The postdoc holding tank (TRR-VI)

Uncovering the biggest bulge under that rug

Sweeping all those problems under the rug creates a huge bump

I have poked fun (1) at the Tilghman-Rockey report (TRR; 2) for failing to notice key issues or evading them by shoving them under rugs. In fairness, the TRR—like all the rest of us—must have felt overwhelmed by the confusing complexity of multiple intersecting problems. Until about 2003, America’s long love affair with biomedical research fueled exciting discoveries, growth in numbers (and often in quality) of investigators, graduate programs, and postdocs, and relentless expansion of research universities, along with a host of festering troubles that were masked for decades by 9% average annual NIH budget increases (3, 4). Early in the 21st century, a second problem appeared when that love affair was interrupted by a decade of flat-line NIH budgets, economic recession, and Congressional gridlock—an interruption that began to uncover troubles that had long festered beneath the surface (3). One of these troubles, the brimming postdoc holding tank, began in the 1990s and is still with us. Trying to combat it, we bump our shins against hard questions:

  1. How many biomedical bench scientists, including trainees and the PIs they hope to become, can the US support? Will that change? In what direction?
  2. Can we maximize scientific contributions of foreign biomedical PhDs without depressing the market for PhDs who are US citizens?
  3. Can we accelerate transfer of postdocs into the permanent workforce?
  4. Would more staff scientists help? If so, how can we make that happen?

Because none of these inescapable questions has a clear, quantitative answer, in handling them we should follow several principles: (i) provisional answers change with time, so we must remain flexible and receptive to change; (ii) in straitened financial times, selective austerity is prudent and necessary; (iii) actions based on provisional judgments should be accompanied by vigorous attempts to obtain quantitative data to support, refute, or modify the initial approach; (iv) change must be deliberate and always subject to modification based on credible data, but never come as a sudden surprise for postdocs, PIs, or institutions; (v) collaborative action is essential, so all stakeholders—PIs, trainees, NIH, universities, even Congress—need to hone their skills in the arts of persuasion, compromise, and adroit application of carrots and sticks; (vi) recognizing that any useful action affects the whole enterprise, our actions must create a flexible new business model for US biomedical research. The new model will curtail and re-direct research expansionism and soft-money salaries for research faculty, revise peer review and NIH policy to adjust distribution of resources, and—with better data—manage the number, quality, and career directions of both US-trained and foreign PhDs (4, 5). All these topics will  reappear in BiomedWatch. With that prelude, I present five proposals for shrinking the postdoc holding tank and changing the postdoc’s role. (Proposal numbers do not correspond to any specific TRR recommendations; see Table and 6.)

Proposal 1. Re-define NIH-supported postdoctoral researchers. To correct confusion about mutual obligations of postdocs and institutions, all newly hired postdocs supported by NIH research project grants (RPGs) or training grants (TGs) will be called “postdoctoral researchers,” not “trainees.” Their obligations are to begin long-term research careers by serving as working scientists. In turn, the institution is obliged to treat them as full-fledged employees, with specified exceptions (proposal 3, below). The supervising PI will outline her/his view of the PI’s “training” obligations before each postdoctoral researcher is hired, and the institution will offer postdocs optional instruction in scientific writing and communication.

This proposal focuses on postdoctoral researchers committed to research careers, but does not envision markedly different experiences for individuals who anticipate research careers in academia vs. industry. In my opinion, the essential skills and expertise developed in postdoctoral research—ability to choose and define an important problem, find an answer or solution, and communicate these to others—constitute excellent preparation for either career direction. Newly minted biomedical PhDs who seek careers not directly engaged in research (e.g., in research-related fields such as regulation, law, business, etc.) should seek further training in those areas, rather than in the laboratory.

By making the parties’ obligations explicit, this proposal confirms today’s unwritten rules in US labs: PIs consider active “training” an option, not a duty, while postdocs manage to learn in the lab, however they can. As grownups, prospective postdocs will continue to choose between PIs who actively help postdocs to learn or those who teach by example rather than by precept (7). But the proposal does require institutions to offer postdocs instruction in writing and communication. Communication skills are conspicuously lacking in many US citizens or foreigners who otherwise qualify as superb beginning scientists, but the much-needed instruction can be skimpy and scattered in US labs, because institutions are loath to spend money training personnel they consider primarily as workers. To make this requirement work, the NIH should devote funds to partial salary support for instructors, via competitive grants (PCIGs; see proposal 2, and 8).

In re-defining the role of a postdoc and setting a maximum number of years (five) for postdoc funding (see proposal 3, below), the NIH should stop funding salaries of  “subterfuge postdocs”—that is, postdoctoral researchers who are called something else, as a way to get work out of them without appointing them to faculty positions that allow them to submit grants. There should be only one category of research employee between postdoctoral researcher and faculty status: the staff scientist (proposal 4, below).

Proposal 2. Track progress and careers of all postdocs. The TRR was disappointed to discover how little we know about postdoc numbers and trajectories, both during and after postdoctoral service. To control its future, the US biomedical research enterprise must know the number of its postdocs, their qualifications, their citizenship status, what permanent positions they subsequently take, and how well they fare in those jobs. The main hitches: (i) the federal government cannot legally compel universities to track the many postdocs supported by non-federal sources; (ii) accurate tracking costs time and money. To counter these difficulties, the NIH should require institutions that employ more than a small number of NIH-supported postdocs to apply for and obtain at least one Postdoctoral Career and Instruction Grant (PCIG). PCIGs will pay administrative salaries to help universities supervise instruction of postdocs (proposal 1, above) and monitor their progress (see other proposals, and 8). PCIG applications will be favored from institutions that heed NIH’s request to instruct and monitor all postdocs, including those supported by non-federal grants.

Proposal 3. Reduce number of postdocs supported by the NIH. Although the TRR pointed to difficulties with the postdoc holding tank, it did not argue strongly enough for draining the tank of its oldest denizens or for starting the drainage process now, on a temporary basis, while we await more definitive data. So I propose that NIH impose a four-year cap on postdoctoral funding from any RPG or TG/F, with an optional fifth year under special circumstances (9). This proposal is the first of three needed to reduce the total number of NIH-funded postdocs by 15 % over the next five years.

The urgency of these proposals reflects the following: (i) taken together, flat-line NIH budgets, straitened university budgets, paucity of open tenure-track positions, and loss of biomedical research jobs in industry show the US already has more postdocs than are needed for available jobs; (ii) weak economic growth and political gridlock predict little near-term improvement in this situation, so postdocs’ job prospects will worsen for 5-10 more years; (iii) lagging growth of permanent research positions in academia and industry indicates that the number of excellent job candidates will remain high even if the number of fifth-year postdocs is substantially reduced; (iv) as data accrues, the proposed measures can be strengthened, weakened, or eliminated.

The usual counterargument promotes maintaining a high number of postdocs in US labs by invoking a self-serving premise that amounts, in caricature, to: “Without more than a dozen postdocs to test my brilliant ideas, my lab’s productivity will plummet.” I worry instead about a stronger counterargument: reducing the number of postdocs will not be easy. Nonetheless, we can make it work by accelerating efflux of postdocs (proposals 3 and 4) and reducing their influx (proposal 5). If each of these three proposals reduces the number of NIH-supported postdocs by 5% over the next five years, the 15% goal will be achieved.

