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Academia (vs. Industry)

Changing A Broken Science System

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. . .

58 comments on “Changing A Broken Science System”

  1. neurologist649 says:

    I’m reminded of the short story written in 1961 by Leo Szilard called “The Mark Gable Foundation”, wherein many aspects of this mess were presaged…

  2. says:

    Here is the problem. They may be very distinguished scientists, but they are lousy central planners with proven track record of being lousy. Instead of glorifying them, we should let everyone know that the current problems are due to excessive central planning in science, and cure cannot be the same. My suggested cure is discussed here.
    I covered this topic many many times in my blog. In its heyday, US and British academia used to be completely decentralized, where wealthy donors paid to the universities and then university heads spent the money for internal developments. To make sure donors did not have any say over how the money is spent, tenure system was installed. It was not to give permanent jobs to the academics, but to make sure they could freely criticize the donors without worrying about funding getting cut.
    Today, the government has established monopoly over the funding and even worse, every academic I know (tenured or untenured) is afraid of criticizing their source of money fearing retribution. So, you can see very little talk about endless wars or NSA or anything else (ENCODE) among supposed ‘intellectuals’.

  3. Anonymous says:

    See other writing on the topic:
    Paula Stephen’s book on funding science
    Micheal Teitlebaum’s “Boom Bust” book on scientific workforce
    Even The Emperor of all maladies covers the “War on Cancer” expansion
    Legislation/organizations to fix the issue (in parts):
    H.R. 4384 America HEALs Act
    NPA (National Postdoctoral Assn)
    Unionization of graduate students if the collegiate football players unionization stands

  4. jred says:

    As a (very) recent Ph.D. grad who thankfully landed in industry, it’s nice to see people trying to look at the problems we have. Numbers 4, 5 and 7 on that list are badly needed.
    Another thing we need to start doing is failing people out of graduate school. The problem is much worse now than even 5 years ago (when I started), I can only imagine how things have degraded from a decade or so ago (a fact that our adviser would beat us over the head about once a year “you guys have it so much easier than I did”).
    A fair percentage of domestic students are starting to use graduate school (and the available cheap student loans) to extend their fun from undergrad. Meanwhile the international students come in and show them up. There’s no passion from the domestics, and no ramifications for their laziness (at least at my Big 10 school).

  5. Anonymous says:

    I would agree with the idea of reducing # of PhDs awarded. If that means failing out more or just not accepting as many, so be it. As someone mentioned, grad school is often viewed as an easy way to keep loans in deferment while getting paid a stipend, which isn’t a ton of money, but you can eat and buy beer. I did grad work at an SEC school and this was quite common. International students in general far out performed their domestic counter parts. In my program we currently have 4 students who are 10+ years into program, how does that happen??!!

  6. Anonymous says:

    I would agree with the idea of reducing # of PhDs awarded. If that means failing out more or just not accepting as many, so be it. As someone mentioned, grad school is often viewed as an easy way to keep loans in deferment while getting paid a stipend, which isn’t a ton of money, but you can eat and buy beer. I did grad work at an SEC school and this was quite common. International students in general far out performed their domestic counter parts. In my program we currently have 4 students who are 10+ years into program, how does that happen??!!

  7. Anonymous says:

    I would agree with the idea of reducing # of PhDs awarded. If that means failing out more or just not accepting as many, so be it. As someone mentioned, grad school is often viewed as an easy way to keep loans in deferment while getting paid a stipend, which isn’t a ton of money, but you can eat and buy beer. I did grad work at an SEC school and this was quite common. International students in general far out performed their domestic counter parts. In my program we currently have 4 students who are 10+ years into program, how does that happen??!!

  8. Wavefunction says:

    I think the point about supporting students on training instead of research grants is the single most important point in that piece. Otherwise there’s no way the system will stop using grad students and postdocs as endless, cheap fodder for publications and funding.

  9. Anonymous says:

    If there are too many science PhD’s, then what is the point of graduate fellowships, especially ones funded by the federal government? NSF graduate research fellowship program especially- get rid of it and use the money for something else.

  10. Anonymous says:

    This all sounds like a severe STEM shortage to me.

  11. Anon says:

    I would love to see this get traction, but it likely won’t. Francis Collins blew off the Biomedical Workforce Task Force every time they’ve raised an issue. He absolutely refuses to acknowledge their findings.
    The most he has ever done is request a follow-up investigation which delays everything another year and makes a public comment about the issue being important but not substantial.

