Biomedical Trainees Caught Between The Discordant Goals of Universities and the NIH

Brian C. Martinson has written an excellent commentary that appears in the 13 September issue of Nature. The topic of “Universities and The Money Fix” is the discordance between the goals of NIH and research universities in conducting biomedical research and, as a result, generating research trainees at a rate whose absorption by the system is unsustainable.

Since the early 1980s new investigators have been entering NIH funding at a more rapid rate than experienced investigators have been exiting, leading to a population increase…
…We need to look at both the supply and the demand sides of the NIH funding equation. Most who worry about these issues have focused on the size or distribution of the pool of NIH dollars. Far fewer have given consideration to the size or dynamics of the population of biomedical researchers living on NIH funding. Few have overtly asked the question — are there too many biomedical scientists?
There are insufficient ‘feedback loops’ linking the production of biomedical researchers to the availability of resources to support them. Instead, the educational system is replete with incentives to generate ever more PhDs and medical doctors. In the short term these arrangements may benefit universities, but in the longer term, such extreme levels of competition for funding are unsustainable.

Inattention to those ‘feedback loops’ is at the heart of the current problem of qualified PhDs being unable to find positions. NIH might be faulted for their role in training too many biomedical scientists relative to the number that might be competitive for research grants down the road. But instead, Martinson faults research universities for riding the cash cow for too many years:

Universities have benefited handsomely from the efforts of senior faculty members in securing NIH grants during their careers, perhaps those same universities could now return the favour by taking full responsibility for paying these faculty salaries in their later years. This would serve the dual purpose of getting them off the NIH dole, and encouraging them to share their knowledge with their younger colleagues through more teaching.
This won’t be easy. Given the levels of dependency on NIH money, it is akin to asking an addict to give up an easy fix.

A few days ago, Jake Young (Pure Pedantry) and Orac (Respectful Insolence) cited a recent Science commentary lamenting the current lack of support for physician-scientists in academic research. While Orac’s thread generated a lively discussion of the virtues of MD-PhD researchers vs. PhD-only researchers, both posts cited the commentary’s point that all academic biomedical researchers essentially operate as small businesses, although in buildings owned by universities.
As a lab director, you are responsible for raising the money to pay some percentage of your own salary plus usually all of the salary of lab personnel, plus the general operating budget of the laboratory. Very expensive shared equipment is usually paid for by funds pooled from departments or centers, with the now-rare exception of NIH large equipment grants. Universities recover the funds to pay for infrastructure and fixed costs of providing a building in the form of indirect costs (or F&A, financial and administrative costs). So, an academic laboratory director is basically renting space from a university (with their indirect costs) and providing some services (teaching, patient care) in return for the portion of their salary not covered by grant revenue. But, in many research universities, pressure exists to do more research (for more indirect costs) and less of the service activities.
Again, Martinson:

With academic faculty members seen as revenue generators, they are encouraged in subtle and not-so-subtle ways to expend greater effort on lucrative activities: this has made research a preferred activity over teaching or patient care. It also means they must spend a substantial amount of time writing grants. This arrangement generally works in the universities’ favour, but the downsides of the dependence on NIH funding are becoming harder to ignore.

Beyond the poor prospects for current biomedical trainees, those fortunate to land junior faculty positions, often competing with several hundred applicants for one position, then face their own very serious issues:

As NIH funding becomes harder for junior researchers to obtain, we might expect them to experience the elevated levels of depression, anxiety and job dissatisfaction documented in a survey of medical faculty members in 2006. We might also expect the greatest effects to be felt by female scientists and those from minority groups, for younger researchers to leave science, and to see somewhat less ethical behaviour among those who stay. The robustness of the research engine must be judged on more than the level of funding or the number of scientists.

I am not an economist but it is clear that we as a scientific community must pay more attention to the issues of researcher supply and demand and less on “biggering and biggering,” as taught in the insightful Dr Seuss classic, The Lorax. Martinson argues that calling for more NIH funding will only serve to perpetuate this problem:

Thus, calls for further increases in the NIH budget may only make matters worse. In my view, it is time to ask the biggest beneficiaries of NIH largesse — the universities and academic health centres — to find ways to balance supply and demand that better reflect their obligations to researchers and society.

How to do this is the challenge for the current generation of NIH and university leaders. For current trainees and those competing for positions, not trying to follow in the footsteps of your academic mentors is only one solution, as the pharmaceutical and chemical industries have also cut back on the hiring of biomedical PhDs.
So, the problem is already a big one for existing junior scientists – how can we keep it from getting worse for the next generation?

