Friday, March 1, 2013

More money, fewer PhDs

At the recent annual meeting of the AAAS a panel of experts on the scientific workforce severely criticized NIH’s wimpy reforms on graduate and postdoctoral training in biomedical fields. Several prior studies including a recent report to the NIH Director from a panel led by Shirley Tilghman ( have advocated reducing the number of graduate students supported on research grants and increasing the number supported on competitive training grants. The net impact of this would likely be to reduce the total pool of biomedical graduate students but increase the quality. No doubt this would be beneficial to PhD career opportunities, especially given the current scaling down of research in pharmaceutical and biotech companies. However, the NIH failed to take this step and only provided some cosmetic changes to its policies on funding of graduate students and postdocs, as discussed previously on this Blog (NIH’s Feeble Response to Problems in Biomedical PhD Training. Jan 11, 2013).


At the AAAS panel additional measures were discussed including drastic increases in salaries for students and postdocs. This would serve to make scientific career paths more attractive and would also force senior investigators to use their resources wisely, rather than ‘burning’ students or postdocs on impossible projects as is now sometimes done. Gregory Pestko, one of the AAAS panelists, stated "I would ratchet up the salaries for postdocs and for graduate students by a lot, and I would do it as a cold-blooded, deliberate way of shrinking the pool of manpower." Good for you Dr. Pestko. It’s about time that somebody was brave enough to really get to the nitty-gritty on this issue! Given the current status of the job market, as well as any reasonable future projections, it is clear that academia needs to engage in some scientific birth control.


Interestingly, a number of my local colleagues read the account of the AAAS discussions. While some were sympathetic, many were outraged, being concerned about how they were going to support enough students to keep their labs running smoothly. Once again this shows that some professors are more concerned with cheap labor than with training. 


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