A response to the NIH Biomedical Research Workforce Working Group Report

Biochemistry department leaders offer praise,
criticism and recommendations

Biomedical research in the United States is in crisis as the international leadership the nation has enjoyed for decades is eroding in the face of economic austerity and competition from other countries that have made research a higher priority. This crisis has arisen as universities and research institutes, which have based strategic plans on assumptions of continued growth, are faced with the reality of shrinking federal research budgets and sharp reductions in state funding for higher education. These pressures demand a critical self-analysis as to how we can preserve the vibrant and creative U.S. scientific environment while also devising new strategies for training the next generation of scientists for a job market offering fewer opportunities in academia.
A National Institutes of Health advisory committee headed by Shirley Tilghman made several recommendations addressing these issues in the NIH Biomedical Research Workforce Working Group Report published in June 2012. Bruce Alberts, Marc W. Kirschner, Shirley Tilghman and Harold Varmus recently revisited the report in a “Perspective” article in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. While researchers support some viewpoints expressed in both of these documents, particularly the recommendation that the NIH return to a focus on funding basic science, other opinions in the report have not been universally embraced.
Some of the recommendations in the Tilghman report already have been implemented by the NIH. As we stand poised for implementation of additional steps that could affect graduate and postgraduate training and research for decades, the Association of Medical and Graduate Departments of Biochemistry convened a working group to consider the repercussions of the Tilghman report from the perspective of department chairs who work at the interface between faculty and institutional administration. While we concur with some of the recommendations in the Tilghman report, we have serious reservations about others.
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Graduate education

A primary premise in the Tilghman report and recent PNAS editorial is that too many biomedical Ph.D.s are being issued in light of the number of jobs available. However, this is true if one focuses only on traditional academic careers.
Between 2002 and 2008, despite a 50 percent increase in biomedical Ph.D. holders, unemployment remained constant at 2 percent for that segment of the workforce, much lower than the 7.5 percent national average at that time. However, there is a shift within this segment, with employment opportunities in academic research decreasing steadily while opportunities in industrial and government research, administration, teaching, scientific writing, advocacy and other areas that demand people trained to think in an analytical manner are increasing. Thus, we disagree with strategies that seek to reduce this pool of highly educated and in-demand individuals. We do, however, enthusiastically endorse the idea of expanding training opportunities beyond the traditional academic track. However, this comes with a specific proviso.
We must not dilute the fundamental goal of graduate training, which is to develop outstanding research scientists who think independently and analytically, as this is precisely what is valued by employers, academic or otherwise. Moreover, training highly competent researchers is essential if the U.S. is going to maintain its international leadership role in the biomedical sciences. For this reason, we disagree with the Tilghman report recommendation that we reduce the time it takes to earn a Ph.D.
Instead, we recommend that the emphasis be placed on shortening how long it takes for a graduate to enter the job market. Permitting students to explore multiple career options during training may actually extend the training period but to good effect. Thus, we propose the focus should move from minimizing time to graduation to minimizing time to career.
We also support tracking graduates to understand how they are moving into the job market, provided that this does not increase investigator administrative burden or increase institutional administrative costs.
We view as flawed the recommendation in the Tilghman report, reiterated in the recent PNAS editorial, that the fraction of students supported by training grants be increased to enhance the quality of training and shorten the time to degree. Our own ad hoc survey of 26 universities revealed no differences in time to degree when comparing students supported on training grants with those supported on individual RO1 grants (see table). The enhanced performance of students supported by training grants, cited in the Tilghman report, is likely the result of institutional selection policies that place the best students on training grants rather than an inherent difference in the quality of training.
We are concerned that training grants have been concentrated disproportionately in elite institutions and that this concentration will increase. Graduate education must serve a range of academic institutions with broad geographical distribution to empower the broadest base of talent. We argue that this can be achieved best and most efficiently by linking student salary support to individual R01s.
Having all students on training grants carries the additional cost of additional administrative burden on investigators and institutions. Thus, rather than expanding training grants, we propose expanding Ruth L. Kirschstein National Research Service Award fellowships, as those awards encourage student initiative and quality and provide student salary support linked to R01s. An example of this strategy, which we endorse, is the recent plan for all NIH institutes to offer F-series grants.