  12. The Iron Chemist says:

    With respect to number 7, they already tried that with the NIH R21 proposals. The problem was that too many of the referees simply didn’t play along and reviewed all of the R21s as if they were R01s. With most grants, you worry about shifting goal posts from one revision to another. With the R21s- to extend the analogy- you worry about whether you’re even in the right stadium.
    The staff scientist suggestion is a fantastic one, but institutions will not go for it. Not when they’re quickly replacing their faculty with sundry cheaper replacements (adjuncts, lecturers/instructors, etc.). They’re paying substandard wages to overqualified folks in return for three sections of general chemistry per semester. They won’t pay someone to just do research unless a bigwig applies a lot of leverage.
    The before-mentioned points about the selectivity of the PhD programs are spot-on. Even now, there are too many students who view graduate school as Undergraduate v. 2.0 and exit the programs with BS-level skills (or worse).

  13. Skeptic says:

    I was in grad school when the US economy bottomed out. We had some tough recruiting years after that. I remember my PI coming into the office one day and yelling at all of us that the incoming class was smaller than they’d had in a long time and it was because we weren’t enthusiastic enough during recruitment weekend. At the time the school had just lost a significant amount of state funding and was having to trim the fat off the budget already. Additionally, his own grant situation was dire and to my knowledge he has not secured any new grants since I left.
    None of the current financial realities have penetrated his consciousness. The school should still be recruiting at a relentless pace, no matter how much funding gets cut, no matter how few grants there are, no matter how horrid the job market is afterwards. The scary thing is that he’s not alone in this thinking. Not by a longshot.

  14. anonymouscb says:

    While I agree with many of the authors’ solutions to the current crisis in grant funding, several of the ‘solutions’ are either problematic or unfair including the suggestion that graduate students should be supported by training grants and fellowships rather than research grants. This ‘solution’ will undoubtedly hurt those beginning their careers because one of the criteria for obtaining an NIH fellowship is the qualifications of the mentor, which includes how many people the PI has placed in academia (industry does not appear to count).
    Also the suggestion that we focus on hiring more staff scientists is a non-starter at least for me because I like to have turnover in my group so that we can bring in fresh ideas and techniques into my lab. This solution will also have the perverse effect of leading to unemployment for the senior scientists when lab funding runs out or the PI retires (ok dies is more likely).
    Having served on numerous study sections and having submitted both successful and unsuccessful grants, I am confident that all proposals are reviewed qualitatively because if they don’t ‘like’ your grant (for whatever reason technical or otherwise) the reviewers’ will come up with a reason/excuse not to fund the grant. So, I am not sure how making the reviews more qualitative would improve the situation. The real problem here is that funding is so tight right now that even the ‘big shots’ in science are starting to feel the pinch.
    I would note, however, that I agree with the authors’ belief that more qualified reviewers are needed for the funding panels and that we should limit the need for widespread geographical representation (Derek, I don’t believe they advocated this). We just need the best people. I also agree that the panels are often too inbred, but panels that have too broad a scope also tend to become parochial and the different subgroups on the panel still have a tendency to pick winners and losers within their own field.
    All this being said, I do agree that the NIH should change its granting mechanisms and award more funds along the lines of Howard Hughes, where you invest in individuals rather than specific projects. However, the current numbers of people funded by these mechanisms is too small and should be expanded dramatically. Also, it makes no sense to review hundreds of submissions if you are only going to fund

  15. Anonymous says:

    I was laid off in 2009 after the 2008 downturn from pharma.
    Went to grad school and am now in a lab getting rocked by funding cuts and we still haven’t been able to secure funding after almost a dozen grants.
    The problem is that biomedical science is inherently unstable. STEM =/= biological/medical/chemical sciences. Anything biomedically related is always going to have terrible job prospects and job stability.
    I can’t tell you how absolutely infuriating it is to propose a R21 for EXPLORATORY WORK on a very novel idea, only to have it immediately shot down by the NIH because “there isn’t enough data” or “it is unclear that this will be disease modifying”. Well isn’t that the point of the stupid grant, to get the money that will allow us to do that kind of work?

  16. Anonymous says:

    Off Topic:
    Is anyone else experiencing the front page not loading correctly? It cuts off in the middle of a sentence and the right column doesn’t load at all. From the source, it’s not a display issue but the page simply didn’t download completely.

