NIH report on the future biomedical workforce

In April 2011, the National Institutes of Health established a working group to address the future of the biomedical research workforce. This group, co-chaired by Sally Rockey, NIH deputy director for extramural research, and Shirley Tilghman, president of Princeton University, was charged with answering several difficult questions, such as:

  • What is the right size of the workforce?
  • What are the appropriate types of positions that should be supported to allow people to have successful careers and to continue to advance biomedical and behavioral sciences?
  • What is the best way to support these various positions?
  • What types of training should be provided?

One of the first actions from the working group was to engage the research community in the discussion through a request for information from the NIH. The solicitation asked for input about several key issues within the research training pipeline including:

  • the balance between supply (number of Ph.D.s and postdocs) and demand (career opportunities)
  • Ph.D. training length, curriculum and structure
  • postdoctoral training length, salary and advancement opportunities
  • attractiveness of a research career

The NIH recently released the results of the solicitation, based on input from more than 200 individuals and organizations. The two issues of greatest importance for respondents were 1) supply and demand and 2) characteristics of Ph.D. training. Overwhelmingly, respondents believed the supply of Ph.D.s and postdocs was too high. Many respondents also said that career-development opportunities were severely lacking during Ph.D. training. Interestingly, these two issues are closely related in that limited career development during Ph.D. training can lead to an overabundance of senior postdoctoral fellows competing for limited faculty positions, thus creating a bottleneck in the supply line.

The NIH working group proposed several recommendations to address these concerns. To address supply and demand issues, it recommended that NIH should support fewer students and postdoctoral fellows. The working group also recommended that the NIH provide increased funding for career-development programming and to consider revising the grant-review policies so that nonacademic careers for trainees are not considered training failures.

Other NIH recommendations included increased postdoctoral stipends, increased family-friendly policies, increased early educational interventions and partnerships that connect postdocs with industry to enhance nonacademic career opportunities.

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