10 thoughts on “Biomedical Trainees Caught Between The Discordant Goals of Universities and the NIH

  1. Why the implicit assumption that a PhD only has any value if you continue into a research career – or even staying in the field at all? An undergraduate degree doesn’t only have value of you continue with a PhD; a PhD really is no different.
    To put it another way, if you had the money to support every PhD with a research career, there’d be a rather painful lack of PhDs willing to work in other industries than academia.
    The major question is if graduate schools should be in the business of forecasting employment trends at all. Be upfront about the competitive nature of the career, and how funding and positions do vary wildly over time. Be clear that if you graduate, you have fairly small chances of ever making tenure, or even support yourself doing or teaching over your working life. Show people statistics on what the PhD graduates of the past ten years are doing by now (my institution actually does exactly this). Then let people decide for themselves if graduate school is still worth it.
    We don’t demand that fine art schools or acting academies limit their student intake in the face of dismal career prospects. You’re not saying to colleges they are financing too many football or basketball players that will never have a chance as full-time professionals. Why are science postgraduates any different?

  2. One feature of the “overproduction” discussion that needs to be raised more often is that perhaps this is an intentional and necessary part of the system. Why do we assume that all doctoral scientists need to become “independent” investigators? Why should this business be any different from the hierarchical nature of most businesses. Lots of workers and many fewer bosses.
    I would argue that it boils down to the degree of security in the career path (most importantly) and level of pay (as a secondary issue). If we could figure out how to give nonPI professional research scientists the type of job security that is associated with RealJobs (independent appointments) we would solve much of the perceived problem with doctoral scientist “overproduction”. Not to mention keep from losing good people to BigPharma and other jobs which offer a promise of job security.

  3. More competition is good for science. Those that don’t make it to the top research level can always work in industry. If scientists are stressed that’s their own problem.
    We don’t care about the stress bankers, programmers or teachers face – why should we care about scientists more than other professions?

  4. Why do we assume that all doctoral scientists need to become “independent” investigators? Why should this business be any different from the hierarchical nature of most businesses. Lots of workers and many fewer bosses.
    Maybe I’m misunderstanding you but — that’s the whole point! Academic research is premised on the idea that everyone should be becoming a boss. Industry research, like any sane business, doesn’t kick people out of their job after five years to either become a CEO elsewhere or to give up and go to law school.
    More competition is good for science. Those that don’t make it to the top research level can always work in industry. If scientists are stressed that’s their own problem.
    For one thing, in industry we want people who want to be here, not people who failed in academia. But addressing your main point: it matters in the sense that the falling success rate of grant applications is used to justify increases in funding. You can’t simultaneously do that and have funding be the limiting factor for the whole system. Not if you’re honest, anyway.

  5. One major thing that the original article and this blog entry ignore: demographics.
    The baby boomers in the US are about to begin retiring – in the next few years. Within my department, a major biomedical department at a major university, half the faculty are within less than 10 years of retirement. Replacing them all when they retire is going to be very difficult.
    Because of the demographics of the baby boom, the last 20-30 years have seen very extreme competition for faculty slots. Add that on top of the desirability of the USA as a destination for international scientists, and one could claim there has been an oversupply of scientists.
    However, aside from the baby boomers retiring, I would argue that the US desirability as a destination for international scientists will slowly wane as well, since places like China are rapidly building up research infrastructure and wooing scientists with lucrative positions.
    The combination of retirements and less international desirability could easily push things in the other direction – having too many faculty slots without adequately qualified candidates.
    Therefore, I argue that it would be foolish to suddenly ramp down our graduate student production now, but instead let “market forces” determine what will happen over the coming years. If things stay ultra-competitive, believe me, less people will seek out careers in this area, and it will self-limit. Graduate students are aware of this kind of stuff going in, and if the pressures remain the way they are, few will try to follow in their advisor’s footsteps.

  6. Morgan: We’ve been hearing this tune, in various remixes, for two decades now. Some people are a bit skeptical after all this time. Me, I look at the reason the giant increase in demand for tenure track professors never materialized and have a little bit of hope.
    The first error, which you make as well, was/is targeting some fixed idea of “retirement age”. Presumably you are thinking 65. Trouble is, scientists and professors alike frequently fail to retire on schedule and later-life health and vitality continue to increase on a demographic scale. So there may be a much softer loss of boomers (a what, two decade “generation” anyhow) than the usual demographic arguments would predict.
    The second error speaks to tenure track professorial appointments specifically. Instead of hiring more of these to meet the class hour demands universities and colleges offloaded increasing amounts of teaching hours onto cheaper temp labor. One might view a shift to increasing fractions of working scientists as postdocs and long-term research associates as a similar process, now that I think about it. This process is theoretically unlimited, the tenured AuldProfessor could disappear entirely.
    I have hope that the baby boom generation effect will be large enough that bandaids can’t fix it and the job market will open up as you suggest. Not really holding my breath though.