  17. chemistry prof says:

    In reducing the number of PhDs, entire graduate programs should disappear.
    There are far too many mediocre places (and mediocre PIs) that issue PhDs, and there is enough sentiment in the grant reviewing process that money should be spread around to an extent. For example, it is much harder to get a 2nd NIH or NSF grant than a 1st, even if the grants score equally well. I have served on several grant review panels with this bias.
    This sentiment is less damaging when funding rates are high. It is going to be a bigger and bigger problem in an era of reduced resources, especially when people forget that federal funding represents a taxpayer investment, not a welfare program. Entire low-end doctoral programs should disappear (or perhaps become masters programs that feed into highly competitive PhD programs).
    I also agree with the sentiment that standards for remaining in a PhD program should be higher. I have seen many students who should have left in year 2, often because research does not remain their main interest, but stick it out because of the stigma of quitting. Once these students progress several years into the program, PIs view these people largely as sunk costs that need to graduate to clear out of the system. This practice doesn’t benefit anyone and becomes even less OK in an era of belt tightening. A better practice would be to have a hard look at progress and interest in year 2 before a student becomes a true PhD candidate.

  18. Justin says:

    Grad students and post-docs are fodder, with for the most part no real training or teaching for a “real job.” There are absolutely too many students – students that have no business being given (not earning) a PhD – and too many students that can reasonably be taught and trained by the PI. Reduce lab sizes and there is more grant money to go around, with good people doing good work. The current “system” is not sustainable.
    I may come across as bitter, but I’m really not. Looking back (~10 years) I had an overall good experience – but it could have been better.

  19. MarkP says:

    Re: anonymouscb
    “Also the suggestion that we focus on hiring more staff scientists is a non-starter at least for me because I like to have turnover in my group so that we can bring in fresh ideas and techniques into my lab.”
    Sure. It’s the fresh ideas, not the extremely low salaries. And what, after a few years in your lab their ideas and techniques become stale? Kudos though for at least being honest. Most PIs claim that they are training their grad students/postdocs, making them much more valuable.

  20. watcher says:

    Yes, there are a lot of problems with the current system.
    But, I can’t see there will be big changes in the system, as there are too many influential people who’d have to give up too much throughout the entire academic and funding organizations.

  21. rico says:

    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.
    this should be #12, #13, and so on….
    Fiscal 2011, the federal government (read: Taxpayers) handed out $40 billion for R+D to universities. 896 Universities total received money AND just 10 of those universities received 20% of the total. University funding mechanisms need complete structural reform (including tuition, tax status, endowments, etc). How likely is this to happen in our life times? They have entire infrastructures, departments, administrations just to maintain it…Universities are thinking “we’ve got to feed the beast.”….they are not thinking “what’s the most sustainable system to train students and teach new knowledge to students”.
    Top Universities in 2011:
    10. Duke. $585 million in federal dollars (taxpayers). 57% of R+D comes from federal. endowment $5.56 billion.
    9. Wisconsin – Madison. $594 million in federal dollars. 53% of total from federal. endowment $1.8 billion
    8. UCSD. $637 million federal. 63% total from federal. endowment $371 million.
    7. Columbia U. $645 million federal. 73% total from federal. endowment $7.6 billion.
    6. Stanford. $656 million federal. 72% total from federal. endowment $17 billion.
    5. UPitt. $662 million federal. 74% total from federal. endowment $2.62 billion.
    4. UPenn. $707 million federal. 80% total from federal. endowment $6.75 billion.
    3. U Michigan. $820 million federal. 64% total from federal. endowment $7.69 billion.
    2. UW-Seattle. $949 million federal. 83% total from federal. endowment $2.1 billion.
    1. Johns Hopkins. $1.88 billion federal. 88% total from federal. endowment $2.6 billion.
    A majority of JHU money comes from Defense and NASA, not HHS – this is an outlier.
    Total: $8.135 billion from federal gov.
    across these schools, on average, 70% of EACH YEAR’s R+D budget comes from federal dollars.
    These schools have collectively: $54 billion in endowment (that they continue to invest, tax free or generally v low taxes).
    Of course this is unsustainable. Using an indirect cost average of 70%, this is about $3.35 billion JUST FOR INDIRECT COSTS such as heat, lighting, building maintenance, administrative salaries, etc.
    What rational organization builds a system that REQUIRES that 70% of the yearly operating budget comes from a fickle source like the government? This is subject to market forces, politics, elections cycles – just like everything else.

