Together with the NRSA act, Congress created a companion act that requires regular assessment of the needs for research personnel, the fields of training, and the kinds and intent of such training. That assessment is carried out by the National Research Council (NRC). Initially those studies were required every year and then every four years.
The last such study was completed in 2011. This study, chaired by Roger Chalkley of Vanderbilt School of Medicine, found that, based on the observation of low unemployment rates of biomedical and behavioral scientists and models that predicted substantial growth in scientific employment opportunities over the next decade, the number of NRSA positions is adequate and should remain at the same level in biomedicine and should be increased in behavioral sciences.
As described later in this report, the data gathered by the ACD working group do not indicate such growth in employment opportunities. Rather, the numbers of positions available for biomedical PhDs that take advantage of their long training are less than the number of PhDs produced each year. As a consequence their career path is marked by uncertainty. Compensation is relatively low compared to other disciplines such as engineering and the physical sciences, and the NIH funding environment is highly uncertain for the near future.
Finally, the working group recognizes that there are aspects of the biomedical workforce that make it less attractive to potential graduate students. The overall length of training in the biomedical sciences (PhD plus postdoctoral research) is longer than in comparable scientific disciplines such as chemistry, physics and mathematics. For PhDs graduating in 2001, the median age for biomedical scientists was 32 and the median age for starting a tenure track position was 37; comparable ages for chemistry doctorates were 30 and 33. Furthermore, academic salaries at public research institutions for assistant professors in biomedical fields are low compared to other fields. According to the Oklahoma State University survey of public research institutions; average starting salaries in fiscal year 2011 for biomedical assistant professors were approximately $68,000 compared to $69,000 for chemistry, $79,000 for clinical and health fields and over $100,000 for economists. The long training period, together with disparities in earnings, may make a career in biomedical research less attractive than one in other scientific disciplines and professional careers.
Yes, the quality of the biomedical community is rapidly deteriorating, and once those who earned their stripes in the 70’s and 80’s retire, those who came into science when the culture was much healthier, we’ll likely be in bad shape:
But Dr. Fang worries that the situation could be become much more dire if nothing happens soon. “When our generation goes away, where is the new generation going to be?” he asked. “All the scientists I know are so anxious about their funding that they don’t make inspiring role models. I heard it from my own kids, who went into art and music respectively. They said, ‘You know, we see you, and you don’t look very happy.’ ”
Selling your soul is may actually be a good deal:
In December, the New York Times’ Catherine Rampell asked Harvard, Yale and Princeton for data on the professions their graduates were entering. As of 2011, finance remained the most popular career for Harvard graduates, sucking up 17 percent of those who went from college to a full-time job. At Yale, 14 percent of the 2010 graduating class, and at Princeton, 35.9 percent, were headed into finance.
Nobody in high school looks into the future and thinks, ‘I am so excited about finance,’, but by the end of college, things change:
You’re encouraged to take classes in subjects like English literature and history and political science, all of which are fine and interesting, but none of which leave you with marketable skills. After a few years of study, you suddenly find it’s late in your junior year, or early in your senior year, and you have no skills pointing to the obvious next step.
What Wall Street figured out is that colleges are producing a large number of very smart, completely confused graduates. Kids who have ample mental horsepower, incredible work ethics and no idea what to do next. So the finance industry takes advantage of that confusion, attracting students who never intended to work in finance but don’t have any better ideas about where to go.
This happens to people who manage to stick it out one more round in academia, as science graduate students. You finish up and realize that after 5-8 years earning the right to be called Dr., your skills designing and executing your own research projects are actually in demand nowhere outside of academia. You can go take a moderately paying job as a human robot executing someone else’s research ideas, or you can go get paid a ton of money as a McKinsey consultant.
This pretty much sums up how I’m feeling now:
Well, I almost think that if I’d gotten the Nobel Prize when The Recognitions was published I wouldn’t have been terribly surprised. I mean that’s the grand intoxication of youth, or what’s a heaven for. And so the book’s reception was a sobering experience, quite a humbling one. When finally help did come along, recognition as you say, a Rockefeller Foundation grant, a Guggenheim Fellowship, the National Endowment for the Arts, they came in difficult times and allowed and encouraged me to keep on with the second book and start the third. Without them, I wonder if I might not just have dropped the whole damned business, though God knows what else I might have done, too late even to be any of the things I never wanted to be.
It’s been a roller coaster week: I’ve decided my job search has pretty much failed for this year. Our grant proposal, which will support my work and to which I made a major contribution, was funded, one year after submission, and just as I was thinking it’s “too late even to be any of the things I never wanted to be.”
“Academia’s Crooked Money Trail”
The troubles plaguing academic science — including fierce competition for funding, dismal career opportunities for young scientists, overdependence on soft money, excessive time spent applying for grants, and many more — do not arise, Stephan suggests, from a shortage of funds. In 2009, she notes, the United States spent nearly $55 billion on university- and medical school–based research and development, far more than any other nation.
The problems arise, Stephan argues, from how that money is allocated: who gets to spend it, where, and on what. Unlike a number of other countries, the United States structures university-based research around short-term competitive grants to faculty members. The incentives built into this system lead universities to behave “as though they are high-end shopping centers,” she writes. “They turn around and lease the facilities to faculty in [exchange for] indirect costs on grants and buyout of salary. In many instances, faculty ‘pay’ for the opportunity of working at the university, receiving no guarantee of income if they fail to bring in a grant.” Those who land funding staff their labs with students enrolled in their department’s graduate program, or with postdocs. Paid out of the faculty member’s grant, both types of workers depend on the primary investigator’s (PI’s) continued success in the tournament.
Universities, however, also face considerable risks. They must, for example, provide large start-up packages to outfit new faculty members for the competition. Newcomers generally have about 3 years to establish a revenue stream — to start winning “the funding to stay in business,” Stephan says. The need to reduce risk explains universities’ growing penchant for hiring faculty members off the tenure track and using adjuncts for teaching. “Medical schools have gone a step further,” Stephan notes, “employing people, whether tenured or nontenured, with minimal guarantees of salary.” Where tenure once constituted a pledge to pay a person’s salary for life, it now constitutes, in the acerbic definition I’ve heard from some medical school professors, a mere “license to go out and fund your own salary.”
Risk avoidance has scientific as well as financial consequences. “The system … discourages faculty from pursuing research with uncertain outcomes,” which may endanger future grants or renewals. This peril is “particularly acute for those on soft money.” Experimental timidity produces “little chance that transformative research will occur and that the economy will reap significant returns from investments in research and development.”
As in all financial ventures, cost determines much of what goes on in the laboratory. “Cost plays a role in determining whether researchers work with male mice or female mice (females, it turns out, can be more expensive), whether principal investigators staff their labs with postdoctoral fellows (postdocs) or graduate students, and why faculty members prefer to staff labs with ‘temporary’ workers, be they graduate students, postdocs, or staff scientists, rather than with permanent staff.” Postdocs often are a PI’s best staffing buy, Stephan writes, because their excellent skills come with no requirement to pay tuition, which at top private institutions can run $30,000 a year or more. Overall, the need to reduce risk and cost in the grant-based system produces “incentives … to get bigger and bigger” by winning the maximum number of grants and, because grad students and postdocs do the actual bench work, to “produce more scientists and engineers than can possibly find jobs as independent researchers.”Although one topflight report described this setup as “ ‘incredibly successful’ from the perspective of faculty,” Stephan observes, “it is the Ph.D. students and postdocs who are bearing the cost of the system — and the U.S. taxpayers — not the principal investigators.”
Read more of this piece by Beryl Lieff Benderly over at Science Careers