Funding, salaries, human genomes—the hot topics of interest to scientists in the 1980s are still making headlines today. Here, The Scientist revisits some of the stories featured in its premiere issue, published on October 20, 1986.
In 1986, US scientists celebrated a 17.5 percent increase in the National Institutes of Health’s budget for the next fiscal year. Today, despite continued economic hardship and threats of budget cuts, NIH funding continues to climb, reaching $30 billion in 2010—nearly six times what it was when The Scientist published its first issue, and more than three times what would be predicted based on inflation. “It’s a very healthy thing,” says Alan Edwards, product leader for Kelly Scientific Resources, a scientific and clinical research staffing company. But, he adds, “there are more scientists working than there ever were before, so you have to spread the budget across more people.”...
The Scientist’s first salary survey for science professionals revealed that a “typical” US scientist earned between $50,000 and $60,000. Twenty-five years later, our respondents boast a median salary of $84,000. However, today’s salaries are actually some $30,000 lower than would be predicted based on inflation alone, partly due to pressure to reduce R&D expenditures, says Edwards. “One of the things you have to contain is labor costs,” he says. “Quite simply, if the salaries kept the pace of inflation, the cost of taking a drug to the market wouldn’t be a billion, it would be two billion, and that’s not sustainable for the companies today.” (In November, The Scientist will publish the results from our 2011 salary survey.)
In 1986, The Scientist reported on a recent National Science Foundation study that found black students accounted for only 6 percent of science and engineering bachelor’s degrees, though they comprised some 10 percent of the undergraduate population. Likewise, although black students made up 5 percent of graduate enrollment, they accounted for only 2 percent of science PhDs. Despite innumerable academic, industry, and government efforts to equalize racial bias in science, the inequality persists today, highlighted by the results of an NIH-commissioned survey released this August: between 2000 and 2006, African American biomedical researchers made up only 1.4 percent of R01 submissions, and equally qualified black scientists were 10 percent less likely to receive funding from the agency than white scientists (Science, 333:1015-19, 2011).
While many researchers were skeptical of the Human Genome Project when it was first proposed, two respected scientists—Walter Bodmer, then Director of Research at the Imperial Cancer Research Fund Laboratories in London, and later the second president of the Human Genome Organisation, and Walter Gilbert, a 1980 Nobel laureate in chemistry and a Harvard University professor—encouraged the undertaking. “I still find it amazing to think how much opposition there was,” Bodmer says. “What was thought to be unnecessarily big science in little biology is now seen to be a project that has transformed essentially the whole of biology and medicine.” (See more of Bodmer's reflections in "The Human Genome Project, Then and Now.")
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