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Can we teach Belshazzar to read? (TRR-VIII)

or, How can we create a sustainable workforce?

My most recent post (1) summed up the case for nine proposals (see Table) designed to re-fashion a sustainable biomedical research workforce in the US. Today’s essay, the last focused on

The writing on the wall, in Belshazzar’s Feast, by Rembrandt

the Tilghman-Rockey report (TRR; 2), will try to answer the hardest question of all: if these proposals will prove more effective than the TRR’s feckless recommendations, as I argue, how can we make sure the proposals are implemented? I’ll begin with principles to guide this implementation. We should:

  1. Create a system able to harness the energy of its strongest elements and to adapt nimbly to change.
  2. Make the transition to the new system deliberate and decisive, but also gradual and measured.
  3. Recognize that the most essential elements of this transition—and the hardest to implement—require cooperation of multiple stakeholders in biomedical research.

The two right-hand columns of the Table summarize my guesses with respect to the difficulty of implementing each of the nine proposals (and their sub-proposals), along with the stakeholders who care the most about each. Relevant stakeholders will not vehemently oppose proposals that reinforce current policy: e.g., PhD training should focus primarily on research (proposal 2a); postdocs should be defined as working scientists (proposal 5); and institutions determine the course of training for students after award of a Master of Science (MS) degree. Instead, I shall concentrate on three proposals that will be hardest to implement—those that score 3+ or 4+ in the (for the rest of this post, click here)


This is the last post in a series that critiques the NIH-sponsored Tilghman-Rockey report (TRR), which recommended ways to improve the lot of the US biomedical research workforce. While workforce problems are dire, the report’s recommendations are seriously flawed. Earlier BiomedWatch posts describe positive feedback loops that trigger rampant expansionism of research capacity in universities and unrelenting expansion of graduate and postdoctoral training. The two expansions even stimulate one another. See Why ignore those icebergs? (I) and II. Both posts extend the metaphor and arguments of an editorial in Science: Henry R. Bourne and Mark O. Lively, Iceberg Alert for NIH, Science Express 3 July 2012 (pdf here). This editorial appeared in Science on July 27, 2012.

Also, look at two articles on the “sequester” of federal largesse, scheduled for January 2013: an op-ed piece in Politico, focusing on consequences for biology; a piece in the Boston Globe about the many disasters the sequester will trigger throughout the country.

In addition . . .

Sally Rockey’s “Rock Talk” blog on the NIH Extramural Nexus.

Biomedical Research Workforce, Final Report

Science Insider: Breaking news and analysis from the world of science policy

Science Careers Blog: Beryl Benderly

12 Responses to News

  1. Howard Fields says:

    Important to mention the elephant in the closet; i.e. the vast army of mediocre people running ‘research’ laboratories. Re-jiggering the funding model and increasing assured support for scientists will not solve this problem. Now the mediocrities are not only flooding the literature with garbage they are sitting in on the decisions about what gets published and who gets funded. It’s sad when the profession looks outside their own laboratories and classrooms for the solution to a problem they created by expanding graduate education so that less qualified people are now running the show. The problem right now is that instead of using the opportunity of reduced funding to eliminate unproductive scientists, the cuts are across the board and fine scientists are just as likely to be laid off as bad ones. Raise standards, demand productivity and we can protect and improve the system in the face of limited resources.

    • biomedwatch says:

      As the author of BiomedWatch, I agree with you, but the problem you are talking about is hard to document and VERY hard to fix, because it’s been going on so long and because we are absolutely not good — at the level of NIH peer review — at discriminating between the very best stuff and what you call “garbage” (and I’d call less interesting, critical, insightful work). How would you make it happen? Grad school might be a good place to winnow the pack, but good effects (if they happen) would take quite a while.

  2. Howard Fields says:

    Howard Hughes Medical Institute does a great job of finding good people and supporting them if they are productive and then dropping them if they are not productive. I think NIH should put some of its funds into an HHMI type of program. A second suggestion is to limit NIH funding to those willing to serve on study sections; that would expand the pool of potential reviewers. Third, we simply must find a way to rate reviewers for manuscripts and grants and use that information for career advancement. Right now, the general impression I get is that study section service is a bother that is unrewarded in the ‘real’ world and credit is given for time served, rather than quality of work. Perhaps one could make serving on a study section competitive, so that the best people will want to do and then it could be seen as an achievement, rather than an obligation. The march to mediocrity is clearly a cultural phenomenon.

