WASHINGTON, D.C.—Last December, the Advisory Committee to the Director (ACD) of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) received and reviewed a report from NIH's Biomedical Research Workforce Working Group. Earlier this week, a National Academy of Sciences (NAS) workshop, "The Arc of the Academic Research Career: Issues and Implications for U.S. Science and Engineering Leadership," considered many of the same issues as December's NIH discussions—namely, the state of biomedical researcher training in the United States, scientists' career prognoses, and how federal and institutional policies could be improved. Although the data presented to the two groups was largely the same, the tenor of the discussions was very different.
First issued in June 2012, the working group's report made a controversial proposal: that funding should gradually be moved away from R01 grants and toward new NIH training grants in an effort to decouple graduate student and postdoc stipends. But responses to this proposal were tepid at the June ACD meeting where the proposals were first presented. Such a move would reduce the number of graduate students and postdocs available to principal investigators (PIs), and make trainees more expensive to hire, some ACD members argued. That would reduce PIs' autonomy and encumber the research enterprise. "One wants to be sure that the principal investigators, who are supposed to be doing the research, continue to have enough flexibility to be able to support the research they want to do," offered biologist Robert Horvitz of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge.
When the ACD convened in December to discuss implementing the working group's recommendations, this one had vanished from the agenda. The discussions at the December meeting avoided controversial issues, centering on whether, in an era in which only a small minority of scientists can realistically expect academic research careers, universities were adequately training students for a range of careers beyond the tenure track. At this meeting, the ACD moved forward with most of the working group's other recommendations, including proposals that would: establish a new funding program to explore how to better train grad students and postdocs for nonacademic careers; require trainees funded by NIH to have an individual development plan; encourage institutions to limit time-to-graduation for graduate students to 5 years; encourage institutions to track the career outcomes of their graduates; and encourage NIH study sections to look favorably upon grant proposals from teams that include staff scientists. Yet, the working group's chair, former Princeton University president Shirley Tilghman, told Science Careers that she couldn't "help but go back to [her] cynicism" so long as NIH merely "encouraged" many of these measures.
In contrast to the measured discussion at December's ACD meeting, the attendees of last week's NAS meeting—mostly researchers who have studied the academic labor market—were critical of the status quo, arguing that keeping things the way they are would be disastrous for the scientific workforce.
Henry Sauermann, a professor of strategic management at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta, who specializes in science and innovation incentives, argued and gave evidence that merely making students and postdocs more aware of the dismal prospects of employment in academia—as NIH intends to by encouraging institutions to track and publish career outcomes—may not deter them from pursuing those careers.
As part of a larger survey, he and colleagues asked approximately 1000 postdocs this question: "5 years out of a Ph.D., what percentage of graduates hold a tenure-track faculty position?" He asked the attendees at last week's meeting to guess how well postdocs' responses match up with numbers from the National Science Foundation's Science and Engineering Indicators 2012 report (14.3% for life sciences; 15.5% for engineering; 16.5% for both chemistry and physics). The audience replied with a chorus of, "not accurate at all"—but in Sauermann's survey, students' averaged responses squared neatly with reality, falling within a few percentage points in every field. This appears to indicate, Sauermann noted, that trainees who pursue academic careers know what they are getting into and do it anyway.
Donna Ginther, a professor of economics at the University of Kansas, Lawrence and a member of the Biomedical Research Workforce Working Group, told attendees that there are "storm clouds on the horizon," echoing Rising Above the Gathering Storm, the provocative title of a 2007 report by the National Academies that looked into many of these same issues.
Almost all the growth in the scientific workforce has been in temporary and part-time nontenure-track positions, Ginther noted. "Tenured faculty are expensive, so [universities] meet the demand by having part-time and adjunct faculty," she said. "The majority of growth is in these nontenure-track jobs." Speakers later in the day referred to this process as the "adjunctification" of academia.
There aren't enough permanent jobs in academia for the vast majority of science graduates—and yet little has been done to curtail the production of doctorates, Ginther argues. "Employment has been stagnant, but Ph.D. production has been zooming," Ginther said.
Even as federal funding for universities has become increasingly scarce, many universities have been increasing the size of their undergraduate populations, Ginther noted. Those students need teachers, and labs need laborers, she added. "What we have, apparently, is an excess supply of Ph.D.s, and uncertain demand."
At December's ACD meeting, the discussion focused on tweaking graduate programs to better prepare students for jobs outside academia, and several ACD members pointed to the relatively low unemployment numbers among science Ph.D.s as reassurance about trainees' professional prospects. But if those Ph.D. researchers elect to leave science in favor of work in, say, finance or consulting, the federal government's investment is wasted, Ginther said. Tweaking the training process, she added, may not be good enough.
There are signs already that the low demand for and high supply of biomedical scientists is affecting the attractiveness of this career for American students, Ginther said. The growth in the number of biomedical Ph.D.s over the last several years has been driven almost entirely by foreign students; the number of American students earning biomedical Ph.D.s has been essentially flat.
None of the presenters at last week's meeting put forth any radical suggestions for how to overhaul the academic training system, but the tenor of the discussions was far more critical of established practices than the discussions heard at NIH in December 2012. After Ginther's presentation, this reporter overheard a chat between two meeting attendees. One suggested that science professors cannot in good conscience encourage their students to pursue a Ph.D., considering the long odds for finding a permanent job that utilizes those skills. Instead, she argued, people interested in careers in science ought to be made aware of the array of science-related careers available to them that don't require a Ph.D.