WASHINGTON, D.C.--Scientists who also practice medicine are becoming an "endangered species," a group of bench researchers said yesterday. The Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology (FASEB) called upon the government to do more to support the careers of "physician-scientists," who provide a key link between the lab and the clinic, the FASEB group said. If nothing reverses trends of attrition, they warned, there won't be enough mentors in the United States to educate the next generation in how to transfer science to the clinic or to probe clinical experiences for new biology.

In a report issued on Wednesday, FASEB quoted surveys by the American Medical Association showing that the number of physicians who call research their main career activity has declined 6% from 1980 to 1997--even as biomedicine has boomed. While physician-scientists dwindled, the ranks of doctors swelled and the number of those engaged primarily in patient care actually doubled from 1980 to 1997.

The cadre of M.D.-Ph.D.s is not only shrinking, it's aging too. In 1977, FASEB notes, 54% of the National Institutes of Health (NIH)-funded investigators with an M.D.-Ph.D. degree were under 45 years old; by 1997, the under-45 share had declined to 41%. FASEB worries that as mentors approach retirement age, there won't be enough to teach the next generation. "We see a crisis," said FASEB President David Kaufman, adding, "it takes a decade to train these people, and we need to do something now."

The FASEB analysis * calls upon NIH to double the money it provides for training biomedical M.D.-Ph.D.s, with a goal of raising the total supported each year from 400 to 800. FASEB also urges NIH to expand a medical school bill debt-relief program to enable "at least 100 M.D.s per year" to shift gears and move into basic research.

Such an alarm has been sounded before. Other groups representing physicians have made a pitch for clinical science, and the NIH has responded with small-scale assistance programs. But this is the first time that FASEB, whose 67,000 members are mainly involved in bench science, has taken up the cause. Walter Schaffer, a training research official at NIH, says his office is aware of the physician-scientist shortfall and that NIH has already expanded support for physicians doing basic research. But, he says, "we could expand that cadre a little more."

--ELIOT MARSHALL

* "The Physician Scientist: Career Issues and Challenges at the Year 2000," to appear in the Life Sciences Forum of the February issue of The FASEB Journal.