Proposal 4. Define staff scientists and increase their number. The TRR weakly endorsed staff scientists (10), but said nothing about what they do or how to increase their numbers in academic labs. Fortunately, the right people do exist. PIs of successful labs find at least one postdoc every few years with the right qualifications: keen intelligence, excellent experimental skills, burning desire to solve problems, and a preference for tackling research problems rather than for the hassles of an academic PI. Such individuals need the right opportunity, with a living wage and a measure of security. So, NIH should define what a “staff scientist” does, require a suitable job classification in universities, and construct incentives for RPG funding of staff scientist positions. Thus:

  • Definition: a staff scientist has an MS or PhD degree, performs and analyzes results of several kinds of experiment with unusual skill, is expert in at least one area of special interest to the lab (e.g., microscopy, deep sequencing, etc.), and can teach and help supervise postdocs and graduate students.
  • Job classification (by the institution): salary higher than a senior postdoc, lower than a faculty PI; supported by funds from outside the university; not a faculty member or permitted to apply for grants; benefits comparable to those of other institution employees; job security for the duration of the PI’s grant, with an extra “bridging year” funded by the institution or by other mechanisms (see 11).
  • Incentives for the PI to hire a staff scientist. For a trial period of three years—longer if the staff scientist initiative is successful—the NIH will allow PIs of newly awarded or competitively renewed RPGs to substitute a staff scientist position for that of one postdoc per grant, subject to important stipulations (11).
  • Incentives for the prospective staff scientist. In addition to higher salary and benefits, NIH will require PIs and institutions to implement long-term plans, activated if an RPG supporting a staff scientist is not renewed, for “bridging” one year of her/his salary and benefits (12).

These measures should make the idea attractive to PIs, staff scientists, and reviewers. After five years of close monitoring, the NIH can modify the initiative.

5. Control the number and quality of foreign postdocs. Influx of foreign biomedical postdocs into US labs is unlimited, owing to lack of coordinated action by Congress, the US immigration service, research institutions, PIs, and federal agencies like NIH. This uncontrolled influx brings cheap, smart workers to US labs, along with serious problems: a depressed job market for US-trained biomedical PhDs and the ever-expanding postdoc holding tank (13). I add a personal observation: non-citizen postdocs are not all first-rate researchers. My guess is that at least 20% of these individuals (and about the same proportion of US citizen postdocs) lack either the education or the ability necessary to contribute usefully to US biomedical research. This is not quantitative evidence, but while seeking such evidence ordinary prudence suggests that we subject prospective postdocs (foreign and domestic) to more stringent selection.

The TRR made no serious attempt to correct knotty postdoc problems, perhaps because it felt the NIH by itself can’t do much about them. In my view, the NIH must take the lead to bring major stakeholders together and coordinate efforts to accomplish three essential tasks. The first task is to mobilize research institutions, helped by partial funding from the PCIGs described above, to coordinate an effort to monitor and improve the quality of all postdocs, foreign and US citizens. Quality will be monitored before acceptance into a lab, upon completion of postdoctoral service, and in their later careers (14). Redacted to prevent identification of actual individuals, this information will be made publicly available for analysis by NIH, the Immigration service, and others.

Second task: Congress must cap the annual number of visas issued to foreign postdocs who seek positions in academic and other not-for-profit laboratories. Such a cap will resemble those already imposed on visas for highly skilled non-citizen degree-holders seeking jobs in business and industry. Perhaps Congress wants to protect Americans looking for jobs in industry, but has been persuaded that an unlimited supply of cheap foreign workers is necessary to sustain scientific innovation. Research institutions and academic PIs sent the latter message to Congress in boom economic times, and it will be hard to convert them to a new view—harder, perhaps, than converting Congress. To convince institutions, PIs, and Congress to cap foreign postdoc visas, we begin with a straightforward argument: as in business and industry, an excess of foreign workers, driven by low pay and inadequate opportunities at home, depresses the market for researchers who are US citizens, who are then shunted into fields less critical for our country’s future. The second, more subtle argument is that the US does not have enough permanent jobs to employ less skilled scientists, but it is still very much in our interest to attract the very best foreign postdocs to US jobs, and so to use relative quality of prospective foreign postdocs as a criterion for issuing postdoc visas. American universities and NIH PCIGs can help judge their quality more accurately, and a cap on their number will motivate them to do so.

Third task: Foreign PhDs or MDs who serve as US postdocs for three years or more should “pay back” the US investment by committing to work for one or more research years in a permanent US position.US citizens supported as postdocs on NIH training grants or fellowships (TG/Fs) already must pay back afterward, by engaging for one year in health-related research and/or teaching. This requirement makes it easier to track their subsequent career choices, but not the choices of foreign postdocs, who can be supported from RPGs but are at present ineligible for TG/F support and thus exempt from the payback obligation. Congress should impose that obligation on foreign postdocs, regardless of the source of their NIH support and (if legally possible) when they are supported by US-based but non-federal sources (e.g., American foundations, institutions, or companies). Requiring their payback for the opportunity to work in cutting-edge US science will help guide the best young foreign scientists into scientific careers in the US. Such guidance will be even more effective if—at the behest of Congress—US immigration authorities couple the payback to accelerating the start of permanent resident status (i.e., a green card).

Six BiomedWatch essays have criticized the TRR’s recommendations, revised many, and come up with new proposals. To summarize the remedies I propose and their rationale, the series will include one additional essay. I hope you will read all seven!


1. See previous posts on the TRR, including: The biomedical workforce report (TRR-I); A flood of soft-money PI salaries (TRR-II); Is PhD training too narrow? (TRR-III); NIH support for PhD training (TRR-IV); Postdoc problems (TRR-V).

2. Biomedical Research Workforce Working Group Report. Pdf here.

3. D Korn, et al., The NIH Budget in the “Postdoubling” Era, Science 296, 1401 (2002). See also Why ignore those icebergs (I).

4. MO Lively, HR Bourne, Iceberg Alert for NIH, Science  337:390 (2012). For pdf, go to first paragraph under “Must-read” on the BiomedWatch homepage.

5. See also Why ignore those icebergs? (I), which is cited in note 3, above, and Why ignore those icebergs? (II).

6. Readers may remember that I numbered TRR recommendations 1-9 arbitrarily, in their order of appearance in BiomedWatch. The TRR itself did not number its recommendations, and the numbers I used are entirely independent from “proposal” numbers in the present post.

7. PIs and postdocs can name individual PIs who fit each description exactly, and others for whom the training obligation falls somewhere in between. For instance, HR Bourne, Paths to Innovation (2011) shows the wide distribution on this spectrum of four superb scientists: Michael Bishop, Herb Boyer, Stanley Prusiner, and Harold Varmus.

8. PCIGs will supply partial salary support for personnel in the university’s Office for Postdoctoral Research, which will assume reponsibility for: (i) arranging instruction in scientific writing and communication for postdocs who choose to take advantage of it; (ii) ensuring that NIH rules for postdoc funding are accurately applied; (iii) monitoring postdocs’ qualifications, accomplishments, and whereabouts before, during, and after their postdoctoral service.

9. For instance, a fifth year of NIH would be supported if the postdoc’s progress has been delayed by pregnancy or an illness, with documentation that it is necessary for her/him to obtain a permanent job in another lab. Note that RPG funding for foreign postdocs must not be used to allow them to apply for non-federal postdoctoral funding. The NIH cannot prevent eventual transfer of a foreign postdoc to support from a foundation, industry, or other non-federal sources, but its rules (see note 8 also) can protect the postdoc and minimize the chance of such support. To that end, NIH support for foreign postdocs should begin within <1 year of award of the PhD and continue for at least 4 years thereafter (terminated only by leaving the lab, postdoc malfeasance, or termination of the NIH RPG); if the postdoc is supported for a fifth year, the job opportunities and search must be documented in writing and reported to NIH.

10. TRR (cited in note 2, above), pp 38-9.

11. If a postdoc position in an RPG application is awarded, at any point in the first year of the award the PI could replace it with a position for a staff scientist (one per RPG). In such a case NIH would increase the grant award by an amount equal to the difference between new postdoc-stipend-plus-benefits and the new staff scientist-salary-plus-benefits, subject to certain stipulations, including: (i) the substitution would be allowed only if the grant is to be funded for at least three years after the new staff scientist’s first day in the position; (ii) continued funding of the staff scientist position will not be guaranteed at the time of grant renewal, but instead must be justified in the competitive application for renewal and approved as a result of the review.

