Alex Philippidis Senior News Editor Genetic Engineering & Biotechnology News

Professional Groups Helping Turn Discontent into Dialogue, Data Gathering

Years of discontent with the dysfunctional system that trains and sustains postdoctoral researchers has begun giving way to dialogue and data-gathering that proponents hope will begin translating to better pay and working conditions.

The latest effort in that direction is set for February 4–5, when the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology (ASBMB) holds a stakeholder summit in Washington, DC, focused on sustaining the biomedical research enterprise. Postdocs will join senior researchers, and attendees from government, academia, and industry in coming up with areas for future action focused on research funding, enhancing training, and optimizing the workforce.

The three areas fall roughly in line with priorities identified from a study published last year in PNAS. The study consolidated more than 250 suggestions from nine reports published 2012 into eight consensus recommendations made by the majority of the reports.

“The goal is to drill down on some of these consensus recommendations and come up with action items that ASBMB and other members of the scientific community can lead on,” Chris Pickett, a policy analyst at ASBMB and corresponding author of last year’s study, told GEN. “We want something that the community can get behind and make real progress, whether that’s acting through institutions, or having the community put pressure on the NIH or Congress itself.

“Ideally, we’d like to start making progress on all of them within the year,” Pickett added. “We want to make real change rather than just talking about it.”

The ASBMB summit comes four months after Future of Research (FOR), a group of postdocs in the Boston region, held its second symposium, with a focus on the job market for postdocs and grad students. Held October 22–24, 2015, the symposium identified three challenges to improving the postdoc experience: Quantifying their number, improving their economics, and changing their working culture so they can more easily pursue non-academic careers.

“In essence, the nature of graduate training is a cause of many of these problems,” Future of Research Boston 2015 co-lead organizer Gary McDowell, Ph.D., a postdoctoral scholar in the lab of Michael Levin, Ph.D., at Tufts University, told GEN; Dr. Levin is director of the Tufts Center for Regenerative and Developmental Biology. “Poorly defined training periods mean that graduate students often don’t know when they will finish. It is often easiest when job-searching to then move into what they already know, which is a postdoc.”

It is quite common, Dr. McDowell said, for a graduate student to work as a postdoc in the same lab where they did their thesis work for a few months after graduation as they begin their job search: “The culture in graduate training is also directed toward academic careers, with little to no training for other career streams, and also sometimes a culture against doing so.”

Another challenge is postdoc pay. Keynote speaker Paula E. Stephan, Ph.D., professor of economics at Georgia State University’s Andrew Young School of Policy Studies, noted at the symposium that postdocs are incredibly productive compared to their cost, giving investigators great incentive to let grad students and postdocs carry out the bench science required to publish the papers needed to win grants.

According to Dr. Stephan, who is also research associate at the National Bureau of Economic Research, the NIH-stipulated salary for postdocs during FY 2015 was $42,840, compared with $60,000 and up for staff scientists. Life sciences postdocs worked, on average, 2,650 hours a year, resulting in an hourly rate of $16.15 before fringe benefits, compared with $30 for staff scientists and $34 for grad students. And while stipends for grad students only range from $16,000 to $28,000, they can cost an additional $16,000 or more once their tuition is included, while working only 1,200 to 1,500 hours a year.

“Frankly, the biomedical research system relies on a highly productive and cheap labor workforce,” Dr. McDowell said.

Potential solutions, Dr. Stephan concluded, entail cutting back on postdoc supply or demand. To reduce supply, institutions can inform postdocs on different career paths or alternative degrees, encourage internships, require departments to post placement information online, require grad students to pay for part of their tuition, and reduce the relationship between research and training.

Postdoc demand can be reduced, she added, by requiring institutions to raise salaries and benefits “significantly,” offering incentives to create more staff science, and limiting the amount of salary they can charge off grants.

FOR is writing up its findings and discussions from the event, and setting up a nonprofit to support future meetings. Last year, satellite meetings were held in New York, San Francisco, and Chicago—events the group hopes to repeat this year.  “We are working to keep the conversation going to lead to culture change. We feel we need to keep talking about these issues to get the culture of academia to change,” Dr. McDowell said.

Until now, he added, FOR’s leaders have carried out the group’s work part-time, juggling it with their work as postdoctoral researchers. “We will be applying for funding at least one full-time person to work on supporting future meetings, but also advocating and working with groups to actually effect change.”

Perhaps the most basic challenge that staffer will face is figuring out just how many postdocs there are. A study published in October by the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology (FASEB) recorded a 5.5% decline in the number of biological and medical science postdocs from 40,970 in 2010 to 38,719 in 2013. The decrease did not correlate with reductions in graduate students or visas for foreign workers—but may instead be consistent with reductions in the number of research grants, independent laboratories, and job announcements during the same period, FASEB said.

The FASEB study’s figures on postdocs are based on the National Science Foundation’s Survey of Graduate Students and Postdoctorates in Science and Engineering. The NSF survey paints an incomplete picture: The survey is voluntary. And the data lags more than a year behind its release. The most recent study, released in April 2015, published data collected in fall 2013—though an updated study is set to come out in March.

But it’s the NSF survey set to come out next year that will begin answering a key question: Will the number of postdocs reverse its slide following the $2 billion boost in NIH’s FY2016 budget approved by Congress last month?

