The US Biomedical Workforce Redux

Charging a working group of the Advisory Committee to the NIH Director to consider the future of the US biomedical workforce was discussed in a prior InfoEdge article. That working group recently published its findings after a review that started in April 2011.

In the US in 2009, 9,000 biomedical PhDs were awarded and 70% of those went on to do postdoctoral research. The working group estimated that there were between 37,000 and 68,000 postdoctoral researchers. It is difficult to track and count postdoctoral researchers. It is widely recognized that many individuals go through multiple postdoctoral assignments or spend additional years beyond their formal postdoctoral period in other titles. NIH’s laudable goal to encourage people to move out of a postdoctoral researcher role after three years perversely makes it more difficult to track the number of people in that state – as noted by Dr. Sally Rockey, NIH Deputy Director for Extramural Research, in her recent post.

The proportion of PhDs that garner tenured or tenure-track faculty positions is declining – from ~34% in 1993 to ~26% today, according to the working group report.  As Dr. Rockey puts it:

Looking at the career paths taken by these US-trained biomedical PhDs, we can see that fewer than half end up in academia, either in research or in teaching, and only 23% of the total are in tenured or tenure-track positions. Many other people are conducting research, however, with 18% in industry and 6% in government.

Drivers of this trend are complex and include alternative options and disincentives. Other options include industry and government positions, science-related occupations not involving the conduct or research and occupations that don’t require graduate science training. Aspects of the biomedical workforce that make it inherently less attractive as a career path include the length of training (PhD and postdoctoral research), and relatively low academic salaries, which are lower in biomedical fields compared to other disciplines.

Included among the recommendations of the working group are that NIH should encourage institutions to broaden training for PhD students to ensure they are prepared to consider career options other than academia and seek ways to shorten the training period itself. Postdoctoral research training and mentoring programs should similarly diversify to better prepare fellows for careers in industry, private foundations and government in addition to academia. The report also recommends enhancing the role of staff scientist as a formal career option.  A separate working group charged with making recommendations to enhance diversity in the biomedical workforce also submitted its report recently as well. Among the 13 recommendations in their report is one for NIH to appoint a scientist as Chief Diversity Officer and establish an Office of Diversity.

Reconciling the oft-heard refrain that the US needs more trained and qualified PhD-level scientists with the current state of the biomedical workforce is challenging.  The time to become qualified is long and the rewards for achieving that distinction are not always deemed commensurate with the effort involved.  This dichotomy is critical to achieving a vibrant biomedical workforce in the US.

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