Report: Current Research System “Unsustainable”

Four prominent academics call for an overhaul of the US biomedical research workforce.

By | April 15, 2014

FLICKR, JOHN WALKERWhile many have pointed out the flaws of a biomedical research workforce supported largely by students, postdocs, adjunct faculty, and a near-flat federal budget, four prominent academics outline in PNAS this week (April 14) ways in which the system might be fixed.

“The long-held but erroneous assumption of never-ending rapid growth in biomedical science has created an unsustainable hypercompetitive system that is discouraging even the most outstanding prospective students from entering our profession—and making it difficult for seasoned investigators to produce their best work,” wrote Bruce Alberts from the University of California, San Francisco, Harvard Medical School’s Marc Kirschner, Shirley Tilghman from Princeton University, and the National Cancer Institute’s Harold Varmus.

Among the authors’ propositions is to reduce the number of biomedical PhD trainees entering the system, and to support those graduate students that do pursue doctoral degrees in the life sciences with training grants, rather than funds doled out to their mentors. That, they suggested, could help improve the trainees’ learning experiences as well as how PIs run their labs.

As The Chronicle of Higher Education’s The Ticker blog pointed out, that the decree is coauthored by Varmus could ensure that federal agencies take notice: “With Dr. Varmus among the authors, the NIH [National Institutes of Health] is making clear that despite the considerable inertia associated with turning the bow of such a large organization, the agency is sufficiently worried about the future health of biomedical research that it’s prepared to expand some efforts that universities may find uncomfortable and is considering making even more extensive overhauls.”

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Avatar of: MikeH


Posts: 16

April 15, 2014

Thank you, thank you, thank you.  But ... this has been obvious for more than a decade now.  This isn't new.  Where has Varmus and Alberts been all this time? Profitting from large labs staffed with cheap grad students and postdocs, that's where.  Someone's easing into retirement.

Avatar of: blumberg


Posts: 32

April 15, 2014

Hallelujah!!!!! Let's just hope it's not to late. I predict that enactment of these sorts of policies will have the side effect of increasing reproducibility of the literature.

Avatar of: Irakli Loladze

Irakli Loladze

Posts: 6

April 15, 2014

The four authors provide a good review of the well-known problems in biomedical research but fall short of attacking the root of the malady - the money distribution system based almost entirely on grant proposals. 

Peer-guessing what research proposal is the best among the pile of hundreds of others is a fundamentally flawed concept, yet the one which the NIH and the NSF rely upon almost exclusively calling it "the gold standard." This system is extremely wasteful, promotes grantsmanship over research, and leads to the rich labs getting richer at the expense of everyone else. The worst features of this system become particularly apparent when money is tight. Almost any alternative would do better than this destructive blind-faith in grant proposals.

What if we to replace the flawed system with the one that distributes funding based on evidence? Those researchers that generated higher quality, reproducible research, get more funding. Those that published splashy but ultimately irreproducible funding will get much less. The rise of altmetrics provides a tantalizing opportunity to rethink entirely how nearly $40 billion of combined the NIH and NSF funding is distributed.

I imagine a day when grant proposals are eliminated altogether, the day when scientists focus on generating reproducible high quality results, the day when grantsmanship is tossed into the dustbin of history.

Avatar of: Paul Stein

Paul Stein

Posts: 237

April 15, 2014

Everyone, please read the PNAS article.

Wow, these guys just got it?! I guess I'm a little older than MikeH when I say that every graduate student in 1977 knew these facts. The solutions suggested are just nonsensical and unimplementable, ones dredged up over the past four decades that could never be practical. It's amazing how some people of intelligence can't work their way out of a wet paper bag, let alone even understand just what that bag is.

Here's the worst point of one of their "solutions": "it will

be essential to change policies that now prohibit the funding of non-US citizens on training grants. Foreign students have contributed

enormously to the vibrancy and success of US science, and their continuing contributions are critical to the future of

science in the United States." Okay, first off, foreign governments like China are already paying full tuition for thousands of students. Why would one even consider massively reducing very limited funds for U.S. taxpaying citizens? Most foreigners end up going home anyway, both by design and choice. Secondly, most foreign graduate students end up being meek lab drones, slaves for The Man, and their contributions are extremely limited.

The report does not consider anything regarding the foreign competition in the general scheme of U.S. jobs. The foreign invasion simply needs to be halted. Think very carefully. If that occurs, say, overnight, how would the science career scene suddenly look?