“At least for one year or so, we’re going to be in a much healthier situation regarding funding,” Howard H. Garrison, Ph.D., FASEB’s deputy executive director for policy and director of its Office of Public Affairs, told GEN. “I would guess there will be an increase in the number of postdocs. But whether it will go up all the way back to where it was before, or whether there will still be some residual decline, is uncertain.”

The number of postdocs may remain lower due to a loss of jobs in recent years, as well as long-term concern about career prospects: “To the extent that there are many different sources accounting for this change, some of them will come back, but they might not all come back,” Dr. Garrison said.

Ph.D. supply and demand was also among workshop topics addressed in May by the Future of Biomedical Graduate and Postdoctoral Training (FOBGAPT), a national meeting held in May at the University of Michigan’s Horace H. Rackman Graduate School. Other workshops focused on reforming curricula; pursuing alternative funding, promoting diversity, creating new training models, and adding more real-world learning experiences and nonacademic career tracks.

A follow-up meeting to FOBGAPT is now planned for 2017, giving participants time to implement new initiatives, and share their results, Mary X.D. O’Riordan, Ph.D., associate dean for graduate and postdoctoral studies at University of Michigan Medical School, told GEN.

Over the past year, she said, new initiatives have included a grant opportunity for students pursuing professional development tracks such as science policy or science writing; a peer mentoring program where students and postdocs can learn together about diverse science careers; and a program now in early stages that supports external internships and other experiential learning opportunities.

“We and other institutions have spent quite a lot of time and organizational effort on providing what we think of as “soft skills,” said Dr. O’Riordan, who is also an associate professor of microbiology and immunology. “We’re starting to think more about things like giving an elevator pitch, project management, time management—skills which are very relevant to academic research, but which have not been considered to be part of academic training.”

However, changing the culture of postdoc training to promote nonacademic careers will take longer and require more than new programs. Time will be needed to get support and involvement from faculty members.

To illustrate the need for changes, the university is in the process of initiating a survey of students, graduates, and postdocs whose results will be shared with faculty groups—and lead to workshops for faculty designed to promote valuing career paths in and outside the lab. The workshops will be modeled on an initiative that successfully highlighted best practices for hiring, leading to a more diverse faculty and greater success for women faculty in science and engineering through the NSF-funded University of Michigan ADVANCE program.

“The goal is to have people start to think a little differently about what the outcomes are for our students,” Dr. O’Riordan said. “Then they’ll start to say, ‘Maybe professional development should be a required part of training. If we really want our students to be successful, maybe this does need to be a credit or two in our curriculum, because we want our students to not only go out as great scientists, but also understanding how to be successful in the scientific workforce.’”

Postdocs, Grads on NIH’s Radar

NIH says some of the $2 billion in additional funding it will receive this fiscal year will go toward helping address challenges related to postdoc training and conditions, though details are in the works.

“Certainly there is consideration of reviewing the graduate student and postdoc stipend through the NRSA [Ruth L. Kirschstein National Research Service Award], and discussion about how the budget might be used in terms of supporting that NRSA program. Those decisions have not yet been made, but they’re certainly on the radar,” Kay Lund, Ph.D., director of NIH’s Division of Biomedical Research Workforce Programs, told GEN.

In August, Dr. Lund became inaugural director for the division, created to provide ongoing analysis of the biomedical research workforce and evaluate NIH policies to help the agency sustain and grow that workforce.

Through the division, NIH has joined with other science-focused federal agencies to coordinate graduate training programs; Dr. Lund co-chairs the Federal Coordination in STEM Education Task Force (FC-STEM). The division has also engaged with professional groups working to improve conditions for postdocs, including Future of Research and the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology (See above).

“I think what this has done is to establish a dialogue, where we can actually be sure that we’re communicating with the stakeholders, the postdocs and the graduates themselves, in hearing what they feel would enhance their career development pathway and training pathway,” Dr. Lund said.

Also on NIH’s radar screen is improving training of graduate students before they become postdocs. NIH’s National Institute of General Medical Sciences (NIGMS) is organizing a meeting on graduate education

“We really want to stimulate conversation among grantees to think about graduate education, and provide a forum to bring people together who are thinking about this, and who have examples of innovative graduate curricula,” Alison Gammie, Ph.D., director of NIGMS’ Division of Training, Workforce Development, and Diversity, told GEN. “Not that we’re being prescriptive, but we want to showcase particular examples that could stimulate ideas that people could take back to their institutions.”

Last month, NIGMS announced the availability of funds for administrative supplements to NIGMS-funded predoctoral T32 training grants. NIGMS said it intends to commit $1.5 million in FY 2016 to fund 15–20 awards. The funds are intended to support development and implementation of curricular activities aimed at providing graduate students with a strong foundation in research design and methods in areas related to conducting reproducible and rigorous research.

NIGMS has scheduled a February 8 webinar from 3:15–4:15 p.m. ET for would-be grantees with questions. The deadline for applications is March 31, at 5 p.m. local time of applicant organization.

NIGMS also plans to reissue modified versions of the administrative supplements and training modules for enhancing students’ abilities to conduct rigorous and reproducible research. Both are in the works. “We will give some examples, but leave it to the ingenuity of the grantees to come up with ideas of how to innovate in graduate education,” Shiva Singh, Ph.D., Chief, Undergraduate and Predoctoral Branch of NIGMS’ Division of Training, Workforce Development, and Diversity, told GEN.

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