January 2013

Survey of young biochemists and molecular biologists

Biomed workforce recommendations

The Biomedical Workforce Working Group at the National Institutes of Health last June presented a report to the Advisory Committee to the Director detailing the state of the biomedical workforce and suggesting improvements to the education and compensation of trainees. On Dec. 6, the advisory committee made recommendations to NIH Director Francis S. Collins based on this report. Among the recommendations made were:

  • • Implement a new type of grant award for institutions to develop innovative training approaches.
  • • Require individual professional development plans of graduate students and postdocs.
  • • Encourage institutions to limit the number of years a graduate student can be supported by NIH funds to five years.
  • • Increase annual postdoc pay from $39,000 to $42,000 as early as next year.
  • • Develop an example benefits package for postdocs that institutions could adopt.
  • • Increase the number of K99/R00 and Early Independence Awards that encourage career independence.
  • • Institutions are encouraged to track career outcomes of their graduate students and to publish this information for incoming students.
  • • Study sections should give fair consideration to grants that propose to pay staff scientists.

The NIH will give the community a brief period to comment on these recommendations. However, unless there is strong opposition to specific points, it is expected they all will be implemented in the near future.

Follow the ASBMB Policy Blotter at http://asbmbpolicy.wordpress.com/ to keep track of this and other important science policy issues.

— Chris Pickett

The results from the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology’s survey of young biochemists and molecular biologists are now out. The respondents, who were between ages 20 and 39, ranked intellectual freedom as the most influential factor in choosing a career.

The survey was launched by a special ASBMB task force after its 2011 survey of biochemists in academe found that women and men were represented in equal numbers at all training levels but that the numbers of women seeking and holding various positions after training dropped off significantly. “Particularly striking is the constancy in the distribution of female and male teacher–scholars as applicants (27:73), interviewees (34:66) and appointees (28:72), as well as tenured academic biochemists (28:72),” the task force reported in the previous survey (1). Elizabeth Theil of Children’s Hospital Oakland Research Institute, who led the task force, said the group wanted to investigate why, even in 2011, fewer women than men chose to apply for tenure-track positions as teacher–scholars.

The latest survey results suggest that more than half of the respondents, both men and women, felt they received limited support from peers, educators and family in choosing science careers. (See Mentoring column). Reinforcing the data from the 2011 survey, the new survey shows younger women were more concerned about family, children and work-life balance than men. Both men and women were concerned about weak job prospects and low research funding.

Theil says she and her fellow task force members were struck by the large number (nearly half) of the survey respondents who wrote specific comments, surprised by the lack of knowledge (62 percent) of institutional family-friendly policies and concerned about mentoring effectiveness.

“Why were we surprised? For one thing, many institutions have family-friendly policies in place. For another, in the past, teacher–scholars spent a great deal of time mentoring pre- and postdoctoral students with discussions on many issues,” she says. “The conversations often occurred during informal coffee breaks, lunch and group meetings in faculty members’ homes.” But these days, she adds, the increased professional demands on teacher–scholars have forced them to focus primarily on giving technical advice to their mentees. She also suggests that the growing emphasis on digital communication has inadvertently led to fewer face-to-face discussions between teacher–scholars and their mentees and that the tone and content of the exchanges have become more formal and less likely to cover lifestyle issues and career advice.

Nonetheless, Theil says, she and the task force members were impressed by the passion of the young scientists for creative and independent research and their willingness to commit to the long hours. But they found chilling the widespread fears of failing in the current research climate.

Based on the survey results, the task force has made three recommendations:

  1. 1. Mentors should discuss actively with trainees, including postdoctoral researchers, the life of a scientist and help with career development as well as giving technical advice.
  2. 2. Granting agencies should permit one-year extensions to grants in progress requested by female principal investigators who are new mothers. Because concerns about childcare were raised more by young female scientists than their male counterparts, Theil says the grant extensions are a clear way to encourage women to become teacher–scholars in biochemistry and molecular biology.
  3. 3. The ASBMB should highlight institutions that have effective policies for attracting women to teacher–scholar positions in biochemistry and molecular biology.

Members of the task force were Melanie Cobb at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas; Judith Klinman at the University of California, Berkeley; Fred Maxfield at Weill Cornell Medical College; Janet Smith at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor and Joanne Stubbe at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Christopher Streeter at the consulting firm Altshuler Gray advised the survey’s design and carried out the initial data analyses.

  1.   1. http://www.asbmb.org/asbmbtoday/asbmbtoday_article.aspx?id=15855

Raj_MukhopadhyayRajendrani Mukhopadhyay (rmukhopadhyay@asbmb.org) is the senior science writer for ASBMB Today and the technical editor for The Journal of Biological Chemistry. Follow her on Twitter (www.twitter.com/rajmukhop), and read her ASBMB Today blog, Wild Types.


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