  22. p says:

    One thing overlooked in the discussion is that grad students aren’t just fodder for PIs. Colleges need TAs. Some need a lot. The demand for undergrad labs is very high. Cut the number of grad students and put them all on training grants and someone will have to teach those labs.
    Now, there are people who could do it. But it would cost more than it costs now and collges are trimming like crazy.

  23. Anonymous says:

    A great discussion of an important article. I have 5 thoughts to add on the matter:
    1) The short-term funding contraction may be part of the immediate problem, but it must be stated that the greater problem cannot be solved by further expenditure. NIH funding (inferred from those 5 institutes which have existed continuously) has increased 33x in inflation-adjusted dollars since 1955. More funding now will provide a short-term solution but a long-term headache.
    2) The article is correct to point out that the principle issue is that the labour market is saturated with PhD holders. There are about 10-20 times as many basic scientists working today as there were in the 1950s. To reduce the number is doubtless desirable, but almost impossible to actively do so: Any institution that does so would do so at its own expense. Universities look out to their own interests, and their interest is to produce graduates. It then follows that no university would voluntarily do this. So long as there is a demand for the product of a PhD degree someone somewhere will supply it. Even if we force all domestic institutions to limit the number of graduates, the market will still be flooded with foreign-trained graduates.
    The poor job market is reducing the value of a PhD all on its own, and degree-holders will reduce accordingly.
    3) Wage controls for post-docs, though also probably impossible for the reason above, will do what wage controls do everywhere else: Increase unemployment. The problem of excess post-docs follows, unsurprisingly, from the problem of too many PhD students.
    4) The article alludes to the problem of poor reproducibility in medical research, and correctly asserts that it follows from a hyper-competitive environment which incentivizes sloppy work, and dis-incentivizes fact-checking. For those interested in the actual number, there are several studies out there (notably by Amgen and Bayer) which show that landmark biomedical research is only about 20% replicable.
    5) Academia produces a staggering volume of misinformation. The success of Phase II clinical trials, wherein the efficacy of the compound is tested, has fallen to less than 20%. Drug development costs are paid by the end-user. The cost of poor medical research is therefore also showing up indirectly in our runaway health-care costs which, contrary to the popular myth, are primarily not demographically driven.
    The OECD spends about 60b$/yr on basic research. When the taxpayer learns what poor value he’s getting from his expenditure there will be a strong reaction, and probably an over-reaction. There is a problem with a flooded labour market now, but it will probably get much much worse

  24. Anon says:

    It looks like my previous note did not go through because of the link. Below is the NIH’s response to this issue after a committee raised alarms several years in a row.
    “NIH has undertaken the following initiatives to make progress towards achieving these goals between now and 2015:
    1.Establish a grant program to encourage innovative training approaches
    2.Improve graduate student and postdoctoral researcher training
    3.Develop a simple and comprehensive tracking systems for trainees
    4.Encourage fair consideration of staff scientists on grant applications
    5.Initiate discussion with the community to assess NIH support of faculty
    6.Create an office in the NIH Office of the Director to assess the biomedical research workforce
    7.Conduct ACD Working Group study on optimal research training of individuals in clinical disciplines”
    To real changes, basically just your general business speak and the inaction you might expect.

  25. Anonymous says:

    I’ve spent lots of time thinking about this. I don’t really have a solution other then noticing that the system we put our professors in is flawed. They will do what’s best for them.
    Germany is a nice example to emulate, for a strong chemical industry.
    I still think we need the fundamental research to push advancements in science, but I would like to see, if we could somehow lower the barrier to entry for chemical start ups.
    Institutes or incubators with equipment/ overhead in place that let people try to get something off the ground. Perhaps a funding sharing model where the government pays for overhead but start ups fund their R&D. I would like to see strict milestones in place and if you fail, another group takes you place. Successful business become independent, or IP is sold.
    The caveat is that is needs to be relevant to today’s needs. Solar, fuel cell, drug development, advanced materials. The research needs to be directed, which is difficult unless you already have a business/ customer / market.
    We get some of these here in N. America, but they end up just draining cash often because 1) the idea is not well thought out, e.g. no commercial applications, or not scalable. 2) Some really greasy people run these things on the management side and pay themselves almost too well.

