U.S. biomedical research is overcrowded and underfunded, critics say

BY Rebecca Jacobson  April 15, 2014 at 2:40 PM EDT
Two researchers look at data at Novartis Institutes for BioMedical Research in Cambridge, Mass. Critics say that the biomedical research field has too many scientists and not enough jobs. Photo by Flickr user Novartis AG

Two researchers look at data at Novartis Institutes for BioMedical Research in Cambridge, Mass. Critics say that the biomedical research field has too many scientists and not enough jobs. Photo by Flickr user Novartis AG

The U.S. biomedical research field is unsustainable, creating more scientists than there are jobs, according to an essay in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The essay’s four authors — Bruce Alberts, former president of the National Academy of Sciences and former editor-in-chief of Science magazine; Marc W. Kirschner, founding chair of the Department of Systems Biology at Harvard Medical School; Shirley Tilghman, former president of Princeton University; and Harold Varmus, Nobel laureate and current director of the National Cancer Institute — ask the biomedical community to reorganize its training and funding.

Their first recommendation is to cut the number of PhD students coming into the field each year.

“The training pipeline produces more scientists than relevant positions in academia, government and the private sector are capable of absorbing,” they write.

Others disagree. In September, Sally Rockey, the National Institutes of Health’s deputy director for extramural research, and NIH director Francis Collins commented on a blog post that “there is no definitive evidence that Ph.D. production exceeds current employment opportunities.”

The majority of research work is performed by graduate students and post-doctoral researchers, but funding at universities for such research is unstable, the authors of the essay argue. Now lab chiefs and administrators feel the strain of budget cuts once shouldered by post-docs and graduate students, Alberts, Kirschner, Tilghman and Varmus write.

In addition to improving funding and increasing grants for biomedical research, they propose giving graduate students better information about their career opportunities. Alberts et al. recommend using training grants to support graduate students instead of professors’ research grants, and increasing postdoc pay. The authors all call on Congress to develop means of “planning for predictable and stable funding of science,” rather than yo-yoing between funding increases and budget cuts.