Society asks NIH to act now to lessen biomed scientist glut

The authors of a new report urging changes in training the U.S. biomedical workforce say they were motivated by a desire for “less talk, more action.” But their prescription for how the National Institutes of Health (NIH) should deal with a glut of young scientists demonstrates why the problem has been so hard to solve.

Report after report in recent years has decried the surfeit of young biomedical scientists stuck in seemingly endless years of training and chasing too few academic research positions. In hope of finding consensus, the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology (ASBMB) in Rockville, Maryland, combed through 267 recommendations in nine of these reports from a variety of groups that include the National Academy of Sciences and a group of postdocs. ASBMB pulled out eight suggestions common to most of the reports and presented them today in the Proceeding of the National Academy of Sciences.

A consensus already exists around many of those recommendations: NIH needs more stable funding and a larger budget, and researchers should face fewer administrative burdens. But provisions aimed specifically at young scientists are more problematic.

NIH is already trying to encourage students to consider careers outside of academia. But the report says the agency and institutions could do more. The authors also think salaries for new postdocs should rise from the current $42,840 to $50,000. NIH should limit support for graduate students to 5 years (and another 5 years for postdocs), the report says, and NIH and institutions should use fewer trainees and rely more on permanent staff scientists.

NIH should move many trainees now supported by research grants onto fellowships and training grants, which offer a better training experience, the report says. The report suggests aiming for a balance that existed in the late 1990s, when 37% of graduate students were on training grants or fellowships (compared with 32% now) and 17% of postdocs had this funding (compared with 9.6% now).

Asked about these recommendations, NIH Deputy Director for Extramural Research Sally Rockey urged caution. She says a large, 1-year raise for postdocs “could have adverse consequences for research grant budgets” coming so soon after a boost in 2014. Instead, she says, the agency is sticking to its practice of raising salaries gradually by 2% a year. 

As for the length of graduate training, she notes that NIH training grants and fellowships are already limited to 5 years. Curbing “graduate student support from any NIH source would have relatively little impact,” she says, because the average Ph.D. earns a degree in less than 7 years and the first year of support usually come from the institution. Instead, she says, NIH is focusing on the length of postdoctoral training, for example by limiting eligibility for its “kangaroo” K99/R00 awards, which combine training and an independent research grant, to applicants with no more than 4 years of postdoctoral training.

Rockey says that shifting the 60,000 graduate students and postdocs now on research grants to training grants “would not be practical or feasible, at least in the short term.” Limiting the duration of training on these grants would also be “difficult” because of differences in scientific fields and institutions, she says. Equity is another issue, she says: Some 25% of graduate students and 50% of postdocs would be shut out from the training awards because they are not U.S. citizens or permanent residents.

Authors of the ASBMB report say that they recognize some of their recommendations would upset portions of the scientific community. For example, most training grants go to large institutions; smaller schools rely on research grants to support trainees and would be hurt if those positions were curtailed, ASBMB’s Chris Pickett says. And paying postdocs more could force principal investigators to lay people off and lower productivity.

NIH may be able to smooth ruffled feathers by coordinating its actions on several fronts, say Pickett and other authors, who include the University of Pittsburgh in Pennsylvania’s Jeremy Berg, a former director of NIH’s general medical sciences institute. For example, having NIH raise postdoc salaries while simultaneously creating incentives to hire staff scientists could keep labs running and give laid off postdocs a career alternative. And NIH could keep an eye on small schools to make sure they aren’t harmed by a policy that limited trainees on research grants, Pickett says.

The ASBMB hopes to hold a meeting early next winter with the authors of some of the reports and leaders from industry and patient groups. The goal is to “hammer out a defined advocacy plan,” Pickett says. A consensus on how to process, he says, will “give NIH the OK to move forward.”