  26. oldnuke says:

    One additional consideration: Hang these executives and politicians who espouse the “STEM shortage”.
    Put the lid on the influx of foreign grad students; stop paying them OUR tax dollars to come. If they want to go to school here, they can bring their own money! We send enough dollars overseas, they can afford it.
    And don’t get me started on some of the crazy stuff we fund with tax dollars which is called “research”…

  27. Anonymous says:

    It seems US PhDs & postdocs are in a worse situation than those in the UK (but not much worse…).
    As long as the number of members of a group is proportional to the ego of the group leader, this problem will persist. It is actually quite easy to solve it: do not allow more than three untenured scientists in a group (if you want to do more then collaborate). Problem solved.
    It is also much more cost-effective: you only have to see the # of corresponding author papers divided by the # of group members. This surrogate measure shows that larger groups make worse use of public, but irrationally they get more credit!

  28. Cato the Elder says:

    I agree heartily with #8… the creation of these “superlabs” results in little interaction between the professor and student, resulting in less professional/scientific development of the student and the reliance on training from postdocs in the lab. Although this often works out ok in the end, then what the heck is the point of the professor? From my experience as well they usually aren’t even the ones coming up with the research ideas…

  29. dlib says:

    Sadly massive changes need to take place. Dr. Collins is the wrong person for the job on many levels….one of the biggest is that he’s too polite for the changes needed. Translational / big data…the place is run on the latest fad phrase. Super sad. The science they like to do and pour money into is cataloging (like the genome project) very doable with time and money…utility, that may come in time. One thing that struck me deeply though is when I watched a video of a seminar that was speaking on heart disease and genetic associations -“Congenital Heart Disease: Many Genes Lead to a Broken Heart” . Dr. Collins was in attendance and seemed to know and be quite fond of the speaker. At 26:26 min:sec into the talk a slide was put up that made me gulp. Essentially what looked to be random data points on 2 separate graphs. 2 lines were drawn that were put there to show trends that were used to draw a conclusion. If that was a physics seminar that’s when the room would’ve erupted in mumbling and people blurting out questions….this audience not a peep. At the end, Dr. Collins asked a gentle question and nobody referred to the data in any of the questioning. This data would be impossible for anyone else to reproduce, and with so much discussion on the subject, the fact that the leader of the NIH (responsible for 3% of the federal budget) can’t call someone out on data like that where conclusions are being drawn makes my heart sink at any prospects for change.

  30. anon says:

    It’s not difficult to be pessimistic about STEM entirely. Following my PhD in the life sciences, I went to work at a large institution under the guise of a post-doc that would allow me to learn new skills and further develop my training. Instead, they were hiring PhDs since they were cheaper compared to technicians and could work 60-80 hrs/wk. Additionally, PhDs could pay for themselves through a NRSA. If you didn’t get a NRSA, you were gone.

  31. bad wolf says:

    Really? After specifically decrying the “large influx of foreign applicants”, the reformers did not in any way suggest limiting the influx of foreign applicants?
    Well, what can you do. It’s like the weather–totally out of everyone’s hands.

  32. bank says:

    Limiting the size of research groups appears to have been a successful strategy at the Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge, and is also applied at Janelia Farms, I believe.
    The rationale is that in larger groups the PI becomes a manager rather than remaining a scientist. As such this “big name” PI needs to hire people capable of doing the science “he” does, i.e. senior postdocs who cannot be allowed to proceed to independence for fear that the PI loses “their” productivity.

  33. Questions says:

    I have a question with respect to number 2:
    Why are we targeting the biomedical sciences?
    Why not organic chemistry?

  34. anon says:

    I have some simple math.
    How long is a PhD degree, perhaps 6 years. How long is a scientist’s career (post undergrad) if they work to 65, perhaps 43 years. How many scientists are absorbed by industry, perhaps 20%. Divide 43 by 6, multiply by 0.8 to remove the industrial scientists, and you are left with 5.7.
    From this, I conclude that if science was a viable career choice, that valued the talent and hard work of scientists and provided stable employment, you would find the average academic lab consisted of 1 professor, 5 staff scientists of varying ages (earning enough for a car and a house in the burbs), and 1 PhD student.
    In reality, the typical ponzi science group has 1 professor, a couple of postdocs (senior slaves), and many student slaves. In medicine, the analogy is all primary care being provided by residents, and after graduation the MDs are unemployed.
    Regarding “stale” staff scientists, there’s no reason they have to be locked to one group. Why not have them switch groups every 2-10 years, project and interests depending.