Postdoctoral training

We oppose increasing the number of postdoctoral fellows supported through training grants. Postdoctoral salary support, linked to R01 grants, is a historically effective mechanism that easily and efficiently accommodates productivity and achievement. We support increasing the number of fellowships given to postdocs and making them available to foreign trainees. We also agree with the Tilghman report authors that postdoctoral stipends should be increased, but those increases should be linked to a concomitant increase in modular R01 budgets.
In the recent PNAS perspective it is noted that increasing stipends without increasing grant support will reduce the number of postdocs, which was presented as a positive outcome, but we question if this should be our goal, given the employment opportunities that exist for this group described above! We propose, instead, limiting the time that postdocs can be supported, which can be achieved through enhancing career training and developing additional academic career options.
We also support enhanced tracking of the career outcomes for postdoctoral fellows so long as it doesn’t overburden principal investigators or increase institutional administrative costs.
We have significant concerns about the recommendation in the Tilghman report to increase K-type transition awards designed to accelerate movement of postdoctoral trainees toward independent positions. The problem is that it must be done in conjunction with increases in R21 and R01 support available to investigators. Otherwise, increasing K awards amounts to pushing the employment bottleneck down the road.
A better option is to expand opportunities for postdoctoral trainees who may not want faculty positions but aspire to be long-term staff scientists. Staff scientist positions allow these individuals to pursue research careers within other labs without the responsibility of garnering their own funding. Their experience typically enhances the overall competence of laboratory staff. For this staff scientist position to be a viable career path, the NIH and academic institutions would have to accept and put in place a promotion-and-salary structure that endorses and supports these positions analogous to what exists for research-track faculty.

Faculty support

The Tilghman report described a proliferation of what are known as soft-money positions at academic institutions. The reduced job security associated with these positions has created a negative image for research science as a career. As a response, the report recommended limiting the percentage of faculty salary paid for by the NIH.
AMGDB members are in a unique position to understand the impact of soft money on investigators and institutions under pressure to reduce hard-money budgets. We feel that limiting faculty salary coverage on grants should not be achieved by reducing the salary cap, as this will reinforce the image that an academic research career is low paid and unstable. Instead, we favor establishing limits for principal investigator effort on individual grants (e.g., 25 percent for RO1s, 15 percent for R21s and so forth).
In addition, limiting the number of NIH grants that a single investigator can hold, which the NIH has contemplated, also will help. Implementation of such a limit must coincide with the recognition by institutions and the NIH that many functions of faculty members — including teaching, committee and professional service, exploratory research, and writing of grant applications in new research areas — should be supported by the institution.
Given the impact these changes will have on our medical schools and research universities, a movement of faculty salaries from grants to institutional budgets needs to be phased in gradually. The NIH may consider incentivizing this transition by directly linking institutional indirect-cost recovery levels to the progress institutions have made in covering higher portions of faculty salaries.
In their PNAS commentary, Alberts and colleagues called for open discourse. We hope this editorial contributes a useful perspective to this conversation and motivates the NIH to reconsider some of its actions. American science has made great progress — which was built upon the success of the R01 award mechanism and the partnership between individual investigators/mentors and their students. We need to continue to foster this relationship but do so in creative ways that adapt to our rapidly changing landscape. We need to avoid the temptation to reduce the training of creative scientists but embrace that their opportunities in different areas have expanded.
Editor’s note: The authors of this article wrote on behalf of the AMGDB leaders who contributed to and endorse the report, including David Harris, Boston University School of Medicine; Michael Ostrowski, The Ohio State University; Jane Azizkhan-Clifford, Drexel University College of Medicine; Vadivel Ganapathy, Georgia Regents University Cancer Center; Kevin Raney, University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences; Leslie Parise, University of North Carolina School of Medicine; and Michael Mathews, Rutgers New Jersey Medical School.
Bruce J. Nicholson (nicholsonb@uthscsa.edu) is a professor and the chairman of the biochemistry department at the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio and president-elect of the Association of Medical and Graduate Departments of Biochemistry.
Richard L. Eckert (reckert@umaryland.edu) is a professor and the chairman of the biochemistry and molecular biology department at the University of Maryland School of Medicine and the president of the Association of Medical and Graduate Departments of Biochemistry.