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NIH to ask tough questions about US science workforce

T-R.jpgHow many scientists does the country need, and are we doing a good job training them? Those are the big questions that the US National Institutes of Health is asking a panel of external advisers to tackle. The group, named on 27 April, will report its recommendations to NIH director Francis Collins’ advisory committee, possibly as early as next summer.

The external advisory panel will be co-chaired by Princeton University president Shirley Tilghman (pictured, left) and Sally Rockey (right), NIH deputy director for extramural research. Rockey said the panel was formed to address problems such as the increasing length of time it takes to train young scientists; the average age at which a NIH-funded investigator gets his or her first grant has risen from 36 in 1981 to 42 now. Addressing this problem and others – such as increasing demand for grants during leaner budget times – is part of the motivation for the new panel, called the Working Group on the Future Biomedical Research Workforce, Rockey says.


“Science and the scientific community have been evolving over the past few years. The number of applications are growing and success rates have been declining,” Rockey says.

The panel will also address related issues, such as whether too many scientists are being trained in traditional PhD programs because their labor is needed in academic labs. As part of its work, it will develop a “model for a sustainable and diverse U.S. biomedical research workforce” that could include “both quantitative and qualitative elements,” Rockey says.

Under Collins, the NIH has taken a keen interest in long-simmering debates about the lack of opportunities for young scientists, many of whom undergo long years of training only to confront a dearth of academic jobs once they are ready to strike out on their own. Trainees also complain that the quality of mentorship is uneven, because trainees are sometimes viewed more as cheap labor than as apprentices honing their skills in prepaaration for their own scientific careers.

On 28 April, the National Institute of General Medical Sciences took a stab at this problem, issuing a strategic plan for its training programs. The plan “strongly encourages” scientists to submit training plans in grant applications that request support for graduate students or postdoctoral trainees.

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    Uncle Al said:

    “the average age at which a NIH-funded investigator gets his or her first grant has risen from 36 in 1981 to 42 now”

    The young harbor original, creative, insubordinate thoughts plus enthusiasm that might lead to unproposed discovery. After they are fired into dense reliability, when the only survivors are desiccated bureaucratic excrescences, then fund them. 0% risk is only achievable through monotonic precedent.

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    George Cross said:

    Will this study become another example of American ‘exceptionalism’, whereby US institutions think in a vacuum about an issue that affects many nations (take the example of ‘health care’), from whom we might get some good ideas (or examples to avoid), and whose experience and scientific structures might inform our debate?

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