Posted on behalf of Gene Russo, Nature Careers editor
US biomedical scientists recently had a chance to set their field’s priorities. And what was the most pressing problem they reported? The very real possibility that there are too damn many biomedical scientists.
The balance between the supply of biomedical researchers and the demand in terms of available career opportunities should be the biggest priority for reforming the US biomedical workforce, according to a survey response issued by the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Other big priorities that scientists highlighted were PhD characteristics (i.e. PhD curriculum, length of the PhD training period, and lack of preparation for diverse career paths) and postdoctoral-fellow training characteristics (i.e. a bottleneck of jobseekers causing long stints as postdocs and poor mentoring).
Many of the respondents did not mince their words. On the supply and demand issue, some called the current structure of the research workforce a ‘pyramid scheme’ that takes advantage of cheap student and postdoc labour rather than hiring mid-career researchers. Solutions included tenure-model reform, decreasing the number of funded trainees per principal investigator (PI) and using more staff scientists. On the oversupply issue, respondents suggested class-size reductions, raising programme entry requirements and better training for ‘alternative’ careers. Regarding the contraction of research funding, respondents suggested increasing paylines and limiting the number of large grants a single PI is permitted to have.
The survey, part of an NIH working group effort, asked respondents to prioritize future issues for the biomedical workforce. It had 219 respondents — ranging from graduate students to senior scientists — who made a total of 498 ‘quotations’ about various priorities; multiple comments were ranked and the working group then calculated the overall priority of a given issue.
In addition to PhD characteristics and postdoctoral-fellow training characteristics, the working group asked for comment on six other categories: postdoc training, biomedical research career appeal, clinician characteristics, the staff-scientist career track, effects of NIH policies and the training-to-research grant ratio. Based on respondents’ comments, it then added four more categories to its analysis: diversity, mentoring, early educational interventions and industry partnerships.
It’s not a big sample size. But the message is clear: improving satisfaction among early-career biomedical scientists and boosting the efficiency of a system that churns out far more scientists than academia alone can accommodate will require big changes. And these changes will have side effects. Want labs with more full-time staff scientists, and fewer students willing to work 60-hour weeks? Lab productivity and publication rates could suffer (see ‘Mid-career crunch’ for more discussions around changes to NIH grants). Want to curtail tenure? Some argue this would threaten academic freedom and deflate the enthusiasm of academia’s rising biomedical research stars (see ‘The changing face of tenure’ for more).The NIH working group — whose ongoing charge includes developing a “model for a sustainable and diverse US biomedical research workforce” — certainly has its work cut out for it.