  3. I too have advocated for NIH to establish a sizable program that would mirror the features of HHMI’s laudable processes for selecting and funding highly imaginative scientists. This is a policy action we should vigorously support.

  4. Mark von Zastrow says:

    Fabulous blog! Howard and Sandy raise interesting ideas but, it seems to me, the prescriptions suggested amount to another version of rearranging the deck chairs. I respectfully disagree with my colleagues’ premises from the outset… 1.) While there is indeed a current problem with mediocrity in biomedical science and its review, this is not new- mediocrity has existed for many years. Lots of mediocre scientists made perfectly successful careers in the past and this continues. The difference is that there was enough wiggle room in the past for strong scientists, and good science, to stay in the mix. This also continues, but things are getting much tighter. 2.) There are indeed some clueless reviewers but also some excellent ones- they do volunteer for study section and work hard to make fair judgments. 3.) HHMI supports some excellent science, and has superb scientists among its ranks, but this institute has supported (and continues to support) some real clunkers. HHMI has also shown poor judgment (in retrospect) in killing support to some investigators and programs that turn out to have very high worth. In short, HHMI is a good institute but makes mistakes, and it is not head and shoulders above NIH- it just has different warts. What HHMI has going for it is a good $ /investigator ratio. This is for two simple reasons- HHMI supports a limited portfolio, with no pretense of broad coverage in any area, and they have control over their money / priorities. NIH is the lifeblood of US biomedical research, essentially all of it, and ultimately has to deal with Congress. Thus the NIH has fundamentally different marching orders, and much more complex constraints. So HHMI hasn’t found a secret formula- they have a different formula that is appropriate to their different and easier job. Sorry that I’m not offering any simple answers, but that’s the point. I suggest that we all need to think much harder about what is really going on here, and properly diagnose before treating. And let’s keep in mind the fabulous projects and investigators of today, and the promising trainees in the pipeline. They need a constructive path forward. Dismissive fictions about a lost golden past, or a magic formula, will not do it.

    • Howard Fields says:

      Did I say the past was Golden? I agree with Mark that there has always been bad research but when there is an expansion as in neuroscience, there is a more rapid expansion of the bad than the good. HHMI does a better job of vetting investigators and puts less emphasis on proposals than on productivity. I think NIH should put a bit of money into a program like that, more Merits and Javitz awards.

  5. wsedrf123 says:

    Someone once pointed out to me that one of our lesser journals has some of the most cited papers in the world. I think HHMI has as many poor scientists funded as NIH: they just have great reputations – now. It takes a long time to find out what was important. Who thought studying jellyfish fluorescence was important, or the underlying organisms that produced PCR? Mediocre scientists in terms of impressive CVs.
    I have the only 12 month appointment in my department, have a lab of about 10 and teach students. My ability to be a good teacher is linked to my ability to do research, and the students I teach should be willing to pay for that; just not all of it. I have turned down offers of pay increases in return for having NIH pay the bill for my salary many times. Why shouldn’t the university pay me if they want me? When someone in the state university makes a big discovery, doesn’t the state take credit?
    I know tuition is high. Why is that? Here at my institution, named for the state, the state is now referred to a minor player financially. We no longer see public institutions as things we are responsible for. While we elect people to do things we can do only as a group, taxation that allows that elected duty is a sin. Knowledge is not worth anything unless it gets you a job and money. So while I could afford an education many years ago, I had to pay far more for my children’s. Most kids are locked out because we as a group will not pay for it. The NIH scam is as though Federal money is free, so states waste tons of money building research towers instead of lowering tuition.
    I love Vermeers. Nonetheless, I am not sure it is the right painting, though I am not surprised at the choice! Perhaps a man o war off a lee shore in a gale. One thing is sure. Other cultures value knowledge as our parent’s parents once did. They will soon be owning us, because educated people have a much broader scope and longer vision when it comes to decision making.

  6. Dan says:

    Dear Henry,

    First of all, thank you for creating this blog. A friend from UCSF told me about this site and I have enjoyed reading all of your posts so far. I think this is a fantastic way for you to share your insights and opinions with the rest of the scientific community. Keep up the good work!

