Alex Philippidis Senior News Editor Genetic Engineering & Biotechnology News

In PNAS paper, co-authors argue nation’s biomedical system is unsustainable.

Some tough, mostly necessary, but politically difficult medicine is being suggested by four noted researchers who correctly warn that the U.S. must reform its biomedical research system to address the glut of Ph.D.s and other problems that have sapped its sustainability over the past decade.

Adding credibility to the diagnosis, and recommendations for addressing them, are the stellar backgrounds of the researchers. In addition to Shirley Tilghman, Ph.D., FRS, a former Princeton University president and the article’s corresponding author, the authors include Harold Varmus, M.D., director of NIH’s National Cancer Institute and a former NIH director; Bruce Alberts, Ph.D., of the University of California, San Francisco, a former U.S. science envoy and president emeritus of the National Academy of Sciences; and Marc W. Kirschner, Ph.D., founding chair of the Department of Systems Biology at Harvard Medical School.

In a paper published April 22 in Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, the researchers identified those problems, starting with the Ph.D. glut—the “perpetual disequilibrium” caused as an ever-growing supply of scientists vie for shrinking demand from universities and other institutions.

The co-authors correctly assess the consequences: “hypercompetition” for resources that abets play-it-safe science rather than groundbreaking research, an “overvaluing” of translational studies, more time spent on grant or regulatory paperwork, less participation by senior scientists in peer review, and a loss of confidence by younger researchers that causes many to drop out of the profession, wasting the thousands of training and research dollars spent per researcher by the U.S. taxpayer through the NIH.

“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,” the co-authors concluded. “The U.S. research community cannot continue to ignore the warning signs of a system under great stress and at risk for incipient decline.”

“It is time to confront the dangers at hand and rethink some fundamental features of the U.S. biomedical research ecosystem,” the researchers urged.

Shrinking the Lab

Much of that rethinking would shrink the ever-expanding lab. The co-authors recommend gradually raising pay for postdocs until they’re paid as much as staff scientists, reasoning this will lower the number of fellows and eliminate cost as a factor when PIs weigh the benefits of being a postdoc vs. staff scientist.

The co-authors would limit the total number of years that a postdoc fellow may be supported by federal research grants. After that, fellows’ salaries would rise to those of research staff scientists, which the researchers envision would increase in number and importance.

“As currently ‘priced,’ postdocs are a bargain compared to many graduate students, for whom tuition must be paid, and to staff scientists,” Paula E. Stephan, Ph.D., professor of economics at Georgia State University’s Andrew Young School of Policy Studies, and research associate at the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER), told GEN. “I have estimated that their hourly rate is just short of $16 an hour. If postdocs were to be paid the same as staff scientists, they would cost twice as much; also their fringe package would be more expensive.”

Whether this becomes reality will hinge on who ultimately pays for staff scientists: Universities are unlikely to part with NIH money won for postdoc support without demanding federal help with the higher staff salaries. Will NIH spending be able to accommodate such extra spending?

Among means of thinning the Ph.D. herd suggested by the researchers was promoting careers outside the lab, such as in science policy and administration, industry, science writing, law, and science education. Dr. Stephan additionally suggests that departments be required to post placement data online, while students should pay part of their own way: “If students were required to pay a small amount of the upfront costs—something like 10%—they might give their career prospects a more serious thought up front.”

The co-authors would also gradually reduce the number of Ph.D.s by cutting graduate student support via research grants until none are supported by these grants; instead, grad students would be supported by training grants and fellowships. The co-authors acknowledge that would require the U.S. to overturn its ban on funding noncitizens via training grants. That’s easier said than done given how hard it has been to increase H1-B visas. The political parties will likely stay deadlocked on reforming immigration this Congressional election year, followed by two years of presidential campaigning.

A large influx of non-U.S. citizens accounts for the increase in grad school applicants in recent years despite lower employment prospects. As Dr. Stephan noted, $42,000 annual salaries are attractive enough to students from lower-paying countries. Also, many foreign-born postdocs perceive that studying in the U.S. will enhance their career prospects, whether stateside or at home. Those and other reasons come from data collected by Dr. Stephan and two colleagues from scientists in 16 countries, for International Competition for Ph.D.s and Postdoctoral Scholars: What Does (and Does Not) Matter, a paper presented for an April 8 NBER conference.

“To date, the foreign born have not been that discouraged by poor career outcomes here. This may change as jobs in biopharma increase, but we have yet to see a big impact,” Dr. Stephan said.

Productivity and Process

The net result of the recommendations would be an average decline in the size of U.S. labs, since the cost of each additional person would be greater, Dr. Tilghman acknowledges.

“I don’t think you can conclude from this, however, that the labs are going to be less productive,” Dr. Tilghman told GEN. It is a myth that graduate students are amazingly productive. No convincing study has been conducted, but it is my experience that it takes several years before a new graduate student is really producing results. With fewer inexperienced workers in the lab, it is very possible that the average productivity per person will actually increase.”

The co-authors additionally propose reforms to the process of awarding NIH grants. In addition to grants tailored to various career phases—something NIH has tried to accomplish, with success as limited as its funds—the researchers urge more awards that emphasize originality and risk-taking, and call for change in how reviewers assess applicants, toward “focusing as much (or more) on the overall quality of their science as on their proposed projects.” Qualitative aspects of grant candidates’ scientific achievements, they suggested, should outweigh how often and where they publish.

Peer review panels, the researchers recommend, should be overhauled by requiring all current grant holders to serve on them if asked; by diminishing the requirement for balanced geographical representation; and broadening the range of fields of reviewers, to avoid insularity. While some, such as the self-described NIH-funded researcher who blogs as “DrugMonkey,” smells “the stench of elitism” in such changes, Dr. Tilghman says reforms should follow the Howard Hughes Medical Institute model: “The key is having very accomplished reviewers who are risk takers themselves.”

The co-authors also recommend replacing the yo-yo budgeting that has hurt NIH with “predictable and stable” funding, without quantifying the terms, rising in line with a five-year fiscal plan that could be updated annually. While that should be the goal, NIH supporters might consider shorter two- or three-year plans to win over Congress, where federal spending remains a divisive issue.

Dr. Tilghman said slow-and-steady budget increases would prevent the hyperexpansion that labs saw after Bill Clinton’s administration doubled NIH’s budget over five years starting in 1998: “That was unsustainable, and everyone knew it at the time, there was not a way to adjust to steady-state once the doubling happened.”

If there’s one area ripe for additional study based on the paper, it is the impact of grad and postdoc reforms on diversifying the biomedical workforce. Over the winter, NIH solicited applications for funds from its new Building Infrastructure Leading to Diversity (BUILD) initiative, designed to support programs to draw more women, minorities, and persons with disabilities into the field. A focus on “quality” or past success should not undermine diversity efforts.

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