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A Stellar Opportunity

CREDIT: Kelly Krause, AAAS

In the world of astronomy, June’s big event was the transit of Venus on the 5th and 6th. But that wasn’t the month’s only rare and dazzling convergence. In the world of scientific labor force policy, another event happened on 14 June. This one involved stellar consultative bodies rather than celestial bodies. Only hours apart on that day, the U.S. National Academies and the Biomedical Workforce (BMW) Working Group of the Advisory Committee to the Director (ACD) of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) both issued long-awaited, blue-ribbon reports that could significantly benefit young scientists.

Even more remarkably, the Academies’ Research Universities and the Future of America: Ten Breakthrough Actions Vital to Our Nation's Prosperity and Security and BMW’s Biomedical Research Workforce Working Group Draft Report coincide in their messages. Amid the seemingly unending national clamor over a mythical science talent shortage, both documents present frank and clear-eyed examinations of the true—and truly dismal—state of so many of today’s young researchers, especially in the life sciences. Even more importantly, both propose steps that could, if realized, help improve it.

Overproduction of Ph.D.s, caused by universities’ recruitment of graduate students and postdocs to staff labs, without regard to the career opportunities that await them, has glutted the market with scientists hoping for academic research careers.

That’s a big if, of course. Though the recommended changes are relatively modest, they would still cost serious money and require universities to make reforms that cut into senior professors’ funds and accustomed prerogatives. Given current tight federal and state budgets and senior faculty’s long-standing dependence on cheap, plentiful, malleable, and highly skilled laboratory labor, such proposals will doubtlessly face formidable opposition, much of it couched in high-flown language about the advancement of knowledge. Some of it, as our Science Careers colleague Michael Price reports, already originates within ACD itself.

Some past studies—most notably the Academies’ 2005 blockbuster Rising Above the Gathering Storm and its various sequels and spin-offs—have had enormous impact; Gathering Storm was pivotal in encouraging the shortage narrative and in passage of the America COMPETES Act. It seems reasonable, therefore, to hope that the National Academies’ current offering also proves influential. Bolstering that hope are plans for the committee’s members—an array of prominent academic, business, and philanthropic figures headed by Chad Holliday, chairman of Bank of America, former chairman of DuPont, and a member of the committee that produced Gathering Storm—to spend the coming year building support.

There’s also reason to hope that the BMW’s close examination of the plight of graduate students and postdocs will produce change. In 1998, the BMW working group’s co-chair, Princeton University President Shirley Tilghman, led a National Academies study that resulted in what she calls (as quoted by ScienceInsider) “identical conclusions”—but no improvements. This time, ScienceInsider reports, NIH Director Francis Collins said the proposals “will go somewhere. I promise you that." Count on support from several research-focused philanthropies, which will be “delighted” to help realize reform and “have a big role to play,” Research Universities committee member Enriqueta Bond, retired president of the Burroughs Wellcome Fund, tells Science Careers.

But whether the recommendations result in better conditions for early-career scientists—or get stuck in the familiar Washington limbo of “further study”—remains to be seen.

Converging visions

The reports’ simultaneous release and similar recommendations may be extraordinary, but their findings will be familiar to anyone conversant with the academic labor market. Overproduction of Ph.D.s, caused by universities’ recruitment of graduate students and postdocs to staff labs, without regard to the career opportunities that await them, has glutted the market with scientists hoping for academic research careers. Long years of training and dismal career prospects form “a strong disincentive to American college graduates to enroll in doctoral programs,” and early-career Ph.D.s have “little expectation of finding an academic research position that utilizes the training they received as a graduate student and a postdoctorate [sic] fellow,” Research Universities states. Many able Americans who once would have considered science an attractive, rewarding, and even glamorous career now seek higher-paying and more secure careers that also use their formidable skills, including finance and medicine.

“Few incentives, internal or external, motivate graduate programs to align education with evolving employment opportunities,” Research Universities continues. The "size of doctoral programs is driven by a range of factors, including [departments’] research and undergraduate teaching missions (and the need for university teaching and research assistants), without much thought to labor market trends,” Research Universities says. Adds BMW, “The number of positions available for biomedical PhDs that take advantage of their long training are less than the number of PhDs produced each year. The structure of the life sciences was built on the premise that the enterprise would continuously expand and absorb and employ the large number of graduate students and postdoctoral researchers. In the absence of such expansion there is a growing imbalance between the rate of training and the growth in research career opportunities.” Furthermore, “the current training programs do little to prepare people for anything besides an academic research career, despite clear evidence that a declining percentage of graduates will find such positions in the future.”

The BMW report particularly calls out the situation of postdocs, who are in “a holding pattern” while they “receive little additional preparation for their future careers.” Tilghman, as quoted by ScienceInsider, put it even more bluntly: “We think it is scandalous how [little] postdoctoral fellows are paid.”