12. In early years of the staff scientist initiative, by way of encouraging institutions to impllement one-year bridging funds for staff scientists as permanent policy, the NIH could stipulate that will pay the staff scientist’s bridging salary for the second six months of the bridging year, providing the institution (or the PI, from non-NIH funds) pays the first six months’ salary for that year. It would be reasonable for the NIH to make this commitment only for staff scientists hired in the initiative’s first two years—later hires would be handled by the institution alone.

13. See Postdoc problems.

14. I imagine that the host institution would record relevant data at each of these stages. For instance, for prospective postdocs, data should include academic records, Graduate Record Examination scores, and evaluation by one or more prospective PI. Upon completion of postdoctoral service, the performance of all postdocs who entered the institution’s labs—including those who receive H-1B visas—will be formally evaluated, with a record of accomplishments (e.g., published papers, patents, etc.), a brief note by the PI, etc. After the postdoc leaves the institution, its Office of Postdoctoral Research will also monitor compliance with the payback requirements, and in the process will record information about the postdoc’s location, job and visa status, publications, etc.

Postdoc problems (TRR-V)

Bulges under another corner of that rug?

Sweeping all those problems under the rug does leave tell-tale bumps and edges

The Tilghman-Rockey report (TRR) has a remarkable propensity for pulling its punches, but its approach to postdoctoral training takes the cake. Near the beginning, it announces its focus on remedying three critical workforce problems (1):

  1. “[T]he combination of the large upsurge in US-trained PhDs, continued increase inflow of foreign-trained PhDs, and aging of the academic biomedical research workforce . . . make[s] launching a traditional, independent academic research career increasingly difficult.”
  2. “[L]ong training . . . and relatively low early-career salaries . . . make the biomedical research career less attractive to the best . . . young people.”
  3. Although “training programs do little to prepare people for anything besides an academic research career,” few graduates “will find [academic] positions.”

The onus of problems 1 and 2 weighs most heavily on postdoctoral biomedical researchers. These postdocs suffer relatively low pay and long training, and already find great difficulty in landing the jobs they want—a situation that will certainly worsen before it improves. Problem 3 does affect postdocs, but falls more directly under the rubric of graduate student training; see my earlier discussion (2).

Postdocs now face a world very different from what it was 30 years ago. Salient quantitative data collected in the TRR (Table 1; 3) shows that, as compared to 1980: (i) the numbers of postdocs who were supported by non-federal sources or by federally funded research project grants (RPGs) have increased by 3.8- or five-fold, respectively, while the number supported by federal training grants or fellowships (TG/Fs) did not change; (ii) the numbers of postdocs who were non-US-citizens or  US citizens/permanent residents increased seven- or three-fold, respectively (3). (Note: this data is subject to certain limitations; see 4.) In these three decades, academic PIs ≤ 36 years old decreased from 18% to 3% of the total, while those ≥ 65 years old increased from 1% to 7% (Table 1). Moreover, postdoc stipends from TG/Fs awarded by the NIH were substantially lower than similar training support from the Department of Energy or the National Science Foundation. The TRR’s working group was repeatedly frustrated by the remarkable dearth of reliable data on actual numbers of postdocs in US labs: estimates ranged from 37,000 to 68,000, with hints that the actual number may be even larger. This lack of reliable data made it difficult or impossible to construct a useful model of the overall biomedical research workforce. (The data is poor in part because foreign-trained PhDs are not as well tracked as those trained in the US, and in part because universities apply fungible definitions for postdoctoral researchers, often calling them something different once they have served for five or more years; see 4.)

The TRR suggests that a marked slowing in growth of academic positions in recent years (5) is partly responsible for excessive growth of the postdoc “holding tank.” Some data suggest that the overall average duration of postdoc service (five years or so) may be no longer than it was a decade ago, but incomplete data strongly suggests that postdocs who ultimately take academic research positions do spend an extra year or two in postdoctoral status, as compared to those who take research positions in industry (6). Moreover, as the tank gets deeper, the age distribution of PIs shifts dramatically toward older ages, as indicated by the six-fold drop in percentage of PIs aged 36 or younger (see Table). Older PIs reap great benefits from contributions of smart, ambitious younger scientists who serve longer terms in their labs; these PIs get credit for the ideas and work of so many postdocs because the holding tank system confines them, in the TRR’s dry phrasing, “in subordinate positions when they [might be] expected to be highly productive as independent investigators” (7).

The TRR barely mentions that the large increase in foreign postdocs may depress the postdoc market for US citizens, but relegates fuller discussion of this possibility to Appendix D, which (8) points out that

there has been no serious assessment of the costs and benefits as well as no reliable way to measure the number of foreign-trained postdocs.

Under NIH rules, international students and postdocs can be financed without limitations under NIH research grants, but . . . are excluded from support from NIH training funds. Under current immigration law, universities have essentially unlimited access to rapidly growing global pools of prospective graduate students and postdocs.

Unlimited access to global labor markets makes large numbers of scientists available, but also “depresses the domestic market for biomedical researchers” (8). In order to protect domestic workers, Congress subjects the number of temporary H-1B visas to a yearly cap (e.g., in industry), but exempts universities and non-profit institutions, unlike businesses, from that cap. Presumably, Congress and the universities agree that attracting well-trained foreign scientists trumps protecting the market for scientists who are US citizens.

Appendix D also points out that “NIH funding policies, US immigration policies, and the intersection between them all are lacking in coherence and coordination.” Thus,

large numbers of H-1B visas [for postdocs] are uncoordinated with very limited numbers of permanent visas for those with high levels of education and skills. . . . [T]his lack of coordination has led to large backlogs of former H-1B visa holders awaiting permanent visas and competing for employment opportunities in order to secure these visas.

Appendix D tells the story, but the hot potato remains untouched in the main body of the TRR’s text.

Even in the TRR’s plain, undramatic account, the 21st century world of biomedical postdocs is one of reduced opportunity and increasing frustration. Many (but not all) postdocs in academic labs would paint a similar picture, I think, while their PIs tend to argue either that everything is fine or that present troubles are temporary—often adding that in either case the system will take care of itself. PIs probably forget how easy it was for earlier generations of postdocs to get good jobs in academia or industry, just as they underestimate the future duration of flat-line NIH funding and of the stagnant job market for researchers in universities, biotech, and pharmaceutical companies. If these persist a few more years, I expect to see the unease of postdocs and PIs replaced by a distressing uptick in their unemployment and a real threat to their collective future.

Given that assessment, what does the TRR recommend? The recommendations I choose to discuss today (Table 2 and 9, 10) suggest that the TRR finds in postdoctoral training the same problems it detected in graduate training. The premises of recommendations 6-8 are, respectively, that funds for postdoctoral training depend too much on research project grants (RPGs) and too little on training grants, that this training takes too long, and that it focuses too narrowly on preparing for academic research careers, rather than for careers in industry. Recommendation 9 suggests that more staff scientists be funded on NIH RPGs. Although the TRR never articulates a clear premise for that suggestion,  we shall return to it in due course. All four recommendations exhibit the same defects I found in recommendations 1-5, considered earlier (10). The defects include failure to define problems, missing links between causes and effects, and a persistently vague, indirect, half-hearted approach to difficulties that urgently require decisive action. In their present form, the TRR’s recommendations will make not the slightest dent on any problem. Today we shall briefly discuss shortcomings of these proposals, while the next BiomedWatch post will present stronger proposals that may exert more beneficial effects.

