A new report examines ways to help more young researchers, such as these displaying posters at a Society for Neuroscience meeting in 2016, forge careers in biomedical science.

Society for Neuroscience

Panel calls for a postdoc tax and other measures to help biomedical scientists find jobs

The U.S. Congress, federal funding agencies, universities, and other research institutions must take significant steps, such as a postdoc “tax” and a hard cap on how long postdocs can be funded by a lab head, to better usher young biomedical scientists into viable careers, a committee from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) concluded in a report released today. The biomedical workforce recommendations, which include a congressionally mandated council that would help implement the changes, could require more than $1 billion, according to the panel's chairman, Ronald Daniels, president of Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland. 

“We owe the young scientists who are coming into the system, from the moment they start in a Ph.D. program until they finally get to the point that they’re in faculty positions … a responsibility to give them clear information and good support in making effective, sound decisions that comport with their abilities and career aspirations,” Daniels said at a briefing on the report.

Motivating the new report is the growing mismatch between many biomedical scientists’ aspirations and the career prospects available to them. Despite efforts to promote research careers in industry, government, and the nonprofit sector, an independent academic research career remains the top goal for many budding biologists. Yet only about 18% of people trained in the United States with a Ph.D. in biomedical sciences is employed in a tenured or tenure-track position 6 to 10 years after completing their degree, according to data newly released in the report.

In many ways, the new report addresses well-known challenges and rehashes some past recommendations, including those in a 2012 report produced by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Biomedical Research Workforce Working Group. Daniels and his colleagues acknowledge this, but suggest that the newly proposed council might help their recommendations succeed where those of others have failed.

The NASEM report, commissioned by Congress in 2016, collected career aspiration, training, and outcome data from NIH, research institutions, and professional societies, as well as solicited suggestions from individual university administrators and biomedical scientists at different stages of their careers.The report especially zeroed in on the plight of the postdoctoral research fellow. There are thought to be somewhere between 30,000 and 80,000 biomedical postdocs working in the United States. Although postdocs are ostensibly trainees, soaking up knowledge about how to run their own research programs, they are in practice often employed as relatively low-cost laboratory staff. For 46% of postdocs, their salary comes directly from their principal investigators’ (PIs’) project grants; only 10% draw their salaries from a specially designated training grant.

As a result, the NASEM report’s authors argue, postdoc training is haphazard and PIs have little incentive to prepare these young scientists for independent research careers. The report makes a number of recommendations to empower postdocs, including:

  • Within 5 years, quintupling the number of NIH individual research fellowship and career development awards, such as the NIH F and K grant mechanisms, awarded to young scientists to give them more autonomy in their training.
  • Putting a 3-year cap on how long PIs' research grants can support a postdoc’s salary to encourage the postdoc to graduate to a tenure-track or permanent staff position, or else seek employment outside academia. (Years spent on an independent fellowship wouldn't count toward the cap.)
  • Imposing a $1000 fee on PIs for each postdoc they employ, with that money feeding into a mentorship and career guidance programming fund.
  • Raising the NIH National Research Service Award starting postdoc salary—which serves a model for institutional postdoc salaries—from $43,700 to $52,700.
  • Requiring universities and other research institutions to regularly collect, analyze, and disseminate data on career outcomes as a condition for receiving NIH funding, so that postdocs have a realistic idea about their prospects.
  • Requiring NIH-funded PIs to show evidence that they have provided career mentorship and training to their postdocs.

By limiting how long postdocs can be federally funded and by making it more expensive to keep them designated as trainees, research institutions will have an incentive to employ more permanent staff scientists, providing a much-needed additional career option for young scientists, says committee member Story Landis, former director of the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke in Bethesda, Maryland.

To help ensure accountability for improving the welfare of biomedical scientists, the report’s top recommendation is that Congress create a Biomedical Research Enterprise Council (BREC) drawn from the broad community of stakeholders, including federal funding agencies such as NIH and the National Science Foundation, governmental research agencies, universities, private companies, and professional societies. However, the NASEM committee didn’t prescribe what powers or authority the BREC might have to enforce either the report’s recommendations or additional solutions the council might think up.

Also included in the report are recommendations that NIH require PIs to submit diversity and inclusion plans as a regular part of grant submission and provide updates on their team’s diversity in progress reports.

Elizabeth Watkins, graduate division dean at the University of California, San Francisco, says she supports efforts to make it more expensive for PIs to indefinitely keep on scientists as trainees, but fears her colleagues will balk at having to prove their mentorship. “Many faculty will bristle at yet another reporting requirement,” she said.

Chris Pickett, director of the Rescuing Biomedical Research organization based at Princeton University, added that he was initially skeptical of whether the panel’s recommendations would lead to any concrete implementations. Too many reports like this one have come and gone with little change happening, he said. But he’s hopeful that stakeholders within the proposed BERC might hold each other accountable.

“There are definitely some corners of the research enterprise that will write this off as just another report or just another list of recommendations, but I think that’s wrong,” he said. “This is a conversation and progress takes time and effort.”