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Will more studies of the training and career mess actually create change?

Across the biomedical research community, people agree that something is seriously wrong with the academic labor market. Thousands of Ph.D. holders unable to obtain faculty jobs search for other opportunities despite lack of training for nonacademic employment, while many faculty investigators struggle, often futilely, to win funding amid intense competition.

But if jobs and funding opportunities are lacking, reports on the ills of the biomedical enterprise most certainly are not. The already-groaning shelf of studies, analyses, proposals, and recommendations penned over recent decades present strikingly similar conclusions and suggestions from an array of highly credentialed committees, boards, and blue-ribbon commissions. Nonetheless, in January, two ad hoc committees of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine kicked off projects to add to this literature. But readers familiar with those previous documents—and with the community’s apparent lack of enthusiasm for following the many earnest plans for reform offered therein—may share my skepticism that the newly commissioned reports are more likely than their numerous authoritative predecessors to spur systemic change.

New efforts

Kicked off with a 9 January public meeting in Washington, D.C., the Next Generation Researchers Initiative plans to examine “policy and programmatic steps that the nation can undertake to ensure the successful launch and sustainment of careers among the next generation of researchers,” according to its announcement. The Revitalizing Graduate STEM Education for the 21st Century committee, which met 3 days later, intends, among other things, to look for ways that universities can “better meet the diverse education and career needs of graduate students.”

To be fair, the committee leaders and members are “acutely aware” of their many predecessors, noted Ronald Daniels, the chair of the next generation committee and president of Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland. Graduate STEM education committee chair Alan Leshner, the CEO emeritus of AAAS (which publishes Science Careers), emphasized the importance of the effort—which he humorously termed “report number 26”—actually contributing to change. The need for mechanisms that will force reform is urgent, agreed Victoria McGovern, a senior program officer at the Burroughs Wellcome Fund, one of the graduate education study’s sponsors. The research enterprise needs to attract new generations of able investigators, and the “health of the research economy is the only [thing] that can convince a smart person who has other choices to go into science” as a career, she said.

McGovern, who has been involved in meetings about these issues since the mid-1990s, also noted that the long parade of previous documents haven’t had the “teeth” required to actually make change. This lack indicates something far deeper than the failure of report writers to dream up effective “carrots” or “sticks” to drive action, however. The phenomenon of similar, repeated recommendations from multiple expert studies producing relatively little change is not unique to these types of workforce issues; a similar, steadily growing series of careful, judicious, and thoughtful reports has accumulated over recent years in the field of laboratory safety, which is also beset by serious problems. Reading this literature leads to the conclusion that the core of resistance to change in both of these areas is more than plain inertia. Rather, it appears to be the system of incentives that organizes academic research in the United States.

The nub of both issues is that the university faculty members running independent labs and competing for grants to support their research depend on graduate students and postdocs as highly skilled but low-paid labor to carry out the work. Their universities also take a portion of the grant funding as overhead. The incentives created by the way grant dollars flow to and through faculty members’ labs encourage them, as rational actors, to follow the course that maximizes their advantage in the fierce competition for professional survival. This means taking on graduate students and postdocs without regard for the ever-scantier career opportunities in academe that await them. It also means avoiding spending scarce lab resources on anything that competes with producing publishable data, such as strict safety measures. Beyond that, because it produces revenue for universities, administrators have vested interests in retaining the current system. Paula Stephan, a labor economist at Georgia State University in Atlanta and a member of the next generation committee, has described these arrangements and their effects in exacting detail in her book, How Economics Shapes Science, and a number of the previous reports and studies concur with her observations. 

The nearly inescapable conclusion is that only real change in the incentives that motivate lab chiefs will change their behavior. But, as with any systemic change, reform would seriously threaten the interests of those who currently benefit from the existing arrangements.  

Information but no answers

At both committees’ public meetings, outside experts provided interesting and revealing information about various aspects of the labor market and graduate school situations. For example, Michael Lauer, the National Institutes of Health’s (NIH’s) deputy director for extramural research, presented data on the sharp drop over recent decades in success rates among investigators competing for grants, and he explored the influence of researchers’ ages on their likelihood of getting funded. For years, his data show, investigators in the early stages of their careers were least likely to win grants, but when NIH established policies that bolstered their chances, their success rates improved, he said. Recent research, he added, indicates that, as a result of this change, mid-career investigators now face especially great challenges in getting funded and a resulting high risk of failing and having to close their labs. 

Misty Heggeness of the U.S. Census Bureau described to the next generation committee the “extreme shift in the biomedical workforce” that has occurred over recent decades. Faculty jobs, long considered the default career choice for Ph.D. scientists, are now the “elite option,” she said. Academia now serves as a “training ground” rather than a career destination for the great majority of scientists, with work in industry, government, or other nonacademic employers the “new norm.” Nirmala Kannankutty of the National Science Foundation’s Division of Graduate Education explored similarly striking changes in the demography and size of the graduate student population, which now includes many more women and noncitizens, over the past 40 years.

Linda Strausbaugh, director of strategic initiatives at the National Professional Science Master’s Association, explained to the graduate school committee the skills nonacademic employers generally require that traditional graduate programs largely ignore—mainly in communication, teamwork, and project management. Chris Golde, assistant director of career communities for Ph.D.s and postdocs at Stanford University, discussed some attempts at change, such as the 5-year, multi-institution Carnegie Initiative on the Doctorate; she called progress generally “slow, incremental, and local.”

Despite these and other informative presentations, however, none of the speakers at either meeting came close to tackling the core issue of how to change the system’s incentive structure. It’s certainly possible, of course, that one or both of these new efforts will finally crack the secret of how to incentivize real reform. Both committees include highly committed people deeply versed in the issues and previously involved in efforts to find solutions. But, given the history of studies on this subject, undertaking two more may well simply fulfill the cynical quip about second marriages: “the triumph of hope over experience.”

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