EDIT: We’ve added a link to the interview with Shirley Tighman in the HHMI Bulletin, which is now public.
Princeton University president Shirley Tilghman is in a position to make a major impact on the lives and prospects of many young scientists. As chair of the newly announced National Institutes of Health panel that will look into the future of the US biomedical workforce, she believes that “changes must be made if we are to sustain the vibrancy of the U.S. biomedical workforce,” according to an interview in the May HHMI Bulletin. (The issue is now publicly available.)
“The root of the problem” is overproduction of Ph.D.s, she continues, and, if nothing changes, the situation stands to worsen in the years to come. But, she adds, helpful “changes could be made to the structure of the typical biomedical research laboratory.” Specifically, she suggests reducing the number of trainees, who currently outnumber technicians 10 to 1, and increasing the number of “permanent employees…. We need to explore such options.”
One issue that will need careful examination is how to make any such change stick. Using grad students and postdocs is much cheaper than paying the salaries that would give permanent employees a decent career ladder as well as career-style benefits. Cost, of course, is why PIs use grad students and postdocs in such numbers, turning ostensible trainees into cheap labor. Will the NIH panel bite the bullet and favor paying permanent employees an appropriate wage? Will it consider ways to get budget-conscious PIs to adopt this more expensive approach?
The answers to these questions lie in the future. For now, Tilghman’s comments are encouraging, implying as they do not only some new thinking but, potentially, some new career opportunities for scientists.