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Postdocs speak up

Scientific superstars Bruce Alberts (a former National Academy of Sciences president and former Science editor-in-chief), Marc W. Kirschner (founding chair of the Harvard Medical School’s Department of Systems Biology), Shirley Tilghman (former president of Princeton University), and Harold Varmus (Nobel laureate and current director of the National Cancer Institute) can claim scores of journal articles among them. But none, Varmus says, has received as much attention as a paper the four collaborated on earlier this year.

That paper, “Rescuing US biomedical research from its systemic flaws,” published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, was the focus of a session at the National Academy of Sciences’ annual meeting on 29 April, less than 2 weeks after it appeared. On the meeting’s last day, in a time slot when, most years, “things are over and people have gone home,” Varmus told the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST), “well over 100 people” turned up at 7:30 in the morning not for the bagels but to discuss the four authors’ contention that today’s “hypercompetitive” and “unsustainable” biomedical enterprise requires “fundamental” reform.

If leaders like Varmus manage to incorporate early-career scientists in the discussion, they will find that engaged and informed young people have a great deal to contribute.

The “very heated discussion” that took place at that breakfast meeting was an indication of the widespread disagreement and resistance to reform among established scientists. When a second meeting of prominent academic figures produced similar results, the four authors concluded that “we need a more diverse … group of people, young and old and [from] various disciplines,” to participate in the discussion, Varmus said. In particular, “the younger generation has been [thinking] astutely about the problems long before we became semi-articulate about them, and much of what I hear from younger people is just a sense of gratitude that people who are comfortable in the field like us are paying attention to it.”

While their elders dithered, one especially astute group of early-career scientists was doing more than feeling grateful for being noticed.

In their own hands

On 2 and 3 October, some 200 early-career scientists gathered at Boston University for a symposium called the Future of Research (FoR), organized by a committee of postdocs drawn from Boston's  many research institutions. Prominent speakers such as Kirschner; labor force expert Michael Teitelbaum; University of California, San Francisco professor emeritus Henry Bourne; and others explored the structure of the research system, the roots of the postdoc problem, the oversupply of scientists, dispiriting career prospects, and various reforms aimed at mitigating those problems.

Among the solutions proposed and discussed that day were “provid[ing] incentives for reducing lab size [and] for hiring staff scientists,” FoR co-lead organizer Jessica Polka, a postdoc at Harvard Medical School, told Science Careers in an interview. Polka describes such proposals as “very standard stuff” that has appeared not only in the Alberts et al. paper but in other reform recommendations as well. Nonetheless, they sparked controversy at the meetings Varmus described and also at the PCAST session.

In contrast to those well-worn (though necessary) reform proposals, FoR represents something new and potentially important: a determination among postdocs to take their situation “into their own hands and make sure that everyone is informed” about current realities, as Polka puts it. Conceived as a first, exploratory step in a potentially broader campaign to bring young scientists’ voices into the national discussion, the conference was designed “to keep the conversation focused on positive solutions rather than personal problems,” Polka says. This was “actually very challenging to do” because those personal problems are genuine, especially the disappointment and frustration many young scientists feel about the dearth of the academic posts they had been led to believe they were training for.

“We didn't solve the problem,” Polka jokes, but FoR “identified the areas that need the most improvement” and considered possibilities for future action. “We want to make science more efficient and productive and more desirable for people to go into in the future. … The individual frustrations that people can express are not necessarily productive to achieving that goal, even though they are very real.”

The “most compelling” ideas to come out of the symposium, Polka says, include “putting pressure on the universities to include more nontraditional Ph.D. training” to prepare students for nonacademic careers, “putting pressure on universities to decrease the size of Ph.D. programs” to reduce overproduction of Ph.D.s, “demand[ing] greater transparency in accounting for indirect costs,” and “putting pressure on universities to release student outcomes” to elucidate the realities of the job market and show where an institution’s graduates end up.

Raising awareness

Citing research by Henry Sauermann of Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta, Polka believes that postdocs generally have an accurate notion of the academic employment scene. Graduate students, on the other hand, generally “are not really that aware” of the employment situation. “I think that people tend to realize this late in their training,” Polka says. For many, graduate school can serve as “a buffer zone before you have to think about employment. Especially with the training period stretching to almost a decade now in some cases, it’s very easy for grad students to ignore the issue.” It’s important, she says, to make consciousness of these realities “part of the culture in the lab.”

Beyond increasing awareness, graduate students and postdocs need to “encourage one another to become more self-directed” about getting the skills they will need for the careers that actually await them, Polka continues. FoR’s organizers expect to do more organizing in the future so that they and other postdocs can express their views in a concerted way, at local and national levels.

FoR’s leaders are working on the preliminary draft of a white paper about the meeting that will be posted at the open-access journal F1000 Research. Readers will be able to comment and suggest modifications that may find their way into the final draft, which the group hopes will constitute “a majority opinion that people can point to and say, ‘This is what the postdocs are worried about,’ ” Polka says. After gathering supporters’ signatures, the document will be shared with influential people and entities (including scientific societies) and may become the basis for op-ed articles and policy papers. To support future meetings and other activities, FoR leadership also plans to establish a 501(c)(3) charitable organization.

“I think there’s a lot of momentum,” Polka says. “People are becoming active. They’re wanting to join our lists.” Many, however, bring only “a limited understanding of how the system works.”

FoR’s push for greater awareness, initiative, and self-direction among young scientists may do much to change that. Whether FoR can overcome the well-financed and deeply entrenched interests that benefit from the current system of using postdocs and graduate students as cheap labor is more doubtful.

Junior scientists have justifiably bemoaned their lot for decades. Only recently, when the large surplus of researchers produced by the system began to threaten the ability of senior academic figures to get funding, did members of the establishment (apart from a few, like Tilghman, who have been advocating reform for years) even begin to take notice. If leaders like Varmus manage to incorporate early-career scientists in the discussion, they will find that engaged and informed young people have a great deal to contribute. The only real question is whether the scientific establishment will overcome its self-interested inertia and meet that challenge.

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