    My impression is that you have focused on the idea that “expansionism” (institutional addiction to expansion) is the major problem hurting the overall scientific enterprise today. I found it interesting to learn about the examples you gave of how expansionism has altered the system in surprising ways (like through soft money salaries and other tricks institutions use to compete against each other). But if expansionism is the problem, does that mean that you think we should actually be limiting the growth of science? My own view is that investing more in scientific research is one of the wisest decisions we can make as a society in terms of allocating our resources, and that the real problem here is the way that scientific funding has lagged in recent years. It seems to me that expansionism is a problem mainly to the extent that it has left institutions unprepared to deal with sudden unexpected changes in funding levels. Obviously this can undermine the goal of a scientific meritocracy if less talented people succeed and get professorships during funding booms while more talented people do not because they had the misfortune of finishing their postdocs during a funding downturn. But I feel like the much larger problem is that there are not enough PI opportunities available and that our system for deciding who gets those positions is flawed. I hope you can address some of these issues in future blog posts.


    • biomedwatch says:

      Here’s a semi-short answer: funding is lagging, to be sure, and I would be the first to argue that it should increase. Still, it looks as if the gravy train is over, at least for the next few years. The reasons for that include Washington’s political gridlock, the recession, a general disaffection of the US for government spending on anything but defense, a rather specific anti-science bias in one of the two big parties, and a host of other problems outside biomedical research. We should argue against all those things, but the fact is that we can’t fix them now. We CAN, however, look at the problems that have come to the surface under the pressure of lowered funding, which are caused by the responses of the biomedical research enterprise to forty years of constantly expanding budgets. Surely, sooner or later we’re going to have to learn to live within our means — meaning, I would hope, a research enterprise that prospers as the rest of the country does, and makes itself flexible and adaptable enough to survive through the lean times without imploding. I fear that instead we are going to lose a generation of young scientists because our present policies and behavior make it unattractive for bright young people to go into biology. So, sure, let’s get more money from NIH — but in the meantime, let’s get straight what the system is really about: finding out how nature works and using it to improve human lives, rather than grinding postdocs and students to get more papers.

  7. antistokes says:

    This is exactly why I got a chemistry BA (4 years), a chemistry PhD (4.5 years) and did a postdoc in intra-operational brain tumor diagnostics (3 years). I have a better publication records than most of my biomed friends that are still in grad school (I’m 30 years old).

    My bio classes that I took for “fun” were full up, about 80-odd people in genetics/microbio/psychobiology etc. courses. Meanwhile my quantum chemistry, analytical chemistry, and physical chemistry courses had about 10 kids in them (it was a tiny liberal arts college on the west coast). I didn’t care about my GPA, I cared about being “good in the lab”. When I got to grad school at a huge research school on the east coast, I had the lab skills to hit the ground running. I was taking fewer courses and my GPA shot up by a whole point. I published multiple times within a few years. I got multiple offers for a postdoc at labs all over the world, and this was in 2008 when everything crashed.

    I proved I could publish in one field (biophysical chemistry), and then I proved I could publish in novel methods for brain tumor detection *independently* of my PhD adviser (I’m in a German postdoc, it’s more like a staff scientist position. I am expected to design and coordinate my own projects, with co-authors that I recruit and students whose dissertations I am co-signing on, publish them, and write grants based on them. I love working with the Germans, they get mad at you if you *don’t* take a vacation!)

    I noticed my adviser in grad school had a PhD in physical chemistry, but publishes and writes grants for drug discovery. So, it’s PIs like him that are taking a reasonable amount of the biomed grant money. ‘Cause it’s easy, compared to what he used to do, and it helped to fund his smaller laser lab that I worked in. This is what good scientists tend to do: they start out in a hard field, and then make contributions to an easier one— like physicists tend to do for the field of chemistry. Or mathematicians for physics.

    But, not everyone is me. A lot of my friends just want a stable lab tech job, they don’t want to write grants and worry about editorial comments all day! I understand this, but the US science businesses have been slashing their R&D departments (and thus their scientists) since they are more focused on short-term, quarterly profits instead of sustainable, long term growth of a field. (Like killing Bell Labs.) So now the universities are picking up the slack by having longer and longer times for graduated and postdoc training…….basically, cheap lab labor……(this is cross-posted on DrugMonkey’s post about salaries…

  8. Greetings! Very useful advice in this particular post!
    It’s the little changes which will make the largest changes. Many thanks for sharing!

  9. Laven Master says:

    This story is so interesting. I felt inspired by reading it!
    I think this place will become my latest bookmarked site!

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