Recommendation 6 (Table 2; 7, 9) proposes that NIH “increase the proportion of postdoctoral researchers supported by [TG/Fs] and reduce the number supported by [RPGs], without increasing the overall number of postdoctoral researchers.” Directly parallel to a previous recommendation on graduate student numbers (11), this recommendation also presents an inadequate rationale (to improve training and monitoring), ignores the reason so many postdocs are supported by RPGs, omits any hint of actual postdoc numbers or how to implement the proposal, and ignores essential facts.

Rather than belabor these shortcomings in detail, let me stress two glaring omissions: (i) at present a very small proportion (≤ 10%) of postdocs receives TG/F support, while at least one third (probably more) are supported by non-federal grants; (ii) at least one third of postdocs (again, probably more) are not US citizens, and so cannot receive TG/Fs from the NIH, although they can be supported by RPGs (for data, see Table 1). Thus the impact of recommendation 6 on postdoctoral training would be almost negligible unless every US-citizen postdoc on NIH RPG support were to be supported by NIH TG/Fs. The TRR did not propose so dramatic and impossible a change, but even if the impossible were achieved, probably fewer than 50% of all postdocs would receive TG/F support. Finally, the biggest defect of recommendation 6 is that it completely ignores the “gorilla in the living room:” how can the US achieve a sustainable biomedical research workforce, given its unlimited access to foreign scientists and the relentless growth of the postdoc population?

Proceeding to other TRR recommendations, let us begin with number 7 (Table 2), which seeks to speed up the transition of postdocs to permanent positions by making it more expensive for PIs to support them. Because the long duration of postdoctoral service accounts for most of the increased time between entering graduate school and taking a permanent job, shorter  service seems a laudable goal. But a difficulty remains: postdocs are cheap labor, to be sure, but it looks as if they stay in labs so long for a different reason—that is, relative to the growing supply of postdocs, permanent positions are scarce and becoming scarcer in academia, pharmaceutical companies, or biotech. If so, even a more drastic measure, like limiting the duration of postdoctoral service, will not solve the problem.

Recommendation 8 (Table 2) suggests that NIH create a pilot program for “institutional postdoctoral offices . . . to experiment in enriching and diversifying postdoctoral training, including partnerships with other entities (industry, private foundations, government, etc.). This might be fine, so far as it goes—but it does not go very far, nor does the TRR explain precisely why such a measure is needed.

The last item in Table 2 is what the TRR has to say about staff scientists. Without exactly making a recommendation, it does state, in bold-face type, that “the working group encourages NIH study sections to be receptive to grant applications that include staff scientists and urges institutions to create position categories that reflect the value and stature of these researchers.” Otherwise, the discussion of staff scientists is extraordinarily vague, even by TRR standards. “Staff scientist” is not defined, except to say that they are “individuals with MSc or PhD degrees.” By way of rationale, we are told that “a large number of future scientists are being produced each year, well in excess of the number of research-oriented jobs . . . . The working group believes that even a modest change in the ratio of permanent staff to trainees could have a beneficial effect on the system without reducing the productivity of the research enterprise.” This tepid endorsement nicely accords with the modest actions “encouraged” and “urged” by a working group that somehow found itself unwilling to issue a firm recommendation.

It looks as if the TRR has swept significant concerns under every corner of its metaphorical rug. Its handling of postdocs is another lamentable performance. By bringing these difficult problems into the light, can we find better ways to grapple with them? I fervently hope so.

For one answer, read the next BiomedWatch post.


1. Biomedical Research Workforce Working Group Report. Pdf here.

2. In Is PhD training too narrow? (TRR-III), I sought to modify TRR recommendation 2, which argued for broader training to prepare new PhD graduates for careers in non-research fields related to biomedical research. I proposed, instead: (i) to make sure prospective PhD students know what they are getting into in a research-centered training programs; (ii) mandatory MS degrees after three years of graduate school, to provide a clean branch point for students to opt for non-research careers and switch to training appropriate to such careers; (iii) leaving to individual graduate programs the options of providing such non-research training after the MS degree or to help students find such training in other schools.

3. Data in Table 1 is taken from pp 19-23 of the TRR. Much of this data is presented in graphs, so that where I could not find the actual numbers I estimated approximate numbers from the graphs instead. Some of the graphs presented data from 1980 to 2010, rather than to the 2009 date shown in the Table; this discrepancy makes no significant difference with  respect to the data or the inferences drawn from it.

4. The TRR carefully notes several quantitative defects in this data. One is that much (not all) of its postdoc data is restricted to postdocs at degree-granting universities. In addition, postdoc numbers are not always accurate because of nomenclatural anomalies: that is, after the first four years as a postdoc, one university may continue to call that individual a postdoc, while others may give her a different title (e.g., visiting scholar, specialist, etc.). Also, data is more complete for postdocs who received their PhDs in the US than for less accurately tracked foreign postdocs. These or other discrepancies presumably account, for instance, for the lack of accurate information on total numbers of postdocs in US labs (noted in the text), and for the grossly different total numbers of postdocs classified according to support vs. citizenship (21,000 vs. 33,000 in 2009, respectively).

5. TRR, p 31.

6. TRR, pp 21-2.

7. TRR, p 37.

8. TRR, p 78.

9. In relation to postdocs, the TRR proposed several recommendations I choose not to discuss, including: postdocs should receive benefits comparable to those of other employees at their institution; NIH should double the numbers of Pathway to Independence and NIH Director’s Early Independence awards; NIH should require individual development plans (IDPs) for all postdoctoral researchers, regardless of their source of support.

10. The TRR does not number its recommendations, so I gave numbers to recommendations I choose to discuss, in the order of their appearance in BiomedWatch. My numbering system, consistent in successive posts, does not conform to the order of their appearance in the TRR. Previous posts (TRR-II), III, IV) discussed, respectively, recommendations 1, 2, and 3-5.

11. This was TRR recommendation 3, which is discussed in NIH support for PhD training (TRR-IV).

NIH support for PhD training (TRR-IV)

Sweeping problems under the rug may not work

Sweeping all those problems under the rug can leave tell-tale bumps and edges

Today we start bearing down on truly nitty-gritty issues raised by the Tilghman-Rockey report (TRR; see 1). Our trek through the TRR has dealt with only two of its 19 recommendations so far. We deal today with three more—recommendations 3, 4, and 5—all related to PhD training, and numbered in order of appearance in BiomedWatch (see Table and 2). A  quick look at the Table tells us that the TRR’s framers were concerned that: too much graduate training is funded by NIH research project grants (RPGs) rather than by training grants; PhD training takes too long; we know too little about the subsequent career paths taken by our PhDs. Each of these concerns is legitimate and important. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of TRR recommendations 3-5.

By way of motivating recommendation 3, the report notes that the vast majority of PhD students who receive NIH support are funded by RPGs, rather than training grants, “and yet the NIH has no influence of the quality of the training of these individuals. Training grants uniquely provide the NIH with a mechanism for peer review of training, and permit the NIH to require attention to issues such as outcomes, diversity, and professional ethics training.” Striking data (3), identifying RPGs as the principal NIH funding mechanism for training PhD students, raise many problems; since 1980 the number of basic biomedical PhD degrees awarded each year increased almost 5-fold, along with a 3.4-fold increase in PhD students supported by RPGs, and minimal increases in the numbers of graduate fellowships and traineeships. Moreover, the yearly number of biomedical PhD awards is tightly coupled to variations in the size of NIH’s budget, with a built-in delay that reflects the average 6.5-year duration of graduate training. Thus students who entered PhD training in 2001, at the middle of the budget-doubling “boom,” now represent an abundant “boom” in number—but as they complete their postdocs they enter a “bust” job market (3). Finally, since 1980 the proportion of the NIH budget devoted to training decreased from 15% to 3% (3).

Could the change in funding since 1980 have exerted significant influences on the quality and direction of graduate training? In my opinion, the answer must be yes. Instead of focusing on such influences, however, the TRR simply says that RPG-based funding prevents the NIH from tracking the progress of graduate students and from regulating the quality of their training. (Elsewhere the report does cite evidence that PhD students supported by NIH training grants or fellowships ultimately do better in their careers than students who are supported by other mechanisms; see 4).