The next worst idea was limiting the length of post-doctorates and replacing them with "staff scientists". At first this seems attractive, but scratch the surface, and know that staff scientists would be the responsibility of universities with hard money appointments. Great idea or one that could never, ever happen? So, with that possibility gone, all that would happen with this limitation idea is that these unfortunate souls would be kicked out at the end of the specific time period, with the call out to the never-ending supply, "Next!"

MikeH is quite correct to call into question the viability of ideas generated by those who have been sucking on the teat of the governmental-institutional complex. After all these years, their peripheral vision is non-existent.

Avatar of: blumberg


Posts: 32

Replied to a comment from Paul Stein made on April 15, 2014

April 15, 2014

Oh God, I could think of nothing worse than to INCREASE the amount we spend on foreigners.  The directory at mid-level research Universities reads like a Chinese phone book.

Avatar of: Kathy Barker

Kathy Barker

Posts: 44

April 16, 2014

The nastiness by two of the responders to Chinese students and postdocs is quite disgusting.

Avatar of: blumberg


Posts: 32

Replied to a comment from Kathy Barker made on April 16, 2014

April 17, 2014

I have no problem with Chinese post-docs or students.  The system is the problem.  The number of US-born postdocs has remained virtually flat since the 70s, while we've seen exponential growth of postdocs from overseas.  That's the problem.  That's what I believe Paul Stein is pointing out.  Remove all of them from the equation and the academic/training system isn't nearly as broken.

April 17, 2014

Thanks for some pointing comments.  There are no numbers in the PNAS article and that makes it very weak, all these proposals have specific costs dependent on the scale of implementation.  They really need to supply some estimates.  And yes I second the its a bit late, but not 20 years late, seriously, overproduction of PhDs was clear when I started grad school in 1974, that was now  gulp, 40 years ago.  This PNAS article is somewhat hypocritical in that each of these four horsemen/woman of our academic/NIH Apocalypse has on average well over 20 years at the head of this machine that chews out papers based on what has been very close to minimum or worse labour conditions.  Its late in this Malthusian or evolutionary cycle, some shame might be due on these instututions, now suggested to change.  NMoATButSome


Replied to a comment from Kathy Barker made on April 16, 2014

April 17, 2014


Those did not seem nasty, did I read the same notes?, Directories do look like Chinese phone books, but at Stanford in the 70's to 80's they were Japanese phone books NotMoAtButSome

Avatar of: Doug Easton

Doug Easton

Posts: 14

April 22, 2014

I am not sure about the working for the "Man" comment and also the comment indicating minimal contributions to the science coming from Chinese graduate students or postdocs. The Chinese graduate students in my lab have been the most rapid and eager learners of all my recent students.

Our immigration and naturalization service extirpates many of them at the end of their visa periods. They do not necessarily want to leave. I remember writing letters to INS to extend the visa for a postdoc in the lab where I was working. With the help of an immigration lawyer, he was able to stay, he finally became a citizen and is a full professor at a major university.

Yes, we have a serious PhD birth control problem. It was recognized many years ago in the 1960's when the NSF proposed teaching postdocs and the promotion of alternative careers for PhD students. Some of the problem is driven by whining in the business community that too few undergraduates choose to major in the STEM fields to fill positions in industry. Additional clamor comes from educators that our traditional ways of teaching science are archaic and drive students away. NSF and now NIH are funding efforts to radically change higher education to increase the number of STEM students.

Talk about the problem by the most distinguished scientists will not solve it. We will need a train wreck to get serious about fixing these problems. My greatest fear is that the politicians will get involved.

Avatar of: blumberg


Posts: 32

Replied to a comment from Doug Easton made on April 22, 2014

April 22, 2014

"Some of the problem is driven by whining in the business community that too few undergraduates choose to major in the STEM fields to fill positions in industry."


Bingo.  It's all about flooding the market and lowering wages.  An added benefit of a flooded labor market is that those companies can hire for EXACTLY what they need, rather than having to train someone.  And if that doesn't work, well, you can always collude to suppress wages (I'm looking at you Apple, Google).

Avatar of: G Hellekant

G Hellekant

Posts: 2

Replied to a comment from Irakli Loladze made on April 15, 2014

May 6, 2014

On the point!  Has my full support after 35 years in the system. We can discuss the cause for ever, but the solution above  by Dr. Loladze and other similar minds makes sense. 

Then NIH and other federal granting agencies. Try to restrain your Kafka like control instincts for details in grant proposals and reports that serve no  progress for Science! The only one who will be happier is a new layer or administrative people if you continue on the same path!

G Hellekant

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