FLICKR, JOI ITOWhile the message is not new, the declaration of the flaws of the US biomedical research system by four prominent life scientists this spring captured everyone’s attention. Bruce Alberts, Marc Kirschner, Shirley Tilghman, and Harold Varmus wrote in PNAS of how “demands for research dollars grew much faster than the supply . . . [due to] perverse incentives [that] encourage grantee institutions to grow without making sufficient investments in their faculty and facilities.” Rather than devote money to faculty salaries, universities built infrastructure to house more self-paid researchers able to bring in more money via research grants, of which a large fraction was used as revenue (overhead) for the university. More labs required more students to fill them, leading to a dramatic rise of PhDs in the biomedical sciences, which then produced more researchers competing for dwindling grant dollars. In short, research institutions have no incentive...

PhDs in the U.S.: From 1982 to 2012, the total number of PhDs in the life sciences (blue) has grown dramatically. Most of these PhDs are in biological, biomedical, and health sciences (red), however; the number of PhDs in the agricultural and natural sciences (green) has remained flat over that same time period. The unsustainable rate of PhDs awarded per year in the biomedical sciences does not extrapolate to the rate of PhDs in other life sciences, however, especially the agricultural sciences, where the rate of PhDs per year has remained flat for decades. Since 1982, we have consistently trained only about 1,000 PhDs in applied agricultural and related sciences each year. And over the last decade, the U.S. has annually produced only 800 or so plant scientists working in applied agricultural science and only 100 with the skills for basic plant research. (See “Plant science stagnates.”) Given the global agricultural challenges we now face, this is a problem.

The Earth must support another 1 billion humans in the coming decade, and must do so with less arable land and in an unpredictable climate. This means we must find innovative ways to produce crops with higher yields and novel traits—a feat that will require the work of PhDs trained in agriculture and plant sciences. But at this point we are not producing enough plant scientists to lead us out of this Malthusian dilemma.

The US Coalition for a Sustainable Agricultural Workforce recently completed a confidential survey among agricultural biotech companies to ascertain near-term needs for hiring domestic agricultural scientists. This survey generated an amazing result, given the tone of the PNAS perspective, predicting that by 2015, 1,000 new employees will be needed in the half-dozen largest plant-science companies in the US alone (Bayer Crop Science, Dow Agro Sciences, Dupont Pioneer Hybrid, Dupont Crop Protection, Monsanto, and Syngenta). Almost half of these anticipated new hires will hold PhDs. Unfortunately, with what appears to be a dwindling pool of qualified applicants applying to plant science PhD programs, we may not be keeping up with this demand.

Plant science stagnates: Selected subdisciplines relevant to a work force in plant industry (blue and green) have not increased this century, while selected biomedical subdisciplines (red) have grown steeply.

Biomedical subdisciplines include bioinformatics, biomedical sciences, biometrics and biostatistics, cancer biology, computational biology, developmental biology/embryology, neurosciences and neurobiology, structural biology, virology. Basic plant biology subdisciplines (green) include botany/plant biology, plant genetics, plant pathology/phytopathology, plant physiology. Agricultural research subdisciplines (blue) include agricultural and horticultural plant breeding, agricultural economics, agronomy and crop science, forest engineering, forest sciences and biology, forestry and related science, horticulture science, plant pathology/phytopathology (applied), plant sciences (other), soil chemistry/microbiology, soil sciences, entomology, plant genetics, plant pathology/phytopathology applied plant physiology.
The growing world population needs to eat, and it is past due that we elevate basic, translational, and applied plant research to the priority given to biomedical research, or more boldly, to defense. Stabilizing food supplies in a changing environment is integral not only to the world population’s health, as an estimated 50 percent of childhood disease globally is attributed to malnourishment, but also to national security. Moreover, a recent study found that, around the world, the rate of return for investment in agricultural research is ten to one, bringing into question the scaling back of funding for agriculture research and development in many rich countries.   

Going forward, we must infuse more resources into plant biology research, to boost research output and to train tomorrow’s plant scientists. In the early 1980s, the National Science Foundation (NSF) established an 11-year postdoctoral fellowship program with the primary objective to nurture future leaders of plant biology research. By many accounts, this program was successful; among a cohort of 236 fellows, four are members of the National Academy of Sciences today, and more than 80 percent remained in plant biology. Of those, the majority stayed in academic institutions, while an impressive number (25 percent) went to industry, where many now hold corporate officer positions. Anticipating the need for leaders to alleviate hunger and to prevent global instability, we should reinstate this program to recruit our best talent to plant science and agricultural research.

In conclusion, it is important that the sirens of a glut of biomedical PhDs do not fallaciously harm other areas of science that are still in desperate need of young researchers and more research funding. This is especially true for the plant sciences, where the next generation of researchers must conquer significant challenges to feed a growing world population in a changing environment.    

Acknowledgement: I thank Machi Dilworth for providing annotated data on the NSF Postdoctoral Fellowship program. Data source: NSF.

Alan M. Jones is a Kenan Distinguished Professor at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.

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