Ensuring high-quality graduate training furnishes the explicit rationale for recommendation 3, which is short and simple: the NIH should “increase the proportion of graduate students supported by training grants and fellowships [relative to RPGs], without increasing the overall number of graduate student positions.” Like many others in the TRR, this recommendation is unlikely to affect graduate training in any useful way, because it sweeps key numbers and issues under a rug. Such issues include:

  • How many trainees do we have now, and where does their support come from?
  • How many PhD graduates does the US need?
  • How much should we change the proportion supported by NIH training grants?
  • Where will the NIH find the money to support more graduate trainees?
  • Increasing the proportion of students on training grants without increasing total student number means funding fewer students with RPGs. How should such a change be implemented? Over what period of time?
  • Graduate programs typically use NIH training grants to fund students in years 1-2, so students working in the lab get RPG support (5). Should this practice continue, or should students receive training grant support for the entire training period?

These nitty-gritty questions will eventually creep out from under that rug, so why not shed light on them now? They carry serious implications for how to implement the transition to more training grant support, and also for the effects we expect the transition to bring. Rather than shy away from knotty complexities, the TRR should have explicitly identified them and discussed how to cope with them. With a few facts, we can try to do so ourselves. So, here’s what I could find: at a cost of about $750M per year, NIH funds training slots for about 8,000 biomedical PhD students, representing about 10% of all 83,000 biomedical PhD students in US graduate programs (6). I could not find a reliable number for graduate students supported by NIH RPGs, but a reasonable estimate would be between 20,000 and 25,000 (7). Thus the present training grant-RPG (TG-RPG) ratio is probably a bit less than 1:3. (Note that this ratio refers only to biomedical graduate students funded by training grants and RPGs awarded by the NIH. Non-federal sources support PhD training for about 42% of such students; see 7.)

Taking those numbers, I would amend recommendation 3 in several respects. First, if a TG-RPG ratio of 1:3 is too low, what ratio would suffice to improve the quality of PhD training? Doubling the number supported on training grants (and concomitantly reducing the number on RPGs) would increase the ratio to about 1:1, but would that increase make an appreciable difference? To my mind, the best answer is also conceptually the simplest: no NIH-funded biomedical PhD training should be funded by NIH RPGs, and all NIH-funding for trainees should come from institutional training grants or individual training fellowships, for an TG-RPG ratio of 1:0. (Because more than 40% of biomedical graduate students are funded by non-federal sources (7), even at the 1:0 ratio slightly less than three of every five PhD students would be funded by NIH training grants.) The total cost to the NIH would remain about the same, with a four-fold increase in its training budget and a 10-15% decrease (about $3 billion) in its “research” budget. This apparent decrease would not hinder research, because the students would contribute to NIH research pretty much as they do now.

This no-RPG-graduate-funding plan is indeed the simplest conceptually, but implementing the transition will not be at all simple—an issue to which we’ll return. First, though, let us review the advantages to be derived from successful transition to the 1:0 ratio. This move would significantly stabilize the biomedical workforce, because complete separation of NIH-supported RPG dollars from training dollars would:

  • By dramatically increasing the relative number of students on training grants, enhance the value of excellent training, as perceived by both faculty and students.
  • Make it easier for PIs and institutions to insulate policy, practice, and training standards from conflicting motivations that inevitably arise when young scientists are valued primarily for contributing ideas and data to a lab’s publications.
  • Increase the ability of training programs to track and monitor training quality, as well as ultimate career outcomes of all trainees.
  • Later, once we have accumulated better outcome information, enable the NIH to regulate the training “pipeline” in relation to national needs.
  • Damp instabilities produced when transient funding booms increase RPG dollars and hence graduate student numbers, subjecting those individuals later to bust cycles and tight job markets (as is presently the case; see 3).
  • Eliminate instabilities that are bound to follow a partial increase in training dollars (and decrease in RPG dollars), as PIs and institutions dispute the relative values of each kind of support and the students who receive them.

So, given the advantages of transitioning away from RPG support for PhD students, and the fact that NIH would not have to pay our additional dollars, why might this transition prove so difficult? After setting a starting date, the transition could be gradual if. after that date, (i) each entering graduate student funded by the training grant continues to receive that support for a maximum of six years, and (ii) every RPG-supported PhD student who graduates or leaves graduate school frees up a “slot,” for which the funds would be transferred from the PI’s RPG into the appropriate graduate program, providing support for a new entering student. The transition would be finished in seven years, because PhDs are awarded, on average, after 6.5 years.

In reality, such a transition will be hard to pull off, for two sets of reasons. The first is that, as always, real devils abound in every detail. But even if those devils are exorcised (see “Devils in Details,” below), NIH will have to make a deal with the US Congress. This second problem is truly hard. Congress jealously guards its powers to control key details of the NIH budget, like the total dollars devoted to “research” and “training.” A representative or senator may find it hard to grasp that we can increase the quality of “training” by consolidating it under one funding mechanism, and find it easier to interpret such a move as a quiet attempt to steal dollars from research and transfer it to the greedy pockets of young people who will loll about, talking and studying. We can easily imagine why the TRR swept this one under the rug, but doing so creates another problem. The NIH, PIs, and universities need to agree on a course of action and then, together, persuade Congress to permit them to make it happen. But now the mysteriously vague recommendation 3 casts a dense fog over the path these stakeholders need to take, making it harder to convince Congress to go along with any decisive course of action. Even now, however, a vigorous NIH Director could probably organize his forces and successfully persuade Congress to help separate training funds completely from RPGs. (The task of persuading Congress will be even harder if the NIH seeks a small increase in the TG-RPG ratio, because such a move is less likely to prove useful, needlessly complicated, and harder to sell than complete separation.)

TRR recommendation 4 (see Table) proposes a cap of five years on NIH support (whether via training grants for RPGs) of PhD training. The motivation for this cap is that biomedical scientists take their first tenure-track position at about age 37, which is later than in other fields (e.g., chemistry; 8). But facts presented in the TRR do not indicate that changes in the duration of PhD training account for this difference, or for the later age at which biomedical scientists are awarded their first grant, which appears to be as much as four years later than in 1980 (9). In part, the relative tardiness is due to students’ entries into graduate school (now 1.5 years later) and to an increase of 1-1.5 years in time between PhD award and first permanent job; the duration of PhD training, however, has increased by less than half a year since 1980, from about 6.2 to 6.5 years (8,9). Moreover, the NIH already imposes a five-year limit on training grant support (but not RPG support) for graduate students. (Note: my plan for replacing RPG support by training grants increased this to six years. This time limit would markedly reduce the need for RPG support, which at present allows graduate training to elude all limits. It would also hint that graduation time is nigh, because subsequent support would have to come from a non-federal source, such as the university or a non-federal grant.) While I may agree that PhD training takes too long, the data demonstrate neither that this is so nor that long PhD training accounts for the increasing age of new tenure-track biomedical scientists. Recommendation 4 is not justified, in my opinion, but the TRR is right to urge the NIH to provide funds for pilot programs to determine whether the PhD years can be shortened without reducing the quality of newly minted PhDs. (As indicated in the Table, this recommendation is a codicil to recommendation 2; see 1)

TRR recommendation 5 proposes that peer review of training grant applications include considering “outcomes of all students in the relevant PhD programs at those institutions, not only those supported by the training grant” (1). Here, for a change, I completely agree that this would be a great improvement. The TRR points out that institutions do not keep track of RPG-supported students as well as they do with those on training grants. (The same, they fail to note, is true of the 42% of US biomedical PhD students supported on funds from non-federal sources, which the university itself as well as foundations, etc.) Society, however, very much needs to know the outcomes of training forall students (or at least for a larger proportion thereof). My only cavil: cash-strapped universities are loath to expand their responsibilities in this regard, because collecting outcome information costs time and money. If—as the TRR says, and I wholeheartedly agree—outcome information is vital and should be provided to applicants for PhD training as well as peers reviewers of graduate programs, then it should have asked the NIH to help universities foot the bill for expanding coverage of outcomes. It will help, of course, if NIH’s support for students by RPG support is replaced by support from training grants, but that will also cost host institutions more money. In addition, it is imperative to include the 40+% of students who receive no federal support, and therefore essential for the NIH to help with the extra cost.

