Future of the Biomedical Workforce

What will biomedical research look like in the future? That is the root question behind a recent article by Jennifer Lewington in the Chronicle of Higher Education in which she reviews Canadian efforts to encourage PhD students to consider careers in industry, government or the not-for-profit sector as viable alternatives to academic careers. For example, the Natural Sciences and Engineering Council of Canada encourages faculty mentors to ensure their trainees have opportunities to collaborate not only with other universities but also with the private sector. Another example, Mitacs, provides both scientific and business skills via research and training programs. Mitacs is a partnership of Canadian government, academic and industrial organizations.

In The Real Science Gap, Beryl Lieff Benderly provided an excellent history of the US scientific workforce and the dichotomy that exists between those who see a looming shortage vs. those who predict an excess of future scientists. The key problem identified in her article is a result of economic forces. Research is not carried out in a vacuum. Maintaining or increasing productivity in the face of flat or reduced research support drives the need for lower paid research staff, which drives young scientists to longer periods of postdoctoral research activity. Coupled with fewer academic positions available to move into, the result is a dismal outlook for talented graduate students who might consider scientific careers.

A recent report from the National Research Council (NRC), Research Training in the Biomedical, Behavioral, and Clinical Research Sciences, provides ongoing assessment of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) National Research Services Award (NRSA) program. The NRSA program began in 1973 and is an integral component of the NIH strategy to train the research workforce of the future. The NRC report recommends that the NIH should maintain or increase the number of graduate students and postdocs supported through the NRSA program. This recommendation is made despite the finding that the outlook for positions in academia has not improved over the past decade and likely may get worse. However, the report concludes that “…NIH training mechanisms must be nimble in responding to changes in U.S. immigration policy, changes in global employment opportunities for international graduate students and post doctorates, growth in U.S. minority populations, profound changes in the health-care system, severe financial problems in U.S. higher education systems, chronic inadequacy of science education in K-12, and other conditions that may arise.”

The Advisory Committee to the Director of NIH has established a working group to consider the future of the US biomedical workforce. The working group will develop a model for a sustainable, diverse and productive biomedical workforce for the United States based on information collected from a variety of sources. The working group consists largely of academics and academic administrators, and some have expressed concern that key points of view are not represented in the group (http://blogs.sciencemag.org/sciencecareers/2011/04/nih-panel-to-ex.html). One key source of information is the extramural community, whose input is being solicited via this RFI: http://grants.nih.gov/grants/guide/notice-files/NOT-OD-11-106.html.  Key factors being considered include:

  • The balance between supply, including the number of domestic and foreign trained PhDs and post-docs, and demand, i.e. post-training career opportunities.
  • Characteristics of PhD training in biomedical research, including issues such as
    • The length of the PhD training period.
    • Recommendations for changes to the PhD curriculum.
    • Training for multiple career paths (including bench and non-bench science).
  • Characteristics of clinician-research training including issues such as
    • The balance between MDs and MD/PhDs.
    • Career development of clinician-researchers.
    • Recommendations for changes to the curricula for training clinician-researchers.
  • Length of Post-doctoral training.
  • The ratio of PhD students and postdoctoral fellows on training grants to those supported by research grants.
  • Possibilities for professional/staff scientist positions and the level of training required for such positions (e.g. PhD or MSc degrees).
  • Issues related to the attractiveness of biomedical research careers (e.g. salary, working conditions, availability of research funding).
  • The effect of changes in NIH policies on investigators, grantee institutions and the broader research enterprise.

Input from the research community into the development of a comprehensive and valid model that can serve as a framework to ensure continued excellence in the quality of the scientific workforce is key.  Talented undergraduate and graduate students must see a viable future for themselves in pursuing a career in research. However, training for careers in industry, the not-for-profit sector, or government must be available and encouraged alongside training for careers in academia. Building and maintaining a diverse and high quality research workforce is critical to maintaining America’s pre-eminence in the scientific arena.

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