Here’s a suggestion for a total reform of the graduate student/postdoc system of scientific labor and training. It’s from a distinguished list of authors, and appears in a high-profile journal, and it says without any equivocation that the system we have is in major trouble:
In the context of such progress, it is remarkable that even the most successful scientists and most promising trainees are increasingly pessimistic about the future of their chosen career. Based on extensive observations and discussions, we believe that these concerns are justified and that the biomedical research enterprise in the United States is on an unsustainable path. . .We believe that the root cause of the widespread malaise is a longstanding assumption that the biomedical research system in the United States will expand indefinitely at a substantial rate. We are now faced with the stark realization that this is not the case. Over the last decade, the expansion has stalled and even reversed.
They trace the problem back to the post-World War II funding boom (Vannevar Bush’s “Endless Frontier”). I have to say, the paper gives the impression (no doubt for lack of space) that the progress of funding in the biomedical sciences was smoothly upwards up until about 1990 or so, but as I understand it, the real kick was the post-Sputnik expansion. The 1960s were the real golden years for federal science and education spending, I think, as witness the profusion of buildings from that era to be found at many public universities. You can spot them from a hundred yards away, and boy, are there are lot of them. The authors lump that era in with the 1970s, but that latter decade, at least post-1973 or so, was hardly a period of a “vibrant US economy”, as stated.
The doubling of the NIH’s budget is also dealt with like a matador deals with a bull – a flick of the cape. But there’s no doubt that the situation now isn’t good:
However, eventually, beginning around 1990 and worsening after 2003, when a rapid doubling of the NIH budget ended, the demands for research dollars grew much faster than the supply. The demands were fueled in large part by incentives for institutional expansion, by the rapid growth of the scientific workforce, and by rising costs of research. Further slowdowns in federal funding, caused by the Great Recession of 2008 and by the budget sequestration that followed in 2013, have significantly exacerbated the problem. (Today, the resources available to the NIH are estimated to be at least 25% less in constant dollars than they were in 2003.)
The problem has been the same one faced by highway engineers: double the lanes on the highway, and new traffic fills up it again. Extra NIH money has been soaked up, and more, by an expansion in the customers for it. Even if their history is a bit off, the authors’ analysis of the current situation seems to me to be right on target. :
The mismatch between supply and demand can be partly laid at the feet of the discipline’s Malthusian traditions. The great majority of biomedical research is conducted by aspiring trainees: by graduate students and postdoctoral fellows. As a result, most successful biomedical scientists train far more scientists than are needed to replace him- or herself; in the aggregate, the training pipeline produces more scientists than relevant positions in academia, government, and the private sector are capable of absorbing.
The result, they say, has also been Malthusian: an increasingly nasty competition for resources, which is taking up more and more of everyone’s time. It’s creating selection pressure favoring the most ruthless elbow-throwers and body-slammers in the bunch, and at the same time making them scientifically timid, because the chances of getting something unusual funded are too low. (Paula Stephan’s thoughts on all this are referenced, as well they should be). You may now see the birth of the “translational research” bandwagon:
One manifestation of this shift to short-term thinking is the inflated value that is now accorded to studies that claim a close link to medical practice. Human biology has always been a central part of the US biomedical effort. However, only recently has the term “translational research” been widely, if un- officially, used as a criterion for evaluation. Overvaluing translational research is detracting from an equivalent appreciation of fundamental research of broad applicability, without obvious connections to medicine.
I’m not quite so sure about the evocations of the golden age, when great scientists were happy to serve on grant review committees and there was plenty of time for scientific reflection and long-term thinking. I would place those further back in history than the authors seem to, if they existed at all. But there’s no need to compare things today to some sort of ideal past – they’re crappy on the absolute scale, prima facie.
From the early 1990s, every labor economist who has studied the pipeline for the biomedical workforce has proclaimed it to be broken. However, little has been done to reform the system, primarily because it continues to benefit more established and hence more influential scientists and because it has undoubtedly produced great science. Economists point out that many labor markets experience expansions and contractions, but biomedical science does not respond to classic market forces. As the demographer Michael Teitelbaum has observed, lower employment prospects for future scientists would normally be expected to lead to a de- cline in graduate school applicants, as well as to a contraction in the system.
In biomedical research, this does not happen, in part because of a large influx of foreign applicants for whom the prospects in the United States are more attractive than what they face in their own countries, but also because the opportunities for discovering new knowledge and improving human health are inherently so appealing.
Too many players have an incentive to act as if things are supposed to go on the way that they have – universities get overhead out of grant money, so why not hire as many grant-bringers as possible? And pay salaries, as much as possible, out of those grants instead of from university funds? Why not take in as many graduate students as the labs can hold? The Devil is (as usual) on hand to take the hindmost.
The rest of the paper is an outline of what might be done about all this. The authors propose that these steps be phased in over a multiyear period, with a goal of making funding more sensible (and predictable), and altering the way that the academic research workforce is recruited and handled. Here are the steps, in order:
1. Require longer-term budgeting for federal research funding.
2. Gradually reduce the number of PhD students in the biomedical sciences. Support them on training grants and fellowships rather than out of research grants. The rules barring the funding of non-US citizens through these routes need to be changed, because these should become the only routes.
3. Make more funding opportunities available between science career paths and allied fields, so that there are more possible off-ramps for people with science training.
4. Gradually increase the salaries offered federally-funded post-docs, so the system doesn’t overload with cheap labor. Limit the number of years that any postdoctoral fellow can be supported by federal research grants, and require salaries to be at staff scientist level if the person continues after this point.
5. Increase the proportion of staff scientists. Universities and granting institutions need to be given incentives to value these positions more.
6. Change at least some of the NIH granting mechanism to a system more like the Howard Hughes fellowships – that is, award longer-term money to outstanding people and labs, rather than to individual proposals. There should be several separate programs like this for different career stages.
7. Set aside a higher proportion of grants for “high-risk, high-reward” ideas.
8. At the same time, consider capping the total amount of money going to any one group, because of the diminishing-returns problem that seems to set in past a certain level.
9. Make grant evaluations less quantitative (number of publication, impact factors) and more qualitative. Novelty and long-term objectives should count more than technical details.
10. Broaden the reviewing groups (in age, geographical representation, and fields of expertise) to keep things from getting too inbred.
11. Start revising the whole “indirect cost recovery” system for grants, which has provided perverse incentives for institutions, with special attention to paying faculty salaries out of grant money.
The authors note that all these changes will tend to increase the unit cost of academic research and shrink research group sizes, but they regard these costs as worthwhile, because (1) the current system is artificially propped up in both regards, and (2) the changes should lead to higher-quality research overall. A lot of these idea seem sound to me, but then, I’ve never had to deal with the academic research environment. There will, I’m sure, be many people who look on one or more of these proposals with dismay, for various reasons. It will be quite interesting to see if this gets any traction. . .