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Shirley M. Tilghman

Shirley M. Tilghman

CREDIT: Princeton University, Office of Communications, Denise Applewhite

Science Careers’ Person of the Year: Shirley M. Tilghman

Each December, Science Careers names a “Person of the Year” to honor an individual who has made an especially significant and sustained contribution to the welfare of early-career scientists. For 2014, we are pleased to salute Shirley Tilghman, a distinguished molecular biologist, former president of Princeton University, and longtime advocate for reform of the system that trains and employs—and exploits—biomedical graduate students and postdocs. Her public efforts to remedy “the plight of young scientists,” as she termed the situation during an interview with Science Careers, go back to the 1994 National Academy of Sciences (NAS) committee she co-chaired that produced The Funding of Young Investigators in the Biological and Biomedical Sciences.

Tilghman also chaired the 1998 NAS committee that produced Trends in the Early Careers of Life Scientists. Fourteen years later, she co-chaired the Biomedical Research Workforce Working Group for the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Then, this past April, she teamed up with three other scientific superstars—Bruce Alberts, former president of the National Academy of Sciences and former editor-in-chief of Science; Marc W. Kirschner, founding chair of the Department of Systems Biology at Harvard Medical School; and Harold Varmus, Nobel laureate, former director of NIH, and current director of the National Cancer Institute—to publish “Rescuing US biomedical research from its systemic flaws,” a critique and call for reform that seems already to have altered the course of the workforce debate, in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

What’s striking, Tilghman says, is that all those papers and reports—going back 20 years—“say virtually the same thing.” In each case, an expert group calls for, among other things, supporting more postdocs and graduate students on training grants and fellowships instead of on professors’ research grants, employing more staff scientists in permanent posts and fewer temporary trainees to do scientific work, providing higher pay and better working conditions for postdocs, and publishing information on the career outcomes of departments’ and labs’ graduate students and postdocs.

Tilghman sees the overproduction of Ph.D.s and postdocs—which is accelerating, she notes—as structural and “Malthusian.” Because of factors such as cutbacks in the pharmaceutical industry, no sector has “the capacity to absorb the excess” of our most highly trained scientific laborers, Tilghman says.

Strike three

“When [NIH Director] Francis Collins asked me to co-chair the workforce study in 2010,” Tilghman recalls, “I said, ‘Francis, this is my swan song. This is “three strikes and I’m out.” If I do this and nothing happens, I will never work on this issue again.’ ” The implementation of the workforce working group’s recommendations disappointed her, as our colleague Michael Price reported at the time, but apparently she could not abandon a cause that had engaged her for years.

For many years, her interest in the issue was “humanitarian,” she says—inspired by years of “watching the growing challenge of brilliant young scientists” from her own lab trying “to break into the business.” But then, about 2.5 years ago, she had breakfast with Kirschner at Harvard, and he mentioned his own concern about the increasingly fierce competition for grants and jobs arising from the rapidly growing numbers of scientists chasing a limited supply of funds. Kirschner “pointed out that the hypercompetition I was seeing as a humanitarian issue” was also “a quality-of-science issue,” Tilghman says. “He is right. … A reason to be really concerned about this is that it is affecting the quality of the science. … I still resonate very much to the humanitarian issue, [but] I now have two motivators.”

Tilghman and Kirschner wondered whether they could “get a couple of our friends to start talking about the issue together,” she recalls. “Because Harold and Bruce are two of our closest friends in science, we got in touch with them and started meeting.” The two new partners were not chosen “out of a hat,” Tilghman laughs, but because, along with being major names, they are also “both really great public servants [who] had demonstrated multiple times over many years that they cared about the big picture of the enterprise and were willing to work on its behalf.” The foursome thus includes deep expertise and insight into the inner workings of the research enterprise, including laboratory management, university administration, scientific publishing, scholarly associations, and major funding agencies. “Working hard on the issue,” they hold biweekly conference calls to plan “how to initiate conversations among the stakeholders so that we can get some movement on these recommendations.”

The article got widespread attention “because of who we are,” Tilghman says, but the response it provoked was decidedly mixed. Young scientists greeted it enthusiastically. Some established researchers also responded favorably. But for many “who have succeeded in the system, there appears to be little to be gained from messing with it,” Tilghman says. Some are “highly critical of the diagnosis and certainly extremely critical of the recommendations,” she adds.

Skin in the game

Casting the issue in terms of the scientific enterprise’s welfare and researchers’ self-interest rather than of compassion for the powerless brings more allies to cause, Tilghman suggests. If people agree with Kirschner that the present situation compromises “the ability to do your very best science,” then “everybody has skin in the game.”

Tilghman thinks the new approach could bring results. Using their star power and connections, the foursome have pushed their ideas on conspicuous occasions, a number of which they created themselves: a session at the National Academy of Sciences’ annual meeting that Varmus described as “heated;” a briefing by Krischner, Tilghman, and Varmus at the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology; a meeting at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute that “brought together some senior … influencers to talk about the problem;” a new paper about that meeting that will soon appear in PNAS; and a presentation by Kirschner at the Future of Research symposium organized by Boston-area postdocs in October. Next up: “We’re trying to pull together a meeting of high-level university administrators to talk about the financial implications for academic medical centers and universities if there are changes in the way in which the NIH funds research at those institutions,” Tilghman says. “We’re trying to stimulate as much serious, roll-up-your-sleeves, what-are-the-right-solutions thinking as we can within the community.”

“One thing I’m absolutely unwilling to do,” she says, “is continue to talk about this and not really start getting policy changes.”

So canny, experienced, and deeply knowledgeable a team surely understands the complexity and difficulty of bringing real change to an ossified system involving the livelihoods, work lives, and futures of hundreds of thousands of people. They know what’s at stake and what interests are entrenched: the structures, finances, and cultures of hundreds of universities; the laws, regulations, and practices of massive federal bureaucracies; the expenditure of scores of billions of public and private dollars; and the ferocious politics of long-vested privilege. The fact that the four are willing to tackle it at all gives proof of its importance and hope that, after so many years of talk, this time they may actually make a difference. For her pivotal role in this effort, her past years of devotion, and the years of labor that doubtlessly lie ahead, Shirley Tilghman is the Science Careers Person of the Year.

Shirley M. Tilghman

Shirley M. Tilghman

CREDIT: Princeton University, Office of Communications, Denise Applewhite