  35. dearieme says:

    Who on earth would choose nowadays to try to become a scientist? Obsessives, I suppose. And people with talents so narrow (however deep) that only science offers them the chance of a good career.
    But very bright young things, sufficiently talented to pursue a whole range of different careers: won’t they just look at the mess and decide to do something else instead?

  36. bank says:

    > In medicine, the analogy is all primary care being provided by residents, and after graduation the MDs are unemployed.
    Very apt indeed!
    In fact, I think that importing the approach used in medical training is in part to blame for the crisis in basic biomedical research. Everyone is a “trainee” for far too long. This is acceptable if once you finish the arduous training you have good prospects. However, the prospects for PhD’s are currently at best mediocre.
    Increasing the “energy barrier” at the PhD level would go a long way to improving the lot of everyone, poor candidates would seek alternatives careers sooner, and those found qualified would have more stable career prospects.

  37. SP says:

    35- It’s the same question for people going to law school, at least in grad school they pay you 10-25k instead of making you pay them 50k. People do it because everyone thinks they’re above average and they’ll get one of the few remaining high-paying jobs (prof, industry, patent law) and it’s only those other dummies who are going to be overqualified and out of work.

  38. annonie says:

    There certainly are funding issues with the current system, including those that receive so much of the available money, and the very high overhead costs charged by some of the “best” universities….up to 70 or 75%. If the overhead was cut to a more reasonable 20% across the board, then there would be more money available to spread around.
    But, on the bigger question of how many PhDs are appropriate to maintain & grow the country’s “needs” seems more of a quandary. On this, C&E News has repeatedly reported the unemployment rate of chemists to be well-below that of the general population. And then, there’s the constant pronouncements from Washington via the President through to Congress, both parties, that greater science education is needed for the country’s future, and that there is a deficit of trained scientists in the US today. So, if these are factual, relatively low unemployment & the need for more scientists, why is there this periodic “noise” flaring-up about the need to cut graduate programs?
    As a trained scientist, there needs to be some real data applied here to get to a better proposal.

  39. Claudio Teri says:

    Excellent article. I was searching such an analysis for a long time. I have noticed the same symptoms on the healthcare system and I am testing a sustainable tool for funding medical research. So far I have started with colon cancer research and planning to expand this to every association willing to get funded. By reading your article, now I am sure I am on their right path and now I need to focus on the right approach to pass my message. You have been a great inspiration.

  40. Wowchem says:

    Why not move back to the everyone does a masters first type system? Less PhDs, shorter training time, and they pay generating income. If grad school is “worth” it people will pay, if it’s not they won’t. You have an okay idea of job market since you graduate 2 yrs later

  41. Harrison says:

    This provides an interesting analysis of biology PHDs:
    They claim that every year, 16000 students a biology PHD with a 37% drop-out rate. 70% of PHDs go on to spend 4 or more years as Post-docs. They estimate the number of Post-Docs anywhere between 37-68000. Don’t know why they can’t lock that down. They also note 10% of former postdocs report themselves as unemployed. After that, 29000 end up as tenure track faculty, 22500 end up in industry, 7000 are current government researchers, 24000 are doing non-research science related jobs, and 17000 end up outisde of science completely. If you consider the last two categories as jobs do not fully utilize a PHD education, the system is basically churning out 40% more biology PHDs than necessary.

  42. Anonymous says:

    Maybe if young people were told truthfully what their job prospects are then the system might correct itself. But then, nobody can settle on what those prospects actually are for reasons of self interest.

  43. RB Woodweird says:

    Brings back some memories from the 1980s:
    Wild-eyed insane PI brandishing a grant rejection: You guys need to work harder! Someday they will only fund people at the top 20 universities! Then where will you be?
    Downtrodden Grad Student: (sotto voce) At one of the top 20 universities instead of this shithole?

