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An Enron of Our Own


At a time when the practices and ethics of American corporations have come under fire, it is appropriate for the biomedical research enterprise to examine its own modus operandi. What do we observe?

In a positive light, we see remarkable progress in unraveling the mysteries of life that improve our health and well-being and enrich our spirit. Surely, we are fortunate to be working in the golden age of biomedical research. For this we need to acknowledge the wisdom of our elected officials in generously funding the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the effectiveness of the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology and other scientific organizations in convincing politicians of the value of biomedical research.

There is a dark side, however: This progress has come at the expense of junior scientists. Over the past 20 years, the postdoctoral fellowship has morphed from a 2-year interlude to a 5-plus-year ordeal. Combined with an increase in the length of graduate training, this has resulted in life scientists beginning their first "real" job at age 37, more than 15 years after graduating from college! Amazingly, this entire interval--longer than it takes to train neurosurgeons, or anyone else, for that matter--is treated as a "training" period. Anyone who has worked in a laboratory knows that calling a postdoc a trainee is an absurd fiction.

Far from being trainees, postdoctoral fellows are generally the most skilled workers in research laboratories. In addition to performing the bulk of the research, they are often called on to train graduate students and technical personnel. Postdoctoral fellows with any chance of obtaining a principal investigator (PI) position are expected to work with near-complete intellectual independence, displaying creative flair in extending knowledge in their field of expertise while logging 60-hour-plus workweeks. For sure, postdoctoral fellows gain considerable knowledge and improve their skills during their fellowship. But this is true of virtually every entry-level position in any field, or for that matter, any academic position at any level.

For this demanding work, postdocs receive what literally amounts to poverty-level wages in the high-cost-of-living regions where many of the largest academic centers are located. With few exceptions, postdocs don't receive retirement benefits. Many don't even participate in the Social Security system, because they are not officially employees of any organization.

It's not as if there's a pot of gold at the end of the postdoc rainbow to erase the financial and personal sacrifices made during the 15 years of "training." Although life scientists with faculty positions are well paid relative to other academics (particularly those in the humanities, who are paid abysmally by a society that claims to value education as of primary importance), they earn far less than those with professional degrees acquired in a much shorter period (lawyers, for example). On top of this, most PIs are required to raise their own salaries and research funding through intense competition for grant support with other scientists. It's hardly a cushy existence.

So what's the problem? Nobody forces anyone to be a postdoc. In a free market, poor working conditions and prospects will shrivel the supply of postdocs. If the value of postdoctoral labor to society is high, there will be increased demand, which will result in improved pay. Right?

Not exactly. The market for postdocs is anything but free.

To a large extent, postdoc salaries are controlled by a central authority in the form of NIH, which sets stipend levels for training grants (again with the "t" word) and also limits salaries that can be paid by investigator-initiated grants. The workings of the free market are further undermined by the importation of foreign labor. Although the exact proportion of foreign postdocs is uncertain, it is well over 50% and climbing. The supply of domestic biomedical Ph.D.s has barely increased in the past 30 years despite a huge increase in biomedical research funding. In essence, as in other industries (like agriculture) where labor is arduous and poorly paid, we have made up for the shortfall in postdocs (and graduate students) by importing labor.

The direct economic value of the research conducted by postdocs is difficult to quantitate. Even when the connection between discovery and clinical treatment is direct, application of the discovery might require decades. Crucial research breakthroughs often lack direct clinical applications themselves but are essential for future discoveries with direct applications. It is clear that in the long term biomedical research will be worth hundreds of billions of dollars to the U.S. economy. (If you don't believe me, ask Newt Gingrich, who championed the doubling of the NIH budget on the basis of the knock-on economic benefits.)

Research is not like factory or farm work. Postdoctoral fellows are expected to provide the cutting edge of research. Sharper knives cut deeper and more quickly. We can't simply count the number of postdoctoral fellows to quantitate their contribution; their quality must be factored in as well. Many scientific administrators (and leading scientists as well, for that matter) cling to the "starving artist" myth, that is, that the best scientists are so driven to science that nothing will deter them. Although this might be true for some, many base their career decisions at least in part on pragmatic evaluation of their financial future. Many potentially brilliant biomedical scientists are unwilling to forgo owning a house or starting a family until they are 40 years old. In repelling these individuals from biomedical research, we reduce the quality of the junior scientist pool and ultimately the entire scientific enterprise as junior scientists ascend the career ladder. Talk about eating your seed corn!

Moreover, there is no guarantee that foreign postdocs will continue to flock to the United States. What happens when the scientific opportunities increase overseas and the flow of foreign postdocs ebbs? Who will make up the shortfall: tax lawyers? striking baseball players?

So much for economics, which fully justifies treating postdocs like the valued employees they are and not merely "trainees"; let's get back to the ethics of the current system. Put bluntly, established scientists are taking advantage of their junior colleagues. The lion's share of the credit for the work accomplished by postdocs is routinely accorded to their PIs, as are the financial proceeds of their discoveries, which also fill the coffers of universities and fund the salaries of the deans (who frequently ignore the existence of postdocs, refusing them any sort of official status as either employees or students).

In addition, many PIs espouse the "I suffered in my time; now it's your turn" philosophy, which is shortsighted at best and hypocritical at worst. Most PIs acquired their positions under vastly different circumstances, attaining their tenure-track job 10 years younger on average than today's postdocs. The proverbial Martian charged with evaluating the current situation would conclude that PIs typically run their laboratories like fast-food restaurants--paying their workers as little as possible in order to maximize their personal gain.

In summary, to attract the most creative, analytical, and hard-working individuals to biomedical research, we need to reduce the financial hurdles. This means offering entering Ph.D.s a normal upper-middle-class existence, that is, remuneration sufficient to purchase a house at age 32 (the national average), support 2.3 children from birth through college, and provide for a reasonable retirement income.

The availability of funds is not the major difficulty--after all, we have just witnessed a doubling of the NIH budget over the past 5 years. Devoting less than 10% of this increase to the salaries of junior scientists would be sufficient to remedy the problem. We senior scientists have caused this problem by our prolonged neglect, and we can fix it with our prompt attention.

Jonathan W. Yewdell has been a Principal Investigator at research institutions since 1983.