For more than a year, a working group commissioned by the National Institutes of Health has been trying to develop a model for a sustainable biomedical research work force. On June 14, at the biannual meeting of the advisory committee to the NIH director, the working group unveiled its long anticipated plan – sort of. While the working group did put forth several recommendations for both graduate students and postdocs, they were unable to present a working model because of considerable gaps in the data necessary to generate such a model.
The group showed that a surplus of biomedical Ph.D.s combined with an influx of international postdocs has made it increasingly difficult for young researchers to find academic positions. In short, and not surprisingly, the biomedical research enterprise has been growing at an unsustainable rate. Now, faced with an increasingly tight budget and historically low success rates the NIH, the average age for a new faculty to receive his/her first RO1 is 42.
To curb the growth of biomedical Ph.D.s and postdocs the working group made several recommendations:
- Shift more graduate students and postdocs onto training and fellowship grants and off research grants.
- Encourage and aid universities in offering non academic career-training options to graduate students and postdocs.
- Cap the number of years a graduate student can receive NIH funding to six years.
- Increase the minimum postdoc stipend to $42,000 and increase postdoc benefits.
- Allow funding for more staff scientist positions.
- Expand early career awards for junior faculty members.
While the group did not specifically recommend training fewer biomedical Ph.D.s, most of the recommendations put forward would squeeze already limited funds and thereby significantly reduced the number of trainees a lab could support.
NIH Director Francis Collins thanked the working group for its recommendations and suggested small-scale pilot studies to see what effects enacting the recommendations would have. However, he assured the advisory committee that the recommendations “will go somewhere. I promise you that.”
The ASBMB public affairs staff will continue to engage with NIH leadership on the issue of the future research work force, and we encourage our members to discuss this issue in their own departments and institutions.