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Future of U.S. biomedical research enterprise threatened by academic imbalances

Postdocs, early career scientists need more support, National Academies study says

by Andrea Widener
April 18, 2018 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 96, Issue 17

National Academies’ recommendations to improve the biomedical workforce

NIH should:
Expand by five times the number of career awards available for postdocs to give them opportunities to develop an independent career.

Extend awards for early career scientists to at least five years.

Phase in a 3 year cap on the number of years a postdoc can work on a research project.

Raise postdoc salaries to $52,700.

Research institutions should:
Collect more data on career outcomes and demographics for graduate students and postdocs. NIH could force this if necessary.

Create career counseling programs for all postdocs and train primarily investigators on how to better mentor postdocs.

Create staff scientist positions to provide more nonfaculty job opportunities for qualified scientists.

Congress should:
Establish a Biomedical Research Enterprise Council.

Provide funding to support expanded early career programs and pilot projects..

The U.S. biomedical research enterprise is gradually crumbling under the weight of thousands of trained scientists who cannot get jobs in academia, a new report from the National Academies of Sciences says. If the situation does not change soon it will undercut biomedical science’s “vitality, promise, and productivity” and, eventually, its critical role in the biomedical industry.

Intense competition for academic jobs and grants is at the heart of the problem. Just 18% of biomedical scientists got jobs in academia in 2009, down from 55% in 1973, the report says. The average age of a first-time R01 awardee was 43 in 2016, up from 36 in 1980. The situation is especially dire for women and minorities traditionally underrepresented in the sciences, who are less likely to get and keep tenure-track positions.

The report acknowledges that the problem has been building for decades, and the National Academies, NIH, and multiple other organizations have proposed solutions in reports like this before. But this committee hopes its recommendation to create a Biomedical Research Enterprise Council to regularly monitor and recommend changes will get results.

“As we surveyed the biomedical research landscape, we saw remarkable achievement and promise, but also areas of stress and vulnerability,” says Ron Daniels, chair of the committee that wrote the report and president of the Johns Hopkins University. “Our recommendations seek to respond to those vulnerabilities, and put in place the structures and conditions for sustained change—so that the need for episodic reports starts to fall away, replaced instead by ongoing, enduring policy change across the enterprise.”

The report’s recommendations focus on helping postdoctoral fellows and early career scientists. For postdocs it suggests more training and mentorship about nonacademic careers, as well as increased salaries—up to $52,700, up from the current NIH-funded level of $43,700—and a 3-year cap on support for an individual postdoc working on an NIH-funded research project.

For both postdocs and early career scientists, the report says NIH should increase by five times the number of research fellowship and career development grants, and mentorship plans and goals should be built into grant applications for both trainees and investigators. Special attention should be given to grants for women and underrepresented minority researchers, the report says.

If NIH follows through, “I think it’s fantastic,” says Edgar Arringa, a chemistry professor at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities who also chairs an NIH career development grant review committee. Independent funding plus mentorship should better set up postdocs for success, he says. “That is going to have some repercussions on the process of hiring.”

Lack of data about the outcomes of graduate students and postdocs is a particular problem, the report says. It recommends NIH force universities to collect that information by tying data reporting to grant funding. NSF should also collect more data by linking its existing data with the U.S. Census Bureau.

“If NIH is receptive to the recommendations, [the report] will have an effect on many institutions,” says Arringa, who is also chair of ACS’s Committee on Professional Training. “But it will take time.”



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