report says, while also pushing trainees to "be creative" and find alternative careers in fields such as industry, law, and secondary education.

Young scientists "are looking at other positions from the get-go," says committee chair Roger Chalkley of the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine in Nashville. He told ScienceInsider that he disagrees with past suggestions that there is a "glut" of postdocs. "I don't like the use of the word glut," he says. He stresses, however, that "NIH needs to be creative in providing [postdocs] with support to develop diverse careers."

The report predicts "substantial growth" in opportunities for biomedical scientists, although the two different models it used to assess projected demand didn't agree. At the same time, the committee worried that the flow of foreign postdocs from China, India, and other countries—now more than 50% of the postdoc workforce—"might well dry up." If that happens, the report warns, the effects on U.S. research "could be profound."

So what should NIH do? The report recommends keeping the number of NRSA positions for basic biomedical research at 2008 levels or higher. And it says a cut "would also be appropriate" if NIH's extramural research budget goes down.

Other key recommendations:

  • NIH should increase starting stipends for postdocs to $45,000 (they are now $37,740) and then keep pace with cost of living and give comparable raises to graduate students;
  • NIH should expand its Medical Scientist Training Program, which introduces physicians to research, by at least 20%;
  • The number of NRSA traineeships in behavioral sciences, which have dropped by about 30% since 2004, should return to that level;
  • NIH should consider raising the overhead rate on training grants from 8% to the level now paid on research grants, now about 40% to 50%. This would costs more than $500 million.

Chalkley points out that the overall supply of trainees is determined not by the size of the NRSA program but by NIH's extramural research budget. But Howard Garrison of the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology (FASEB) in Bethesda, Maryland, (who notes that he worked on earlier reports as an NRC staffer) says that some of the recommendations "will incrementally help to adjust the system."

For example, Garrison says, if NIH follows through on raising stipends, that could push up salaries for trainees on R01 grants and thereby nudge principal investigators to hire fewer trainees and rely more on staff scientists and technicians. On the other hand, Garrison says FASEB opposes an increase in indirect cost rates because the money would have to come out of research programs.

The report may not be the last word on the issue. Last month, NIH Director Francis Collins asked Princeton University President Shirley Tilghman, a member of Collins's advisory council, to head another look at future biomedical workforce needs. Tilghman chaired a 1998 NRC report that urged universities to train fewer graduate students in life sciences. But the report appeared at the start of NIH's 5-year budget doubling, and its advice was mostly ignored.