  44. NH_chem says:

    When I went to graduate school, I had no idea how completely political the science field is. If you went to an unknown undergraduate program, you best go to a well known graduate program. If you went to an unknown graduate program, you best go to a well known post doc.
    If you didn’t go to a well known place, forget it. The HIGHFALUTIN SNOBS of the scientific world will let it be known that you are not welcome. It did not matter if you could run circles around them at the bench. They went to a “well known school” thus they were “better” than you could ever hope to be.
    Personally, this is why many small companies are more efficient than big companies (dare I say big pharma or biotech?). They have people that may have more to prove than showing off where they went to school.
    The suggestion to lower the amount of Ph.D.’s is another way to say “let’s let the well known schools be the only place to go for a Ph.D.” to which I call BS (and I am not talking the degree here!). I have heard far too often the stories of the labs where you never even talk to the advisor and the post docs run the lab and write the papers and deliver the results that the advisor demands regardless of the scientific facts.
    There are well known examples of papers that do not work or give the yield shown because they came from certain labs. But hey, they are well known so they must be good……Let’s just say that many of my compounds actually were active in assays compared to the crap made by the guy with the “well known” degree.
    RANT OFF…..happy Friday

  45. Anonymous says:

    Another problem is that the current system is very good for the country. It gets highly educated, hard working people at a very low cost. Why do you think industry and the government keep lying about the STEM shortage. However, it is very bad for many of the people in the system. I personally know of two people who committed suicide due to the stress and lack of a decent job. I know many others who left the field completely to become car salesmen, heating repair people, MBAs, etc. I saw an article a while back that listed Ph. D. as the most poorly paid degree of any one can get for the amount of education. If you really want to change the incentives and only get the very best cut the number of stipends by 90%, but increase the pay. Pick only the very best and make the rest pay their own way. The numbers of Ph.D.s would drop, but opportunities and pay would increase.

  46. Anonymous says:

    kids, switch to patent law or clinical applications

  47. Anonymous says:

    kids, switch to patent law or clinical applications

  48. Anonymous says:

    I do not understand why we shouldn’t have “too many Ph.D.’s.” From a business perspective, you MUST have too many of them so that the better, more successful, more qualified ones get the job. Otherwise, you end up placing those Ph.D.’s you complain (the ones who “who view graduate school as Undergraduate v. 2.0” or the ones with not enough skills) into faculty and industry jobs.

  49. Shock and Awe says:

    In the U.S., the low information voter pretty much only responds to fear. I think we should take the “Defense” Department completely out of science funding, and return those dollars to HHS. If one is going to use a Central Planning strategy for biomedical science, it should be truly centralized at the NIH and CDC.
    Another option might be to to re-frame the argument around science funding to make the successes of science a central tenet of our national defense strategy. The ocean is coming, as are pandemics, our obesity epidemic makes us weak. Only the Pentagon (staffed entirely by U.S.-trained scientists with security clearances) can save us.
    Though I think it would resonate with the rubes, the latter idea was intentionally hyperbolic. For one thing, the Pentagon would never give up a cent, especially if it raises labor costs for their Corporate Masters…

  50. Lu says:

    26. oldnuke on April 17, 2014 11:55 AM writes…
    Put the lid on the influx of foreign grad students; stop paying them OUR tax dollars to come.

    Completely agree. Put a cap on F-1 and J-1 visas as well. Make it small – about 5 k per year. Distribute equally among universities. Things will get better pretty soon.

  51. David says:

    #47 I have been on several patent law forums and that market seems even worse then academia. I still plan to try my luck on the patent bar exam once I graduate to try work as a patent agent but I’m not optimistic. Really as a chem major my best option is probably a low paying QA/QC type lab job and hope to eventually move up the ladder to management. Or pay for a petroleum engineering masters program but that is another bubble that will probably burst and leave me unemployed in the future.
    What is painful is I know academia is a mess but I also see industry requiring PHD’s due to so many unemployed PHD workers.

  52. SteveM says:

    Some former law students, (now unemployed attorneys) have actually sued their law schools for misrepresenting employment statistics for new graduates, or lying outright about graduate placements.
    Of course the difference between law school and working for a science PI is that the law school student has to pay tuition and expenses. But the grad student/post doc may actually want to hibernate in a research lab with the stipend.
    Still, it seems that transparency is key in both cases. As a form of consumer protection, mandate that all university departments make accurate employment statistics available prior to admission/acceptance and then let the student/post doc buyer beware.
    P.S. #51 David “Really as a chem major my best option is probably a low paying QA/QC type lab job and hope to eventually move up the ladder to management.”
    I recommend not falling into the fallacy of sunk cost. If a chem degree is functionally low value with a marginal opportunity space, train up in another domain and don’t look back. I did. I started out in chemistry, decided I didn’t want a career as a lab grunt so went back to grad school and studied Operations Research (mathematical/computer modeling). Same kind of analytical thinking, but better opportunities.
    Finally, what irritates me about the immigration proponents (crony capitalists) who want to open the floodgates is that they never address retraining American STEM workers who have been displaced. Terrible waste of intellectual capital.

