David Rubenson and Paul Salvaterra share their thoughts on a damaged and damaging research system
A recent cancer research symposium displayed a familiar asymmetry. 90% of the attendees were PhD students or postdocs sitting obsequiously in the rear and asking 10% of the questions. 10% of the attendees were front-sitting faculty providing 90% of the inquiries.
A simple case of youthful hesitancy and opaque presentations requiring years of experience to comprehend? But did individual Principal Investigators (PIs) meet with conference planners before advising their students to attend? Did conference planners consider the likely audience and ask speakers to modify their talks? And did faculty members attend the related trainee poster session?
Negative answers to these questions point to a low priority for training versatile and intellectually curious young scientists. But this is only one of several growing concerns with the scientific research culture at medical schools and free-standing biomedical research institutes. Efforts to improve scientific training and education will have limited success until they are incorporated into a broader discussion about biomedical research culture in its entirety.
Multiple concerns drive this broader discussion: National Institutes of Health budgets, scientific error, the role of leading journals, the quality of scientific presentations and the need for team science, as well as training and education. Today’s biomedical research institutes embody a vastly different culture than traditional academia. There is more “top-down” authority and only weak faculty governance. A massive infrastructure creates an obsession with revenues, growth, and more infrastructure. A common joke is “how many cranes does your Dean have?”
This culture places faculty under continual pressure to obtain research grants; for their own salaries, to operate laboratories, and to capture the portion of a grant that helps maintain the infrastructure (so-called “indirect” charges). Deans and department heads evaluate faculty on easily quantifiable metrics: grant and donor dollars, laboratory size, and raw numbers of publications and invited talks. A “more is better” culture produces a frenetic schedule for faculty. No wonder erroneous data and publication retractions are a growing problem.
These incentives cause deficiencies in training and education in individual laboratories, in training programs, and in overall institutional priorities.
While there are exceptions, the trainee’s role in the laboratory is often reduced to little more than that of human pipette. Many PIs expect trainees to generate preliminary data for the next grant, at the expense of helping them develop the requisite skills for a career as an independent scientific thought leader. Trainees are seldom treated as an integral part of the research effort. They are frequently asked to supervise technical assistants or provide administrative support for grant proposals.
These activities could represent valuable training components if properly applied, but mentors receive no training in “how to train,” and minimal encouragement to develop young scientists. Most incentives point to using the laboratory as a factory for grants, publications, and self-promotional activities. How often have we seen mentors give conference talks only to acknowledge (on the last slide) that most of the work was done by a postdoc? How rare is it for the mentor to help a postdoc give that talk and gain well-earned experience and credit?
Organized at the departmental or school level, formal PhD and Postdoc programs should insure training standards. But these programs have atrophied and are subservient to an individual laboratory’s ability to produce grant dollars. Overly-busy faculty program supervisors often transfer management responsibility to non-scientist administrators. Course work requirements are being relaxed and qualifying exams have moved away from comprehensive written tests spanning multiple topics. This narrowing of curriculum contradicts the consensus that complex medical problems require multi-disciplinary solutions.
Ultimate responsibility for training and education lie with institutional leaders increasingly focused on revenue and short-term metrics. With donors, foundations, and funding agencies generally interested in projects with a quick payoff, training and education is a difficult fundraising challenge. Few leaders will make this a top priority compared to goals that produce revenue faster.
Many individual faculty members remain committed to training and education, and have made constructive recommendations for improving PhD programs. However this assumes training and education can compete with the metrics that currently dominate organizational behavior. Improvements will only come within the context of a fundamental rethinking of the biomedical research culture and an elevated priority for training and education relative to other priorities. Fortunately, there is growing debate about this culture. Those focused on training and education must join this broader debate and recognize that their concerns are not separable ones.
David Rubenson is the director of the scientific communication firm, nobadslides.com. He previously served as Associate Director for Planning at the Stanford University Cancer Institute, Director of Special Projects at City of Hope Comprehensive Cancer Center, as a strategic planning consultant to the UCLA Brain Research Institute, and as a science and technology analyst at the RAND Corporation.
Paul Salvaterra is Professor (Emeritus) of Stem Cell Biology at the Beckman Research Institute of City of Hope. His primary research focus is stem cell biology and Alzheimer’s Disease.