A 12 April report from the US National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine offers ideas for reshaping the landscape of life-science research across all career levels in the US biomedical research pipeline.
The proposal from the advisory body in Washington DC calls for more career counselling at the graduate and postdoctoral levels, better data on career outcomes at those levels, three-year caps on postdocs under principal investigators and new non-tenure track academic research positions, among other changes. To implement all the proposals would require a US$2 billion increase to the US National Institutes of Health (NIH)’s budget, as well as subsequent budget raises to prevent future funding bottlenecks.
The report echoes similar recommendations from other US advisory organizations and thought leaders in the past two decades. Report co-author Ron Daniels, president of Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, acknowledges that he is frustrated by the fact that few of the previous recommendations have been implemented and that in some ways the US biomedical research careers landscape has worsened: time to PhD degree and length and number of postdoctoral stints have lengthened, as have times to researchers’ first independent grants. “We’re still bottlenecked,” Daniels says. “This situation is untenable.”
However, Daniels is optimistic that the Academies’ proposals, if enacted, could break the career logjam that makes US tenure-track positions tough to land and career paths uncertain for those who don’t wind up in academia. He points out that a couple of pilot programmes have launched that could bring wider change: NIH’s ‘BEST’ programme and a recently formed coalition of top research universities. The BEST programme, launched in 2013, focuses on better career counseling and mentorships so that young scientists who don’t aim for tenure-track positions can spend less time in postdocs and more time transitioning to off-the-bench careers. The coalition members have committed to long-term tracking of career outcomes for both graduate students and postdocs.
Daniels suspects that these pilots could be ramped up nationally without substantial investment from the NIH. However, they would require buy-in from universities and research institutions nationally—something that has been often lacking, he says.
Tracie Costello, chair of the US National Postdoctoral Association in Washington DC, agrees with Daniels that these pilot programmes show promise. She, like Daniels, says that reform is possible and points to the increase in postdoc stipends over the last decade as one area of success. But she is concerned about some unintended consequences of some of the mechanisms meant to enact reform.
For example, she expects the three-year postdoc cap to be “controversial” because that time period may be too short for postdocs who are focussing on time-consuming basic research, like developing animal models or cell lines. She worries that a cap could also impact female scientists who consider starting a family during their postdoc years.
Both Costello and Daniels warn that increasing the NIH budget enough to pay for some of the report’s most substantive reforms will also be a challenge.
Bruce Alberts, former National Academy of Sciences president, a biochemist at the University of California, San Francisco, and co-author of a similar study published in 2014, says he is pleased that the new report focuses on mechanisms for change, following his and co-authors’ broader proposals four years ago. But he sees one hole that the report didn’t touch upon adequately—more funding for early-stage investigators. Alberts would like to see half the awards to early-stage investigators fall under the “New Innovator” grant type. These awards call for more risk-taking and require little if any preliminary data to apply, making them ideal for young researchers who haven’t yet conducted pilot studies. Alberts anticipates publishing a proposal calling for more such awards soon.
Paul Smaglik is a freelance writer in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.