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Beryl Lieff Benderly

“Business As Usual is Not Acceptable,” Says NIH Panel Chair Tilghman

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.  

2 comments on ““Business As Usual is Not Acceptable,” Says NIH Panel Chair Tilghman”

  1. Zepto says:

    Here’s my problem:
    “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 logical, perhaps unpopular solution would be for the NIH to mandate much higher wages for grad students AND postdocs of all NIH funded laboratories and institutions. This would not be done explicitly to help grad students and postdocs, but to reduce their attractiveness as cheap labor. To put in bluntly, the current system will remain in its broken state until the price of grad students and postdocs is more than the price of entry-level technicians.
    Don’t try to get “budget conscious PIs” (of which I am one) to choose more expensive approaches – make the choice for them by eliminating the salary structure that makes postdocs and grad students cheaper than technicians.

  2. Aaron T. Dossey, Ph.D. says:

    I have been researching the plight of science careers and postdocs for a while now. Here are some things that occur to me which would help a LOT in improving career prospects as well as getting more productivity, innovation, problem solving, diversity and everything else of value out of the science budget:
    1) Put an annual limit on the amount of total federal grant dollars that one person (principle investigator) can be given for research (this would not include small business, education and other types of grants).
    2) Make the identity submitter of grant proposals and manuscripts unknown to the reviewers and decision makers as much as possible.
    3) As this article suggests, create/fund a much wider variety of permanent/stable staff scientist career track positions at institutions geared toward Ph.D.’s – particularly for core research service facilities (which should be expanded greatly).
    4) End the system of tenure for faculty, it’s a concept whose time has come and went.
    5) Mandate twice per year surveys for trainees (students and postdocs) paid on grants to be sent directly from the agency to the trainee and directly back to the institution. These should focus on career outlooks, career services provided at the institution, human resources greivances/complaints, and especially (the bulk of the survey) should focus on the quaity of mentoring they are getting. Mentoring scores should be utilized to evaluate future grants in which a PI requests funding for trainees.
    6) Mandate that all institutions elegible for federal funding allow postdocs (and possibly graduate students) to be sole Principle Investigators on grants which they write if they choose.
    If anyone would like to discuss these ideas with me, feel free to email.
    Aaron T. Dossey, Ph.D.

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