Toward a sustainable biomedical research enterprise: Coordinated implementation of recommendations

Yesterday, members of the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology published a Perspective in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. “Toward a sustainable biomedical research enterprise: Finding consensus and implementing recommendations” describes eight recommendations addressing some of the most pressing problems faced by the enterprise. Today’s post will focus on coordinated implementation of recommendations. Monday’s post focused on an author’s perspective of this paper. Wednesday’s post will discuss the next steps in this process.

The research enterprise has been described as “a dense tangle of vested interests and perverse incentives” that supports the status quo and prevents real change. Suggesting a complete overhaul of the enterprise could raise significant opposition, but focusing on a single issue will result only in changes around the edges of the enterprise without significant resolution to serious problems. Thus, our paper suggests an intermediate approach – coordinated implementation of multiple recommendations to make pointed changes that ease some of the pressures caused by perverse incentives.

Five of the consensus recommendations we identified focused on training, and some of these recommendations would probably reduce the trainee population. Lab budgets are under significant strain and increasing postdoc salaries (consensus recommendation 4) may cause rapid job loss among postdocs. Similarly, restricting the amount of time trainees can be paid by federal grants (consensus recommendation 5) will force senior graduate students and postdocs into the job market earlier than might be expected. However, coordinating the implementation of these recommendations with the implementation of programs that expose trainees to the broad array of careers available to them (consensus recommendation 6) could avert a dramatic increase in Ph.D. unemployment.

While increasing postdoc pay, restricting the training period and broad career training may ultimately benefit trainees, these recommendations present problems for those running labs. These recommendations will result in less money for experiments, personnel or both. However, incentivizing the use of staff scientists (consensus recommendation 8) may partly address these issues. The National Institutes of Health is experimenting with a program to award grants for staff scientist salaries. This award would relieve some budgetary pressures and provide labs with a way to partly counteract the loss of trainee labor.

Thus, coordinating the implementation of these recommendations will result in significant change while lessening some of the negative effects of implementation of any individual recommendation. Nevertheless, some labs will be adversely affected, and the labs that would be most at risk would be small labs, labs at small institutions and labs of early-career researchers. Additional changes that relieve budgetary pressures to help these at-risk labs may be needed to mitigate the possibility of a “rich get richer” scenario. However, no such recommendation has yet reached consensus.

Tomorrow, we will discuss the ASBMB’s next steps in this process.

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