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Report puts biomedical workforce training under the microscope—again

In 1975, a report from the U.S. National Academy of Sciences on the health of the biomedical research workforce flagged a potentially troubling problem. It noted “a new aspect of postdoctoral involvement and support” that had been around “[s]ince about 1970”: “the so-called ‘holding pattern,’ in which new Ph.D.’s who have been unable to find postgraduation jobs and older Ph.D.’s who have held postdoctoral appointments but have been unable to find permanent positions are continued in postdoctoral slots beyond the normal term of such appointments.” This report deemed the situation “within reasonable bounds at present, but the Committee is concerned about the future.”

That concern proved well founded, and that report proved to be the first of a series of roughly biennial congressionally mandated overviews of the scientific labor market that documented a steadily worsening pile-up of postdocs in the “holding pattern.” Each iteration of the series found more young scientists unable to achieve their stated career goal of becoming independent scientists and spending longer periods “training” for faculty posts that would not become available.

On 12 April, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine issued a comprehensive new study that, 4 decades later, finds the problem now vastly worse, more complicated, and far more deeply embedded in the structure of academic research. This is very well-trod ground, the report authors admit. In fact, they provide a rundown of seven studies from other prestigious panels, committees, and study groups issued in just the last 13 years—and acknowledge that the hundreds of recommendations those groups offered, many of them similar or identical from report to report, have amounted to very little progress.

It comes down to the “very tough political economy” surrounding these issues, said committee chair Ronald Daniels, president of Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, at the Washington, D.C., launch event. The ideas, he said, “bumped up against stakeholder interests.” Chief among those interests, of course, is the fact that the scientists stuck in the “holding pattern” have for decades provided the very economical and highly skilled labor that makes university grant research possible.

Undaunted by that history, the optimistic and resolute members of the current authoring committee provide several proposals that appear both fresh and potentially helpful. They include:

  • Establish an overarching, congressionally chartered Biomedical Research Enterprise Council (BREC) composed of representatives of major stakeholders such as universities, funders, industry groups, postdocs, graduate students, and research advocacy groups that would “exercise ongoing collective guardianship of the biomedical enterprise” and coordinate and monitor progress toward implementing the report’s recommendations.
  • Universities should collect a $1000 fee for every postdoc paid on a research grant to provide institution-level career services for postdocs.
  • Require federal grant proposals to include both plans for and proof of effective mentoring and career guidance for postdocs, and require supervisors to provide postdocs with career assessments and advising at specified points during their appointments.
  • Require universities to collect and publish their postdoc alumni’s career outcomes as a condition of continued federal funding.
  • Revise existing small business programs to create an ecosystem that encourages entrepreneurship among young scientists, resulting in enhanced career opportunities.

The committee also makes oft-repeated pleas for implementing firm limits on the length of postdoc service allowed and for additional federal money to carry out the recommendations, which Daniels estimated would cost $1 billion. That would also cover higher postdoc pay, more independent research support for young investigators, more career-oriented positions for university staff scientists, and pilot projects to test out innovative programs. One thing the committee doesn’t explain, however, is why its recommendations should prove any more resistant to the acknowledged opposition of powerful interests than all those that have gone before.

A limited scope

The report considers the difficulties scientists face in establishing research careers, but not the origins of the problems. As observers have repeated for 4 decades, the “holding pattern” and its attendant ills are symptoms of the systematic overproduction of Ph.D.s relative to available academic jobs. The fact that graduate students and postdocs serve as inexpensive labor on professors’ research grants creates powerful incentives to enroll or hire them, even though the great majority will join the ever-growing pool of frustrated Ph.D. holders unable to attain the academic careers they desire.

In fairness to this report committee’s hardworking and sincere members, their assigned task only covered examining the “factors that influence transitions into independent research careers” and recommending improvements, not reforming the structure of academic science to solve excess Ph.D. production. Another report, on graduate education, is expected from the Academies later this month; perhaps it will consider this central problem.

In the meantime, this new report touches only glancingly on the issue, noting that there is “debate in the literature about whether the asymmetries that exist in the biomedical workforce justify more draconian interventions, such as limits on graduate enrollments.” Arguing in favor of enrollment caps, the report says, are “the increasing number of postdoctoral trainees relative to the number of available academic positions and the large and growing number of individuals with biomedical doctorates working in non-research positions.” As the authors of the 1985 biennial report noted more than 30 years ago, the growing excess of Ph.D.s over academic openings meant that “resources devoted to their training will have been partially misallocated and some career aspirations will not be realized.”

The new report, however, shies away from taking a stand on this topic. “[B]efore taking a step as dramatic as reducing the number of students admitted to biomedical Ph.D. programs, it is crucial to understand the actual population of trainees, the duration of postdoctoral training, career trajectories and aspirations of trainees, changes in these data over time,” etc., etc., the authors write—a response familiar in Washington, D.C., for putting off doing anything unwelcome to powerful interests, such as, in this case, universities and principal investigators (PIs) seeking low-cost labor for their grants.

Potential improvements

Nonetheless, the report’s suggestions, if put into effect, appear likely to help.

More money, divvied up among the recommended uses, would certainly ease some of the current pain—at least until the inexorably expanding postdoc pool once again outgrows the new, larger pot of funds.

BREC could work to guide the enterprise in more intelligent directions—if the various stakeholders composing it would look beyond their own interests to the common good.

Publishing data on career outcomes could, as we recently noted, slow the postdoc pool’s growth by encouraging people to consider other career paths—assuming that PIs didn’t just import more new postdocs from abroad.

Frank advice about one’s probably miserable chances of landing a tenure-track job could push many postdocs toward developing a realistic exit strategy—though doing so the recommended year or two into a postdoc appointment seems late to be confronting the inevitable.

Requiring universities and PIs to help postdocs gain knowledge and skills needed for nonacademic careers would help the great majority who will leave academe better prepare for the move. The per-capita “tax” on lab chiefs could remind PIs of their responsibilities while funding programs and services to aid those preparations.

But as every biomedical researcher knows, treating symptoms, no matter how sincerely, doesn’t stop a disease from getting worse. The members of this committee hope that their ideas better respond to “the failure of many of the earlier recommendations to gain traction.” Whether they prove any more effective is an empirical question that time will answer. What seems clear now, however, is that only seeking effective ways of attacking the disease at its source can bring a cure.

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