  53. texmex says:

    #22 is correct. I think the need for TAs drives a lot of the chemist overpopulation problem. If universities were more serious about getting good people into non-tenured teaching positions- and paying them good salaries- it would
    provide an outlet for people that really wanted to teach. Im older and wanted to go back and teach, but when I start hearing stories about college lecturers on food stamps it makes it seem like not such a good idea.

  54. Anonymous says:

    @48 I’m guessing you’re not a PhD scientist. Too many PHDs drive down wages even for the ‘good’ scientists and leaves people under or unemployed. Businesses are the only things that’s advantageous for because it certainly isn’t benefitting society at large to have excess PhDs.

  55. AVS-600 says:

    @48 That’s only true if we make the (tragically common) assumption that any two people are capable of doing a given job equally well if they have the same training.
    In reality, too many people in a scientific field tends to make intelligent, capable people choose other careers that have better wages and employment security. Sure, you get lower cost labor if you overproduce, but it’s probably on average lower quality too, because all the “best and brightest” were able to enter a field that has more competitive entry-to-market and is higher-paying.
    On the other hand, shrinking the scope of PhD programs should (in the medium to long term) should actually improve the quality of the doctorates it produces, since it would increase wages AND result in a higher level of qualification required to get into PhD programs.

  56. Anonymous says:

    My take on the propositions:
    1: Agree completely. Some of the things that have to get done require longer term commitments, and this would help enable them
    2: I’m not sure a reduction in numbers is wise. In the long term, it seems like it will kill the amount of work output, which is something that we want to maintain. It also seems like it’s just pushing the problem back in space. The same thing as doubling the lanes of the highway only for them to be filled, except with a reduction rather than an increase.
    3: I think this one’s a good idea. Some people feel trapped due to the effort they put in and the activation energy and time required to switch tracks. Giving them an escape pathway is a good idea.
    4: I’m not sure what would really happen with this one. Post doc salary increase seems pretty good though.
    5: I like this one. It shouldn’t have to be moon or bust for everyone; there are lots of great people, and there should be enough positions for them to fill since that will make them happier and have more good work get done.
    6: I don’t like this, because I don’t really think that focusing on people and their track record rather than what they’re doing is a good idea. There’s too much room for people to learn the wrong lessons from that and care about the wrong aspects of it.
    7: Definitely! That’s where all the best stuff comes from.
    8: I see what this one is getting at, but I can’t say anything about how I think it would play out. No comment because I don’t think I can predict well enough.
    9: Agree mostly. Number of papers shouldn’t be the primary focus; quality of research should.
    10: Sure.
    11: The dangerous thing about money in general is that it’s easy for people and even easier for institutions to see it as an end rather than a means. At the end of the day, the financial flow is really just moving electrons around (well, so is chemistry but you get my point :P).

  57. Anonymous says:

    “Who on earth would choose nowadays to try to become a scientist? Obsessives, I suppose. And people with talents so narrow (however deep) that only science offers them the chance of a good career.
    But very bright young things, sufficiently talented to pursue a whole range of different careers: won’t they just look at the mess and decide to do something else instead?”
    And you would suggest what else? Law, medicine, PharmD, etc. put you up to 300K in debt. Law in particular is full of cautionary tales about how you will get six figures in the hole without six figure salaries. Teaching at the K-12 level pays a pittance. Business/consulting? They are degree whores too, and an MBA doesn’t come cheap. Finance? That industry is collapsing.
    Really, if you look at every white collar career that a bright kid who is interested in going into science would be interested in, there are more people there than there are positions. Blame outsourcing, technology, income inequality, a rising sense of “win or take all” and having a handful of people working 60-80 hours a week with everyone else underemployed. There are just not a lot of options.
    And whether or not there are too many PhDs or not, a PhD is quickly becoming the standard credential for non-bench careers that are science related in law, business, policy, and consulting.

  58. Anonymous says:

    Recommendation #4 was applied rigorously in France recently. Immediatly led to an explosion of unemployment rates among experienced post-docs, because the research institutions could not afford to offer them the usual cheap jobs anymore. Guess what? The majority of the tiny minority who got tenured in that slaughtering process is exactly of the “scientifically timid ruthless elbow throwers” kind.
    Straight to hell with good intents.

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