The Researcher Who Never Was: Sequestration Blues-Part Two

Message to Budget Choppers: We can’t sequester a generation and expect to prosper. Message to Budget Choppers: We can’t sequester a generation and expect to prosper. Photo by John Fleischman

I woke up in New Orleans on March 1, the first day of the so-called sequestration. Like most Americans who found themselves outside the Washington Beltway on "S-Day," I woke up to no news and few visible differences. Yet I could feel great political and economic wheels grinding away at the base of American research science. S-Day forced me to think about the future for the most vulnerable in science, students and early-career researchers.

As I pointed out in a previous blog[3], only about 26% of biomedical PhDs move into tenure-track positions. In response, many talk about "alternative careers." Let me start out by clearing the field of what I think is a misnomer. I forcefully reject the definition of alternative careers, and it is more than semantics. I feel so strongly about it, that last December, at the ASCB Council meeting I asked for a ban on the term. There are several career paths for biomedical PhDs, nearly all equally valuable to society.

However, our training system was designed when need, supply, and demand were very different than they are now. In the sixties and even later, the training pipeline was almost linear[4]; there were comparable numbers of incoming trainees and openings for them in academia. Now it is nothing like that and it has become a problem, because our science training system is still designed to essentially have one default pathway leading to academic positions. Our students and postdoctoral fellows strive to stay in academia as long as they can, because of the stigma associated with leaving academia. For the historical reasons I mentioned, it is often perceived as a "failure," or at best as an "alternative." So, many trainees stay longer and longer in postdoctoral fellowships, underpaid and anxious about finding "real" post-training jobs that often do not exist.

If we rise to the 100,000-foot level, and take a historical perspective, we can see that this backup in training situation is typical of relatively young disciplines such as biomedical research. This is not true for engineering, for example, where landing a job in industry, outside of pure research, is perfectly accepted and not stigmatized at all. But in biomedicine, industry and non-industrial applications of biological expertise—government, law, journalism, public health, insurance, risk assessment, food safety, economic analysis—these are relatively new opportunities. Again, our training system has not caught up with reality.

We have seen several excellent government reports on this issue[5], and we are looking forward to a new one from the Committee on Science, Engineering, and Public Policy (COSEPUP) of the National Academy of Sciences, but so far we have seen far too warmed up or watered down implementation. We need to be much more aggressive. In the age of the innovation economy, we cannot afford to squander the most precious talent we have—young people highly trained in analytical skills, able to address, and possibly solve very complex problems. We can't sequester a generation and expect to prosper.

Again, as Elias Zerhouni pointed out[6], it is possible to do Nobel prize-winning research today at an age below the average of NIH first grant awardees! This is fundamentally wrong and it should keep science policy wonks awake at night. Today, the scientifically most productive age for researchers, the early thirties, is spent in endless postdoctoral training because the system—the stigma of training outside academia, the artificially low wages for highly skilled workers, and the intimidating imbalance of supply and demand—actually incentivizes this behavior in research universities.

Let's take a look at salaries for biomedical PhDs. Below is a chart showing the trend for real salaries (adjusted for inflation) for biomedical PhDs from 1990 to 2011, which hovers around $60,000 per year. Is this a lot, or a little? Economists say that salaries for these highly trained individuals are not high at all. One way of looking at this issue is what Paula Stephan did in her landmark book[7] by comparing salaries of early-career PhDs in relation to other educated individuals. Stephan notes that an engineer with a PhD earns on average 1.6 times more than an individual with a bachelor degree; a PhD in physical sciences earns 1.4 times more than a bachelor degree graduate; while a PhD in biomedical sciences earns only 1.3 times more than the benchmark. In essence, the over seven years of training required for a PhD buys biomedical scientists less than a 50% (often 30%) increase in salary. This fact is not only true for early-career biomedical PhDs, but also is also largely reproduced for more experienced investigators. If we accept that economic incentives influence behavior, these facts should make us think.