  7. Thanks for your response. However, I do not think the retirement age is an error. All I have to do is look around. I have several colleagues in my department that have retired in the past two years, and one more that is phasing into retirement right now.
    While you are correct that many faculty don’t immediately disappear off the scene, every single faculty member in my department that has retired or is retiring has reduced their research programs towards nil. The ones that do stay involved, generally do so only related to teaching. They are typically burnt out on grant writing and have absolutely zero inclination to keep doing it. While admittedly my sample space is limited to a dozen or so cases, this has been true in every single one of those cases. I believe the probability of that being coincidence is low. I also agree with the underlying rationale: by the time I reach 65, I will be burnt out on writing grants, and if I don’t have to do it anymore, I probably won’t.
    Since the premise of the original article was related to NIH grant funding, and not teaching, I stand by my original argument: that at or near retirement age, there is a significant withdrawal of involvement by these folks in the grant-getting game, even if it is not officially called “retirement”. At my university (as many others), lab space is roughly based on grant dollars. So all those emeritus professors in my department take up very little space compared to those of us actively involved in research.
    I can’t speak to others who have been making this claim for years on end, but it is undeniable that the baby boomers represent a significant demographic that will reach the “magical” age of 65 soon. Why anyone would have claimed before now that there would be a large wave of retirements: well, I’m not sure. But I do know that my department has been involved in significant hiring recently.
    Your second argument also relates to teaching, not grant-getting. Universities have not yet figured out how to replace us grant-getting faculty with “cheaper temp labor”. So I am not concerned about my job being offloaded in that way. And in fact, even in the departments where teaching is still a major component of what they do, only a fraction of the teaching is offloaded onto instructional staff.
    Aside from the demographic arguments, I believe there ARE feedback loops at play, in contrast to the original article. See my blog for more (, I tried a trackback but it wasn’t working). After I wrote that post, I ran into a graduate student who, unprompted, told me he was discouraged by the difficulty of the current funding environment for academic research and therefore didn’t plan to stay in academia after his PhD. QED…

  8. There is also an interesting comment thread growing at Tara Smith’s Aetiology where current grad students and postdocs are talking about graduate/post-graduate training not preparing them well for “alternative” careers in the biomedical sciences.
    DrugMonkey and CC raise some important points here about folks who want to stay in academic research but aren’t quite competitive enough for independent investigator positions. As both point out, we don’t yet have a system that views the extended postdoc (or some better title) as a position that is not viewed as a consolation prize. As CC points out, we currently have a system where you are out of the business if you don’t score an independent position in your five-ish years of postdoc.
    Morgan, I’d be interested to know what your program is doing to educate trainees about positions different from those of their current P.I.s in case things don’t work out.

  9. Hi,
    Yes, I agree that having “alternative” positions is important – not everyone wants to be or is cut out for being a PI, yet many such people do excellent science.
    At my university, we have “post doctoral fellow” positions, which are by design temporary (max five years). And we have a second category called “research associate”. There are several differences. A research associate is not time-limited, and can apply for grants. They also can earn a higher salary with benefits. In my lab I’ve had several research associates. Some of them have been people who did internships and/or postdocs, and then we converted them to this more permanent category based on project needs (it involves doing a competetive recruitment). A second category is research professor, which is the next step up from research associate in terms of independence, but not quite to the level of responsibility of tenured/PI. In each of these cases, starting out in a post-doc position with a lab is a great stepping stone to find a longer-term position like that. In fact, I’d advise any post-doc candidate who’s looking for such a position to ask their prospective employers whether there is such a chance of a longer-term position, and use the answer in the decision process.
    My post-doc position (at another university) was as a research associate, which allowed me to apply for and gain my first grant. So this indicates that such positions aren’t just limited to my present institution.
    However, I am not sure why this approach isn’t used more frequently, but I have some guesses:
    – Most post docs aspire to a PI position or other position of more independence, because it’s seen as a status symbol
    -Perhaps some PIs are leery of hiring “long-term” employees due to the variable nature of funding cycles. If that’s the case, it is not a great reason, because most such positions are directly tied to the availability of funding
    -Perhaps there is the perception that constantly having “new blood” coming into the lab is required to keep science going, and hence there is the drive to have turnover in post-doc positions. While I agree that new blood is important, I also think stability is important – it’s a fine balance.
    In any case, it seems to me that these types of positions can and should be used more often to address this issue.

  10. I’m way late to this party, but I think there’s a significant flaw in your argument, Morgan:

    Graduate students are aware of this kind of stuff going in, and if the pressures remain the way they are, few will try to follow in their advisor’s footsteps.

    Students aren’t getting a clear picture of what the situation is before they make the jump to graduate school. I’d argue that most of us make the jump convinced that a PhD means easy tenure-track appointments for life. The crunch for money clearly isn’t getting translated down to the level of undergraduate students, where it needs to be emphasized.

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