A step toward sustainability

The biomedical research enterprise is unsustainable. A sustainable research enterprise working at peak efficiency balances available funding with workforce size while continuing to produce breakthroughs that improve the health of all Americans. Scientific community leaders have stepped forward to discuss how to address a growing workforce in the midst of dwindling funds. While they have expressed a robust breadth of ideas on this topic, they have presented no clear path to implementation.

To provide clarity to the discussion, members of the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology published a "Perspective" article in the Proceedings of the National Academies of Sciences that outlined a set of consensus recommendations and implementation plans to move the biomedical research enterprise toward sustainability (see box). "This paper is about action," said Chris Pickett, lead author and a policy analyst for the ASBMB. "The community has had the same discussion many times over. We found where the community is in agreement and suggested concrete plans to begin implementing these ideas."

8 recommendations to make the scientific enterprise more sustainable:

  1. The federal government should make research funding predictable and sustainable.
  2. The federal government should increase overall research and development funding with 3 percent of gross domestic product as an initial target.
  3. Federal agencies should streamline, harmonize or eliminate burdensome regulations.
  4. Institutions and federal agencies should increase compensation for postdoctoral scholars with $50,000 a year as an initial target.
  5. Institutions and federal agencies should cap the amount of federal funding trainees can receive in order to reduce graduate student and postdoc training periods.
  6. Institutions and federal agencies should train students and postdocs for the breadth of careers available to them.
  7. Institutions and federal agencies should support more trainees on fellowships and training grants rather than research grants.
  8. Institutions should create new job classifications for staff scientists, and federal agencies should incentivize use of staff scientists.

Analyzing nine sustainability reports published since 2012, the authors narrowed 260 recommendations down to eight distinct but interconnected recommendations agreed on by the majority of reports. These recommendations focused on increasing research funding, relieving regulatory burden and broadening training experiences.

"Researchers – from graduate students to established investigators — have been afflicted by stagnant funding and outdated policies that damage the enterprise, reducing productivity and disenfranchising young and minority scientists," said co-author Wes Sundquist, chairman of the ASBMB Public Affairs Advisory Committee and chairman of biochemistry at the University of Utah. "We need to move beyond this." The National Institutes of Health have experienced a nearly 20 percent reduction of purchasing power in the past decade. A 2013 survey of ASBMB members found that 46 percent of respondents have laid off or will lay off scientists, and 55 percent have colleagues who have lost their jobs or expect to soon.

Among the consensus recommendations, a call for an increase in compensation for postdoctoral scholars to $50,000 per year would reward pretenure scientists for their extensive training and the essential role they play in the biomedical workforce. As an example of the interconnectedness of these recommendations, increasing compensation for postdocs to align with the NIH pay scale also would contract the workforce without the federal government increasing overall research and development funding.

The article also identifies issues important for sustainability on which the community has yet to reach consensus. “Improving diversity in the workforce is critical to enhancing research efficiency and eliminating health disparities," said Pickett. "But only one report we analyzed discussed diversity in any detail." In addition to workforce diversity, mechanisms to improve how investigators are funded and the need to improve interactions between academia, industry and government were identified as areas needing further discussion among enterprise stakeholders.

The research enterprise may not be sustainable in its current form, but the recommendations highlighted by the ASBMB paper could steer the scientific community in that direction.

Sarah Martin Sarah K. Martin is the science policy fellow at the ASBMB.