At this stage I’m feeling bad about giving the TRR such a hard time, as indicated in the Table. As this series of posts on the TRR continues, I hope readers will compare the report and my criticisms, come to their own conclusions, and (hope, hope, hope!) share with us their written comments—pro, con, and otherwise.

Beginning with this post’s fifth paragraph, I listed a number of difficult and critical issues and claimed that the TRR had tried to sweep them under the rug. The present post has not dealt with the most difficult of these: how many new PhD graduates per year does our biomedical research enterprise need? (We may also ask, how many can it absorb?) It is true that the TRR punted on this one, so the next post will tackle it, head-on.

Devils in Details

My proposal to gradually replace all NIH RPG support for graduate students with training grant support will require measures to deal with myriad nasty but unavoidable details. Because even patient readers balk at swallowing these little monsters, I shall confine my discussion to the two varieties—administrative challenges and attempts to “game” the new system.

Both host institutions and the NIH will face a daunting challenge in expanding training grant administration to accommodate a gradually increasing number of student slots on existing (and new) training grants. Small schools or programs (i.e., without training grants or with fewer than 20 PhD students, total) might be exempted from the transition altogether. For each larger school and/or program—hereafter termed “trainers”—it will be necessary to devote at least one year prior to the “start year” to arranging details of the transition, in collaboration with the NIH. During this period trainers will carefully enumerate the likely number of students to be admitted in the start year and the number of RPG-supported students likely to free up RPG support (during the start year and subsequent years, owing to graduation, quitting school, or completing the sixth year of graduate school). To help in estimating later years, trainers will document the past five years of NIH support for PhD students (on either RPGs or training grants), to set agreed-upon benchmarks for future years. (Increasing the numbers will be considered when training grants are renewed.)

The second variety of nasty details arises from the often unmentioned but inevitable tendency of some individuals and schools to “game” any system. For instance, in the run-up period to the transition, schools and PIs will be tempted to shift more students onto RPGs and use the freed-up training grant slots to recruit more students. Or transfer students from non-federal support to RPG support for that year, in a parallel attempt to swell the number of slots that can accumulate during the transition. Or puff up the numbers of NIH RPG-supported numbers by subterfuge or fraud. Or change locally established policies for absorbing/waiving/paying tuition and fees. I can’t imagine all the possibilities, but clever operators certainly will. Thus alert NIH training grant administrators will forbid or prevent as many of these practices as they can think of, and monitor a random sample of documented RPG-supported students at each institution and program.


1. Biomedical Research Workforce Working Group Report. Pdf here.

2. Recommendation numbers will be consistent in successive posts, but do not necessarily conform to the order of their appearance in the TRR. Moreover, I chose not to discuss one TRR recommendation regarding graduate students, which asks NIH to harmonize and simplify the very different graduate training grant requirements and policies of its multiple institutes. Future posts may mention but not focus on other TRR recommendations. Most of these are unexceptionable and/or relatively unimportant.

3. Data from pp. 13-18 of the TRR. As one example of this tight coupling between NIH research budget and PhD awards, examine Figure 1 (TRR, p 18), which shows that biomedical PhD awards were remarkably stable (at about 5,500 per year) from 1997 to 2004, but then (six years after the NIH budget began doubling) took a sharp upswing, which by 2008 had reached about 7,700. Allowing 6 years for PhD training and about six more years of postdoc before looking for research positions, biomedical PhD students who matriculated in 1999, 2000, or 2001 have to seek permanent employment in the much less rosy economic climates of 2011, 2012, and 2013.

4. While NIH training grants probably do improve training, the inference is confounded by the strong possibility (in my view, a certainty) that graduate programs request support for their very best students from training grants. Training grants that support very strong students are simply more likely to be renewed.

5. Students funded on training grants from the National Institute of  General Medical Sciences, for instance, tend to stay on the grant for the first two years, while training grants in some other institutes are used to fund students for longer.

6. Data from NIH RePORT, NRSA Training Grants/Fellowships, Pre-doc and post-doc FTEs. Pdf here.

7. The number of RAs supported by NIH RPGs is probably in this range, as estimated by Wallace Schaffer, a knowledgeable official in the Office of the Director of NIH, (telephone interview, July 30, 2012). The estimate is based on readjusting data in HH Garrison, K Ngo, Education and employment of biological and medical scientists 2011 (Microsoft Powerpoint presentation, here). From 2009 data compiled by the National Science Foundation, Garrison estimated that of 72,000 biomedical graduate students, support from research assistantships (RAs), “other” (including self), teaching assistantships, traineeships, and fellowships accounted for (respectively) 30,000, 20,000, 10,000, 5,000 and 6,000 students. Schaffer says that other data indicates that not all the RAs, traineeships, and fellowships are NIH-funded. For this reason the actual number of students presently supported on NIH RPGs is by no means definitive.

Is PhD training too narrow? (TRR-III)

What is a graduate program’s obligation to students who choose careers that do not involve research?

Should students take the wide road or a narrower one? (Credits here and here.)

Conscientious committees give birth to outsized, gangling progeny—like the voluminous Tilghman-Rockey Report (TRR; 1). The TRR issues 19 recommendations, some outfitted with multiple subheadings. Fortunately, readers won’t have to digest 19 posts, because I will consider only a subset of all the recommendations (2).

Today’s topic is what I shall call recommendation 2 of the TRR (2). Here the TRR’s principal concern was that biomedical PhDs in the US are trained for work in academic labs but not for the various different career paths many take after receiving their degree. It collected data showing that 16,000 US-trained PhD students entered biomedical science training programs in 2009, but only 9,000 received a PhD in that year; of these graduates, about 30% skipped postdoctoral training (1). Of PhDs in the post-training biomedical workforce, 43% are academic researchers (23% tenured, 20% outside the tenure track), while the rest are engaged either in research (18% in industry, 6% in government), or in non-research careers related (18%) or unrelated (13%) to science; about two percent of biomedical PhDs are unemployed (1,3). Thus as many as four of every 10 biomedical PhD trainees probably drop out of US graduate programs, and nearly one third of PhD graduates (31%) pursue careers outside research—despite the fact that research is what all these graduates are trained to do.

Something is clearly wrong, but exactly what? Somewhat opaquely, the TRR says: “Given the changing face of the biomedically trained workforce, the working group believes that graduate programs must accommodate greater diversity in anticipated career outcomes for students.” So, recommendation 2 seeks to broaden training programs in order to equip selected students for research jobs in science-related endeavors outside the lab. To do so, it proposes that NIH fund pilot programs aimed at channeling students into doctoral training related to other endeavors and/or MS degrees “designed for specific science-oriented career outcomes, such as industry or public policy.” (The latter approach, says the TRR, would require re-defining ‘success’ in evaluating NIH training grants. MS degrees, it seems, suggest a training program is not doing its job.)

