Kicking Off the Biomedical Research Workgroup


As I mentioned previously, the Future of the Biomedical Research Workforce Working Group has been formed to advise the NIH Director on how to support a sustainable biomedical infrastructure. I’ve also shared some of the data we prepared for them with you in previous posts. The working group met for the first time last month, and we are excited to get started. We’ve posted the charge to the working group and the roster of its members on the Web. 

A significant amount of our work will be focused on developing a model for a sustainable and diverse U.S. biomedical research workforce. To do this we have constituted a modeling subcommittee that will work specifically on the parameters of the model. The roster of the subcommittee is also posted on the Web. 

Just to give you a taste of some of the previous work done in this area that our committee will be considering, take a look at the National Academies of Sciences study on “Research Training in the Biomedical, Behavioral and Clinical Sciences.”  

I will keep you updated on the activities of the working group and look forward to getting your input as we progress.


    1. Hopefully, the economists will be able delve into and solve some of the problems with getting the best science and medicine with our limited financial resources. Perhaps they will be able to help find reliable measures of cost and output for grants/research. I am hoping that they will also be able recognize two economies operating in biomedical research-that of the rich and that of the poor that may account for large cost/output differentials in grants. There are salaries of researchers in the 200-500K range (mainly physicians and administrators MD/MBA), and there are salaries in the 40-100K range (mainly bench scientists, and teachers/professors BS, PhD). These salaries make up a good portion of the cost of research and publications and can produce a large range of publication/research costs. Someone may argue that there are NIH limits on salaries (199K?), but there are ways in accounting to get around specific categorical limits through overhead costs, dual positions with differential pay, center grants etc. One can also understand the growing forces the higher salaries are producing to keep salaries and numbers of participants low for those doing the science on a day-to day basis, and the large decline in interest in science careers by the better qualified students –born & trained in the United States. One probably needs to better justify the costs of the high salary personnel on research projects otherwise pressures on publications etc. will be levied on the day-to-day researchers who already get less of a share of the fiscal pie and far fewer career opportunities than they merit. Hopefully, the forces for performance decline in the sytsem may be more evident to the experienced economists, and they will find ways to remedy the government-university research enterprise. Perhaps the 199K salary (total take home pay) limit should be an enforced limit for anyone participating or named on a grant, and this should simply be verified with no exceptions. On the other hand, maybe the salaries of everyone participating in research need increased with fewer, but higher quality higher output researchers.

  1. I presume the economists will be useful in accurately addressing the quantitative aspects of “current and future needs in industry, science policy, education, communication, and other pathways”- how many positions might exist in different sectors of the economy and so forth. However, I am not sure who in this group will speak to the qualitative aspects- what skills individuals who make up the workforce will actually need and how they will get them.
    It does not seem to me that the breadth of the biomedical workforce is well-represented here. Does NIH care if the ‘trainees’ that PIs blithely set upon industry are ill-prepared for the opportunities that are actually available? While I would hope this panel can tell us how to create a workforce to write the R01s of tomorrow, I’m not so clear on who knows how to create the workforce to write the SBIRs of tomorrow.

  2. I am dismayed that the panel does not include a single member of the biotechnology or pharmaceutical sector, it consists solely of academics. How can you possibly determine a model for workforce training without understanding the requirements for all employment sectors? Given that 35-40% of those trained will work in private industry, they are potentially doing these newly trained researchers a major disservice.

  3. Having just downloaded the NAS report, I obviously have not read it all… but I think that the introduction on “The job situation” identifies an essential problem with the system as it currently exists:
    “It has to be understood that, to a significant degree, the value of the trainees [grad students/postdocs] supported by the NIH lies more with their current research output while they are trainees than with their future career development. …

    … led to postdoctoral fellows being reclassified as research (non-tenure-track) faculty, a type of position that mostly lacks individual space, intellectual independence, or financial resources. This “faculty” position has been the most rapidly growing one in medical schools over the past decade, and it has served to accommodate, in a somewhat precarious position, significant numbers of Ph.D.s in mostly clinical departments, where they remain subject to the vagaries of NIH funding as well as to departmental strategic plans and the funding exigencies of their senior faculty advisors.”

    The situation of PhD research staff who are in 100% soft money positions is worse than “somewhat precarious”; the situation is better described as a grinding slog, fraught with insecurity and perpetual rejection by grant review committees, and is by and large, unsustainable, both economically and emotionally. More than half of the PIs in my group are now partially funded, typically at 60% FTE. The ARRA made a huge difference, but only served to delay the inevitable. I expect half of our staff will be forced to leave over the next year, myself included. If my experience is at all typical, the crisis is nation-wide, and has been at “threat level orange” for some time.

    The problem is not just about the toll on staff. Indeed, the inefficiency of a system which requires a large proportion of resources simply to keep one’s job is a disaster for research in our country. The panel must look not only at sustaining the biomedical research enterprise, but also at the quality of the working environment for its participants. Currently, only researchers with “day jobs” (i.e. tenured faculty or clinicians) with students and post-docs to do the work can sustain their programs. Until permanent research staff positions are once again made viable, there will be a large and acute loss of scientific expertise, and nowhere for the trainee-workers to go.

    1. Unfortunately, I’m afraid that PeterK’s assessment is pretty much correct in regard to how much research is getting done now, and the situation seems to be getting worse, if anything.

  4. This committee needs to examine the entire U.S. education system. This includes how science is taught in K-12. Unfortunately, teachers at this level rely primarily on observable science such as environmental science rather than getting students exicted about chemical and biological experiments. Until this is rectified and science is used to teach and incorporated into math and writing classes, the United States will continue to produce fewer scientists. Furthermore, the ones we do produce will increasingly depart the U.S. to go to countries with fewer regulations and those that enable biotech start ups as well as provide significant incentives for new R&D facilities (e.g. China and Eli Lilly).

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