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Academic Careers

NIH Report Identifies Supply & Demand as Top Biomedical Scientist Concern

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) last week released a report from its Working Group on the Future Biomedical Research Workforce exploring the career and workplace concerns of biomedical researchers working in the United States. NIH queried hundreds of scientists working both inside and outside NIH and received 219 responses.

In the surveys, NIH asked respondents to rate the eight issues listed below according to their significance to the respondents’ careers:

  • Supply and Demand
  • PhD Characteristics
  • Postdoc Fellow Training Characteristics
  • Biomedical Research Career Appeal
  • Clinician Characteristics
  • Staff Scientist Career Track
  • Effects of NIH Policies
  • Training-to-Research-Grant Ratio

Respondents also commented on those issues and provided additional concerns. In these comments, four additional issues recurred frequently enough that NIH added them to its analysis:

  • Diversity
  • Mentoring
  • Early Educational Interventions
  • Industry Partnership

The working group further parsed the respondents’ comments into 498 “quotations” and sorted those into the 12 broader categories listed above. The image below, taken from the report, shows the distribution of those concerns among the respondents’ comments:

In the report, the working group notes that “Supply and Demand” comes out ahead “because it affects all the other issues. Commenters felt that the imbalance between supply and demand is so vast that excellent candidates cannot find work in academia.” Respondents reported that there are simply too many scientists for the number of jobs available; that they feel like the current workforce is set up like a “pyramid scheme” which exploits student and postdoc labor; that funding is unsustainably low; and that non-U.S. scientists are taking many of the jobs that could go to American scientists.

The working group recommends in the report that NIH “[r]educe the number of students and post-doctoral fellows supported,” increase awareness of alternative careers for people trained in science, and work on ways to increase funding and promote a wider distribution of funds.

The report concludes that many of the issues identified overlap with one another and that fixing singular concern likely won’t be possible with also addressing the tangled web of associated issues. Salley Rockey, NIH’s Deputy Director for Extramural Research, wrote in her blog last week that “[t]he working group is incorporating these responses in their deliberations as they consider their recommendations for a sustainable biomedical infrastructure.”