In my opinion, the report aims recommendation 2 at the wrong target. The data shows that our biomedical PhD programs attract students with varied backgrounds and skills, of whom about 44% leave graduate school, while 30% of the rest pursue careers that take little advantage of their research training. From this I conclude that biomedical PhD training is a quite inefficient way to spend scarce resources, but also see no reason why that implies an obligation for PIs and research institutions to train students for non-research careers. Instead, my observations suggest that many applicants don’t understand what it takes to do biomedical research, and students who don’t like what they find in research labs are not furnished escape routes to more congenial pursuits. (Could the dearth of escape routes relate to their PIs’ need to keep those students working in the lab? I wonder.) Moreover, a recent survey (4) found that 89% of first-year biomedical PhD students at UCSF were considering a career as an academic PI, but the percentage dropped to 68% by the end of the third year. This 21% downward shift coincided with the period when they began to learn what research labs do. If my observations and this survey are correct, PhD programs should be obliged to inform applicants, before they matriculate, about their realistic prospects for a research-centered career and to help admitted students who are better suited for other endeavors to find other training paths.

Accordingly, my amended version of recommendation 2 would urge that every NIH-funded graduate training program be required to: (i) inform applicants forthrightly about the rigor of PhD research and the real (documented) career prospects of the program’s graduates (5); (ii) institute mandatory MS degrees for all students who satisfactorily complete three years of training; (iii) inform applicants that after the MS degree some students will go on to earn a research-based PhD, but others will choose (or be asked) to pursue a different course. Applicants should be told about available options for different courses and about obligations the program will (and will not) assume in helping students to follow them. Such obligations would vary among programs, allowing applicants to choose programs depending on whether they offer special tracks devoted to this or that non-research pursuit (6). The amended recommendation would also require reviewers who evaluate training programs to consider that MS degrees should confer no disgrace on students or programs, because: (i) re-direction into non-research careers can be advantageous for some students and necessary for effective graduate training of good scientists; (ii) an MS degree can serve as a branch-point for a student’s development, rather than a mark of her/his ineptitude or of a program’s callous regard for students.

Are these amendments elitist, cruel, or simply too narrow in defining the biomedical PhD? To the contrary: (i) because scientific research is hard and we pay students to learn how to do it, we should make training more effective, efficient, selective, and focused on skills faculty are qualified to teach; (ii) it is far less cruel to ask a few students to take an MS degree and shift to another course of study than to subject them to a long Darwinian struggle, only to discover that they cannot find a good job doing what they were trained to do; (iii) graduate programs are free (but not required) to offer students post-MS options for which the program takes direct responsibility; (iv) other programs will choose not to devise relevant alternative programs, but rather to teach MS graduates how science works, retain as PhD candidates those suited for research-intensive training, and help others find programs that better fit their goals and needs.

Martin Rosenberg, the chief scientific officer at Promega Corp., recently wrote a much more forceful argument for major change in the focus of biomedical graduate (and perhaps postdoctoral) education (7). Changes in the economy and other factors, he points out, have led to elimination of thousands of science-based jobs from industry, as biotech investment focuses on “nearer-term product development” and pharmaceutical companies undertake a “strategic shift” that is creating opportunities for academic labs and stimulates job growth in various support functions. He lists 16 of these private sector jobs—e.g., preclinical analysis, safety assessment, regulatory affairs, project management, etc.—which are not based on bench research and “have little to do with the focus of our entire academic training system.” Academic biomedical researchers know little or nothing about these opportunities, he says, and arrogantly disdain them as undignified in comparison to their “Ivory Tower” commitment to research. On both counts, I suspect he is right. He adds that at present “training is focused on driving independent bench research for faculty to achieve their funding, status and advancement.” But, he concludes, “bench experience is a necessary part of training, but it no longer suffices to prepare students for today’s job opportunities.” Here again, he is right.

Rosenberg’s prescription: “The science-education system [should] seek expertise . . . from the private sector to convey these employment opportunities to their trainees,” he says. His sketchy pronouncement—which we should certainly follow, by the way—differs from my prescription. While biomedical researchers should not try (or be required) to take responsibility for teaching specific skills necessary to profit from the job opportunities Rosenberg presents, three years of study for an MS degree would be ideal way to learn how science is done before undertaking further training in areas where he says job opportunities abound—e.g., business, regulatory affairs, project management, etc. In the meantime, researchers must also do their damnedest to make sure that they and the US biomedical research enterprise preserve the capacity for discovery that will drive continuing job growth for our trainees throughout the 21st century.

Having delivered myself of these pronouncements, I am assailed by an obvious question. Who am I to contradict the ideas of an expert working group chosen for its scientific prowess, knowledge of graduate education, and teaching experience? Treading this more personal ground depletes my confidence. Still, this is a blog, not wisdom literature, so I can risk a tentative answer. Perhaps the difference is that I feel more strongly than the TRR’s experts that scientists teach best what they best know how to do, leaving to students the prerogative and duty to decide what they really want to learn. As a teacher, I should be obliged to teach a selected group of students what a scientist does, for a period of up to three years, but not to guide them for three to four additional years, if they are not suited for research or decide they want to do something else.

Nonetheless—to argue for a moment against myself—I do realize prospective students may seek to avoid programs with a mandatory MS degree, where they may be told to choose between seeking further schooling elsewhere or finding a job that doesn’t require a PhD. So clear a breakpoint could reduce the number of applicants and matriculating PhD students, and perhaps (although I think it unlikely) their quality as well. And I am undeniably less generous than the TRR’s experts when I point out that society, not the student, pays for the training, and suggest, further, that the MS degree can furnish a useful opportunity for both students and teachers to decide whether a particular candidate should continue to prepare for a demanding profession.

Dare I speculate as to why the TRR’s experts take a broader view of their and my duties to graduate students? Is it incorrect, or even outright uncharitable, to guess that the broader view might reflect a desire to keep student workers in their labs, where (they may think) young people can learn what real competition is and choose to follow in the PI’s footsteps? Certain colleagues argue strongly for retaining a marginally performing student in the lab, in order to provide a complete learning experience (not, they insist, to get the project done). The same professors may also extol the value of Darwinian struggle for graduate students, who need to learn how to fail in order to learn how to succeed.

The personal ground now begins to tremble in earnest, so I’ll stop.


1. Biomedical Research Workforce Working Group Report. Pdf here.

2. Because the report does not number its recommendations, for convenience I give numbers to those recommendations I choose to discuss. This numbering system will be consistent in successive posts, but does not conform to the order of their appearance in the TRR.

3. Data for these outcomes was collected in 2009 or earlier, and is discussed on pp 23-28 and 32-33 of the TRR, cited in note 1, above. This data does not include PhDs trained outside the US, who represent an unknown fraction (less than half, perhaps as much as one third) of the post-training biomedical workforce.

4. CN Fuhrmann, DG Halme, PS O’Sullivan, B Lindstaedt, Improving graduate education to support a branching career pipeline: recommendations based on a survey of doctoral students in the basic biomedical sciences. CBE-Life Science Education 10:239-49 (2011). Pdf here. This study showed that most of the drop of interest in a research career reflected a specific loss of interest in becoming an investigator at a research-intensive university. It was temporally associated with a converse increase in interest in non-research careers. Interest in other research-centered careers (e.g., industry) did not change significantly. It should be noted that this study’s conclusion accords with the TRR’s recommendation, and differs from my own. That is, the study concluded that universities like UCSF should offer students branching pathways to prepare for careers that do not involve research, while I suggest that a mandatory MS degree would allow students to choose whether or not to pursue further PhD training, wherever it can be found.

5. As noted in the TRR (p. 35), Duke University posts information about outcomes of its PhD students by program. A quick look reveals, however, that the data from different programs varies in level of detail and does not extend to outcomes more than a few years after the PhD.

6. For instance, programs can affiliate with degree programs in business, public policy, or journalism to offer post-MS training suitable for who will seek non-research jobs in, respectively, industry, science policy, or science news. In my opinion, most students with research-intensive PhD degrees and postdoctoral training already qualify for laboratory research jobs in biotech or the pharmaceutical industry.

7. M Rosenberg, An “honorable” career in academia vs. an “alternative” career in the private sector. ASBMB Today, August 2012, Web here.