Agreement on recommendations

The reports’ recommendations on scientific labor force issues are not identical, but they overlap to a striking degree. Research Universities exhorts universities to “improve the capacity of graduate programs to attract talented students by addressing issues such as attrition rates, time to degree, funding, and alignment with both student career opportunities and national interests.” To accomplish this, Research Universities recommends that institutions “restructure doctoral education to … shorten time-to-degree and strengthen the preparation of graduates for careers both in and beyond the academy.” Emphasis should be on “student success and on preparing doctoral graduates for 21st century careers” rather than on maximizing students’ usefulness to professors and their grant-supported research.

New curricular models beyond the traditional Ph.D. are needed, the reports insist. “NIH and the institutions should … involve relevant employers in the public and private sector in designing training paths for students, … e.g., master’s degrees designed for specific science-oriented career outcomes, such as industry or public policy,” BMW says. “Businesses and universities should work closely together to develop new graduate programs,” Research Universities concurs. Doing so, BMW notes, “would require a change in the definition of ‘success' ”—but it would also, Research Universities observes, “increase the appeal of graduate education to U.S. students … currently … turned off … by uncertainties in the length of time and outcomes of graduate education.”

Beyond these general statements, the reports agree on a series of specific reforms.

• All graduate students and postdocs, whether supported on fellowships or principal investigator (PI) grants, should receive information and guidance about career opportunities and training in skills relevant to nonacademic jobs as normal parts of their programs.

• The period any individual can spend as a graduate student or a postdoc must be limited. The total allowable time should cover support under “any combination of training grants, fellowships and research project grants” from NIH, BMW says.

• To shift the focus from PIs’ labor needs to young scientists’ professional development, more graduate students and postdocs should receive support through fellowships and training grants and fewer through faculty research grants. The overall number of young scientists supported should not increase.

• Institutions must track over time and make publicly available the career outcomes of all their graduate students and postdocs, whether they are supported on fellowships or PI research grants. “Study sections should … value a range of career outcomes” beyond faculty positions, BMW notes.

• To improve career opportunities and limit the overproduction of transient trainees, labs should replace many of their postdoc slots with permanent staff scientist positions, even though, as Research Universities notes, “it is typically more economical for principal investigators to use lower-paid postdoctorates [sic] for their research.”

• Postdoc pay and benefits must improve. BMW offers a number of specific changes: NIH stipends should rise to a starting salary of $42,000, still quite a modest return on the years of hard work invested in earning a Ph.D. Salaries should be indexed to inflation and increase by set percentages for each year of experience, with a “large jump between years 3 and 4” intended “to incentivize PIs to move fellows to permanent positions. This salary scale will apply to postdoctoral researchers supported by research project grants as well” as by training grants and fellowships. NIH should also encourage institutions to “adopt this scale for all postdoctoral researchers, irrespective of the source of their support.” In addition, “all NIH-supported postdoctoral researchers on any form of support (training grants, fellowships, or research project grants) [should] receive benefits that are comparable to other employees at the institution,” including paid vacation, parental leave, healthcare, and retirement plans.

Uncertain future

These proposals are the result of long and detailed consideration by each body. More than a year ago, Tilghman, signaled that her working group would tackle “the root of the problem”: the overproduction of Ph.D.s encouraged by the current system of supporting grad students out of principal investigators' research grants. Early last year, we reported that some Research Universities committee members had expressed concern at a public meeting about the “corrupt” system that exploits young scientists as “migrant labor.” But, as Research Universities committee member James Duderstadt, president emeritus of the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, observed at that time, faculty members with strong economic and professional interests in preserving the supply of cheap, highly skilled labor raised powerful and effective opposition to previous attempts at reform.

Despite the report writers’ obvious understanding of the severity, cause, and negative consequences of the young-scientist glut, the specific reforms they suggest are fairly mild—possibly a strategy for minimizing faculty opposition. BMW “encourages” grant reviewers “to be receptive” to the use of staff scientists rather than cheaper postdocs or grad students and “urges” universities to create permanent staff jobs commensurate with Ph.D. scientists’ “value and stature.” It adds that “even a modest change in the ratio of permanent staff to trainees could have a beneficial effect on the system without reducing the productivity of the research enterprise.”

Will tenured potentates, whose opposition has already emerged, again succeed in protecting a system that, as Research Universities notes, is “very efficient at producing the research, … at the expense” of the young people who do the actual work? Or will, for once, the longing of early-career scientists to have decent futures—and the nation’s need to restore science as a desirable career for talented Americans—prevail instead? Much depends on how vigorously and eloquently reform proponents present the findings and recommendations to a skeptical academy. Whether this rare and encouraging convergence is a historic curiosity or the beginning of real change for America’s young scientists will become clearer in the months ahead.