What does this tell us from a policy standpoint?

My take-home message is that being locked for a long time in postdoctoral training after the PhD, waiting for the perfect academic job, is not paying off for far too many people. And this is worrisome. We want to make sure that young trainees can access the fabulous world of academic research, plus we need to make sure that our academic institutions are strengthened by these creative and highly analytical minds. This is the reason why at ASCB we advocate so strongly for investments in our research system. This is about our future, the future of our society. However, we cannot deny reality, and the nefarious sequestration reminds us that increases in research budgets are not current reality. Too often PhDs feel they must make do as a postdoc in order to stay on the track toward becoming a professor or independent investigator. While this would be wonderful, and it would be great to expand the capacity of our academic research system, this does not seem to be in the tea leaves in the medium term. The economic conditions at the moment do not allow this to happen on a large scale. As sad as this is, there is only one worse thing—keeping young people longer and longer, underpaid, in the training oven where their career prospects burn up and turn to inedible toast.

This is essentially what we are doing now. Instead, the PhD should be the perfect time to train and advise students about different possibilities such as science teaching, science writing, industry, law (e.g., intellectual property), policy, and more. Essentially, postdoctoral training should be for those who have real prospects of becoming tenure track investigators. We need to realign that portion of the pipeline into a linear structure and not a sieved funnel, where many linger at the top, while only few can pass through. This selection should occur much earlier in the training cycle.

So, what can you, as a young scientist, do on a practical level today to find a viable career path?

I would say, seek all the professional training and information you can get from your mentors but also look outside your lab. This is important. A wonderful lab-savvy PI may not be the best career mentor in our changing economy. It is important for young scientists to cast the widest possible net, get as much information and as many experiences as possible. Evaluate your skills, weaknesses and, most of all, keep an open mind when assessing options. Pursue the wonderful academic career only if you really think you can succeed. Don't treat it as a default pathway.

Remember the Dustin Hoffman movie, "The Graduate?" Only one word, son, only one word I have for you: plastic. I would give every student a poster with the number 25 on it. Are you ready to be one in four? If so, go for it, pursuing an academic career is a wonderful ride and of great value to the world. But don't feel you have to do it, that you are stuck in a rut. There are other options in front of you, they are not alternatives, they are real careers. This is actually where the majority of graduate students who worked in and then left your lab ended up in their careers. Go talk to them, ask questions, and keep an open mind. A trained scientific mind is a wonderful gift and it can be put to creative use in many different ways. Don't limit yourself!

At ASCB, we are committed to the careers and the success of young investigators. We are now setting up a new important committee of graduate students and postdoctoral fellows for which we have already received many applications. The current ASCB Council and committee chairs are very concerned about the scientific workforce issue. We are eager to work with young scientists to find solutions to these thorny problems while ensuring a prosperous future for our world through science. Take a look at our website, ascb.org, and take advantage of the many career mentoring and professional development opportunities. We are all in this together. At ASCB, we are here to help.

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  1. http://ascb.org/activationenergy/index.php/staple-a-green-card-to-every-stem-diploma/
  2. Fuhrmann CN, et al. (2011). Improving graduate education to support a branching career pipeline: recommendations based on a survey of doctoral students in the basic biomedical sciences. CBE Life Sci Educ 10(3), 239-249.
  3. National Institutes of Health (2012). Biomedical Research Workforce Working Group Report. Washington, DC.
  4. http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/wonkblog/wp/2013/02/21/former-nih-director-the-sequester-will-set-back-medical-science-for-a-generation/
  5. Stephan P (2012). How Economics Shapes Science. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
Stefano Bertuzzi

Dr. Stefano Bertuzzi is the Executive Director of the American Society for Cell Biology. In this position he is responsible, with the ASCB Board, for strategic planning and all operations at the Society to serve the needs of its ~9,000 members and to promote the field of cellular biology and basic science.

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