Changing the culture in biomedical research

Last June at the National Institutes of Health, the Biomedical Workforce Working Group presented a report to the Advisory Committee to the Director detailing the state of the biomedical work force and suggesting improvements to the education and compensation of trainees. Today, the advisory committee made recommendations about implementing this report to NIH Director Francis S. Collins. Among the recommendations made were:

  • Implement a new type of grant award for institutions to develop innovative training approaches that embrace all biomedical career paths.
  • Require individual professional development plans for graduate students and postdocs.
  • Limit the number of years a graduate student can be supported by NIH funds.
  • Increase postdoc pay and develop an example benefits package for postdocs that institutions could adopt.
  • Institutions are encouraged to track career outcomes of their graduate students.

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.

Several of the recommendations made will cause significant changes to academic culture. The graduate student à postdoc à faculty member career path is often viewed as the default path for incoming students. However, expanding training for students and postdocs in careers outside of academia is a clear nod to the fact that most trainees do not find or even want faculty positions. Acknowledging and preparing students for these careers suggests acceptance of these career choices as valuable for the scientific enterprise. Nevertheless, to ensure the community completely comes to grips with this shift in attitude, the NIH leadership needs to banish “alternative” or “nonacademic” with regard to career paths as it implies that the path toward a faculty position is the default career path and all others are derivative.

However, the one recommendation that may be the crux toward acceptance of all scientific career paths as valuable is the one that arguably seems to be a no-brainer. The recommendation that institutions track the career outcomes of graduate students will allow prospective graduate students to evaluate whether enrolling is the right choice for them. However, the NIH and study sections also could use this data during grant review to evaluate institutions based on the career profiles of their students. Will funding agencies and grant reviewers look more favorably upon institutions that generate more faculty members or those that generate a variety of career outcomes? If used as a metric by funding agencies to favor institutions that produce relatively more faculty members, the recommendations made today will merely entrench and intensify the bias of academics to favor trainees who plan to become faculty members. The double-edged sword of making education more available to students and postdocs is that the entire biomedical research enterprise, from faculty members to institutions to funding agencies, must accept and embrace the change that this will bring. Otherwise, we might never actually progress beyond the situation we’re in right now.

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