NIH Panel Urges Steps to Control Growth in Biomedical Research Trainees

Jocelyn is a staff writer for Science magazine.

A glut of trainees and a dearth of academic positions in the United States is creating a dysfunctional biomedical research system, an advisory group to the National Institutes of Health (NIH) concluded today. It urged several steps be taken to bring the problem under control. NIH should cap how many years it will support graduate students, pay postdoctoral researchers more, and encourage universities to fund staff scientist positions.

The changes may appear to make research labs less productive, but in the long run will result in "a more vibrant workforce," said Shirley Tilghman, president of Princeton University and co-chair of the panel that delivered the draft report.

The widely anticipated report comes from a working group of the NIH Advisory Committee to the Director (ACD) co-led by NIH Deputy Director for Extramural Research Sally Rockey. The panel spent a year examining available data on the number and fate of biomedical researchers through different stages of their careers, focusing on the slow pace of advancement and the often-cited fact that the average age for an investigator winning the first independent grant from NIH is 42. (The panel's economists abandoned a plan to model the workforce—there wasn't time or sufficient data.)

In the executive summary of their draft report, the panel found that a steep rise in U.S. biomedical Ph.D.s in the past decade, more foreign postdocs, and the aging of academic faculty members make it increasingly hard for young biomedical researchers to find academic jobs. Biomedical researchers are paid less than scientists in other fields, and the low pay and long training period may make the field unattractive to the best and brightest.

To address the problem, NIH needs to make some changes, the panel says. The agency should provide supplements to training grants that help students prepare for alternatives to academic careers, such as a master's degree geared toward an industry position. It should cap how long a graduate student can receive NIH funding at 6 years (the average length of a biomedical Ph.D. including all funding is now 6.5 years, says Rockey). NIH should find ways to shift the funding source for graduate students, most of whom are now paid out of investigators' grants, to training grants and fellowships. The reason: such programs provide higher quality training, and their graduates tend to be more successful than those funded from grants.

Postdoctoral researchers should also be supported to a greater extent by fellowships and training grants, the panel says. And postdoc stipends should be increased—starting with the entry level, now $39,264, which should rise to $42,000—and they should receive better benefits. "We think it is scandalous how [little] postdoctoral fellows are paid," Tilghman said.

NIH should also encourage study sections to look favorably upon research projects that employ staff scientists, and institutions should create more of these positions. There is an "urban myth" that staff scientists are less productive than graduate students, Tilghman said. In fact, she said, graduate students are productive for a couple of years but are otherwise a "drain on the system." Staff scientists, by contrast, are "often the glue that holds your lab together."

Although the panel did not say the overall number of trainees should decline, the recommendations, if adopted, should make the growth in the number of trainees at least slow down because "we're making it more expensive to have those individuals," Tilghman said.

The recommendations drew concern from at least one ACD member. Biologist Robert Horvitz, of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, questioned whether NIH should make "risky" changes to the system at a time when NIH is struggling with flat budgets and record-low success rates. "Some of this makes me very nervous," he said. But Tilghman, who headed a National Research Council panel 14 years ago that she said came to "identical conclusions," disagreed. "The only time it's possible to make hard decisions … is actually during tough times," she said.

NIH Director Francis Collins said he would like see some "experiments" before making "more systemically disruptive" changes to the funding system. But, he added, this time the Tilghman panel's recommendations "will go somewhere. I promise you that."

Tomorrow, ScienceInsider will post a story on another draft report presented later in the ACD meeting on diversity in the biomedical research workforce.

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