PNAS recently published an opinion article from four very prominent individuals about the current malaise in biomedical research and training. The authors were Bruce Alberts (former editor of SCIENCE), Marc Kirschner (a Dept Chair at Harvard), Shirley Tilghman (former President of Princeton) and Harold Varmus (nobelist, and Director of the National Cancer Institute). This is about as high powered as you can get in science!
The article analyzed several problematic aspects of the current biomedical research system but prominently featured the depressing scenario regarding PhD training. Based on various perverse incentives, both senior faculty and university administrators have continued to expand the PhD trainee population during a period when employment prospects for biomedical PhDs have drastically diminished. Academia is at saturation, the pharmaceutical industry is eviscerating its research programs, and the growth of smaller biotech companies is just not enough to provide adequate jobs. In my experience more and more PhDs are going into jobs such as clinical trials management, market research, and other administrative functions for which intensive training in laboratory research is not essential. What a waste!
The abovementioned gurus make some valuable suggestions such as:
(1) Removing support for graduate stipends from research grants and placing them in competitive training grants; this would give NIH more direct control over trainee numbers.
(2) Placing renewed emphasis on Master’s degrees. In many cases this would provide sufficient science training for some of the jobs mentioned above, while consuming far less time for the trainee.
(3) Developing stable career paths for staff scientists (as opposed to faculty/principle investigators) in universities and other research institutions. There are lots of talented people who would like to do science but do not want the pressure of constantly seeking grant funding. There should be ways of supporting these individuals.
None of these ideas are new. Many people, including me, have been advocating similar changes for years. However, it is nice to see some very influential people espouse the same ideas. Maybe something will get done about the problem. But don’t hold your breath!