A flood of soft-money PI salaries (TRR-II)

Inadequate cause-effect analysis generates a feckless proposal

Decades ago, soft-money salaries for biomedical research faculty were welcome rainfalls for struggling crops on parched

land. In the 21st century, however, soft-money salaries loom as a flood that threatens to drown us (see photo). Asked by NIH’s director to consider the problem of soft-money salaries, the Tilghman-Rockey report (TRR) recommended that NIH “consider a long-term approach (over a 20 year period) to gradually reduce the percentage of funds from all NIH sources that can be used for faculty salary support” (1). This  wishy-washy proposal—which I shall arbitrarily call recommendation 1 (2)—furnishes a perfect example of how to forge a feckless proposal by failing to define a relevant problem, along with its causes and effects.

So, let’s begin by reminding ourselves what soft-money salaries for research faculty do. As we discussed earlier (3), two important policies facilitated the previous century’s relentless expansion of biomedical research. One was the federal government’s regulations for calculating indirect cost payments on grants, which made it advantageous for universities to build research facilities with borrowed money and also to attract grants that paid soft-money salaries. The other was those soft-money salaries themselves, rendered possible because the NIH permits up to 100% of a PI’s salary to be paid from grants. To expand their research efforts, universities and medical schools eagerly took advantage of both policies.

As the NIH budget continued to increase between 1970 and 2003, soft-money salaries combined with slow growth of “harder-money” tenure-track academic positions to increase the number of NIH-funded scientists and to exacerbate competition among them. In addition, naturally competitive institutions became increasingly addicted to a kind of academic arms race, in which they accumulated indirect cost payments, built new research facilities, and filled them with soft-money faculty. Evaluations of research and researchers gradually became more arbitrary and dependent on marginal or even irrelevant qualifications. Research faculty gradually became grayer, owing to competitive pressures that made it harder for beginning scientists to succeed, plus the predilection of research universities for indirect cost payments on grants reliably attracted by senior researchers. The combination of soft-money salaries and larger numbers of young people seeking fewer tenure-track positions made academic biomedical research a less attractive career choice.

While many complain constantly about troubles like these (as noted in my previous post), their gradual evolution and constant presence make it harder to recognize them as inevitable consequences of rampant expansionism. Indeed, until the 21st century brought unmistakable hints of danger, expansion was pretty much “safe as houses.” Just before the present recession—triggered, ironically, when owning houses suddenly became unsafe—a series of flat-line NIH budgets (2004-present) followed the famous budget doubling over the preceding five-year period (1999-2003). During the NIH’s boom period, research institutions built more labs than they could easily fill. Excessive financial leverage—whether from debt-financing of new labs or from expanded faculties on soft-money salaries—heightens pressure on institutions, especially when both NIH funds and other financial resources (state support for public universities, alumni gifts, endowments, etc.) also decrease. Flat-line NIH budgets and slow recovery from the recession have already decimated basic science research at the University of Miami’s Miller School of Medicine, which recently laid off 110 researchers and hundreds of other employees (4). It is finally dawning on many of us that expansionism, in combination with unrelenting boom-and-bust cycles of federal funding, poses serious dangers to the workforce. Somehow, the TRR persists in blithely ignoring expansionism (5), just as we all did in boom times.

Consequently, the TRR appears to consider soft-money salaries a problem not worthy of careful attention. It does document gradual increases (over the past 40 years) in soft-money salaries for research faculty, especially in medical schools and research institutes, and opines that such salaries “contribute to negative views of a career in biomedical science” and “encourage institutions to expand their space without making additional long term commitments to faculty.” But it also omits graver difficulties stemming from soft-money salaries, which can: (i) place researchers at severe risk in a recession economy, when federal largesse, alumni donations, and state support diminish; (ii) dissolve collegial bonds between researchers and university faculty who carry out other university missions (e.g., education, community service); (iii) render the university unable to require researchers to teach and serve the academic community, as other faculty do; and last but perhaps most dangerously, (iv) discourage risky but exciting long-term projects (and grant proposals to pay for such projects) because researchers need “sure things” to put food on the table.

The TRR’s failure to identify the urgent problems created by soft-money salaries made it easier for recommendation 1 to suggest that the NIH only “consider” reducing them over a 20-year period. This recommendation, scandalously weak and guaranteed to produce no action, will vastly please apostles of expansion in growth-addicted institutions.

Instead, let me suggest key elements of a recommendation that will get the attention of NIH and other relevant parties and could persuade them to do something useful and effective. An amended recommendation 1 must explicitly address both the urgency of problems generated by excessive soft-money and the real dangers of trying to resolve them. So, the recommendation and its rationale should:

  • Recognize that the predilection of academic biomedical research for soft-money PI salaries reflects unbridled growth of the NIH for the last four decades of the 20th century, and stress that grants awarded by the National Science Foundation (mostly to scientists in other fields) already pay a low percent of the PI’s salary (6).
  • Identify and stress the costs and dangers of not finding ways to decrease soft-money support for research faculty. (I mention some of these above.)
  • Clearly identify also the dangers of too rapid and extensive change when so many institutions are already over-leveraged. These include irreparable damage to researchers and first-rate schools and institutes.
  • Motivate institutional leaders, scientists, and federal agencies that support biomedical research to solve the soft-money problem together.
  • Ask the NIH and the other stakeholders to define the real financial costs of hard-money salaries and the degree to which universities can pay such salaries from other sources, including money that would otherwise build new labs.
  • Point out multiple ways in which NIH and/or the White House’s Office of Management and budget (OMB) could persuade universities to pay more hard-money salaries (7).
  • Set a modest goal for rapid change—e.g., a 5-10% overall decrease in soft-money salary support for researchers and all institutions over the next five years.
  • Set a higher goal to be achieved over, say, 20 years—e.g., 50% hard-money support for every tenure-track faculty researcher. The time interval may be long, but a defined goal is essential.

Subsequent posts in this series will focus more closely on problems associated with research training. We will see further examples of the TRR’s penchant for blurring definitions, causes, and consequences of the problems it chooses to address.


1. Biomedical Research Workforce Working Group Report. Pdf here.

2. The TRR makes (by my count) 19 recommendations, but does not number them. I shall number recommendations I choose to discuss, in the order they appear in BiomedWatch. These numbers do not reflect their order of appearance in the TRR or their rank order of importance, either in my mind or (I feel sure) in the collective mind of the TRR. But I do hope they will make it easier to discuss and refer to these recommendations in subsequent posts.

3. Why ignore those icebergs? (I).

4. J. Dorschner, UM medical school to lay off up to 800: the University of Miami medical school plays to lay off up to 800 workers in administration and research to deal with reduced government and private funding, Miami Herald 8 May 2012, here.

5. Strictly speaking, the TRR does analyze expansionism, but relegates that analysis to an insightful and articulate appendix, which terms it “instability” rather than expansionism. Yet again, I strongly recommend that readers peruse Appendix D, which can be found on pp 72-80 of the TRR, cited in Note 1.

6. The report mentions this NSF policy, but characteristically only in Appendix D, cited in note 5, above.

7. One of these ways is already in use: the NIH sets a maximum salary to be used for calculating the percentage to be paid from an individual NIH research grant. The NIH could also require that universities directly pay a specific percent of the faculty researcher’s salary. In addition, the OMB could: (i) build into the calculation of indirect costs an incentive for universities to pay a higher percentage of hard-money for researchers’ salaries; and/or (ii) remove the present incentive for paying soft-money salaries (that is, the inclusion of soft money salary paid by the NIH in a grant in the “base” on which indirect costs are calculated (see 4 and B Alberts, Overbuilding Research Capacity, Science 329, 1257 (2010). Because each of these four approaches brings different sets of advantages and difficulties, all should be included as possibilities for the NIH, OMB, and other relevant parties to evaluate and then choose one or two among them.