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 Table. Each involves multiple stakeholders, but the issues present very different challenges.

Proposal 2c in the Table, the mandatory MS degree, will improve biomedical graduate education (2) in at least two ways. It will provide a much-needed branch-point in the career pipeline for bright young people who discover they want a job in science but not in hard-core laboratory research (3), and permit graduate training programs to re-direct students not best suited for research into fields they may find more fruitful. After the first three years of training, faculty advisors usually know which students are quite unlikely to become first-rate investigators but often fail to re-direct them, owing to multiple disincentives: soft-hearted reluctance to deliver bad news, even when it is accompanied by valuable advice; inability to imagine that any young person could find a better career outside the lab; peer review that rewards graduating a high percentage of students; hope that the years already devoted to training a student will lead to a w0rthwhile contribution to the lab’s research. A mandatory MS would give students and their advisors an opportunity to set these disincentives aside and make better-informed decisions.

This MS degree will be a hard sell, because it is new and academic scientists passionately reject change. NIH is loath to offend such scientists, who—along with some schools—may interpret

*Abbreviations: TG = training grant; RPG = research project grant; PCIG = postdoctoral career and instruction grant; N = NIH; I = grantee institution; P = PIs; C = Congress; INS = Immigration and Naturalization Service.

the MS degree as another threat from a faceless bureaucracy to their cherished autonomy. Others may predict that the MS degree will drive young people away from biomedical PhD training, by reminding them that research is hard, and failure a real possibility. One counter-argument is simple: yes, biomedical research can be magnificently rewarding, but prospective students should also know that science is hard and failure happens. Another counter-argument is that the MS degree can furnish many superb students with an opportunity to take stock and change directions (3). Finally, it may help to soft-pedal the “mandatory” quality of the MS degree. Instead, NIH could change its criteria for reviewing training grants, asking peer review to: (i) look favorably on programs that use routine award of an MS degree to re-assess the progress and direction of their students after three years of PhD training; (ii) temper its present emphasis on requiring a high percentage of matriculating students to receive the PhD degree, instead asking that those who complete research-centered PhD training later contribute significantly to scientific investigation in US academia or industry.

Proposal 3, which switches all NIH-supported PhD training to TGs rather than RPGs, will also be difficult to implement, in part because it represents a change in policy. The bigger difficulty is that this proposal requires agreement by the NIH, grantee institutions, PIs, and Congress itself. Jealously guarding its prerogative to set the number of dollars invested in research, Congress may not be best pleased to learn that our current practice of paying graduate stipends from RPGs consumes some of today’s research dollars to train tomorrow’s investigators. Surprisingly, simple candor dictates the winning arguments. (i) Paying PhD students from a single “training pot” will give Congress a more straightforward account of how the money is spent. (ii) The number of students, the research they do, and the NIH dollars spent in training them will not change, at least over the near term (4). But (iii) the separate training pot, together with the broader purview of TG peer review (proposal 4 in the Table), will enable NIH and Congress to regulate our country’s investments in biomedical research and training more rationally (5).

The Congress problem is hard because NIH, universities, and scientists correctly deem legislation the bluntest and most fearsome of all blunt instruments. Now that gridlock stymies almost all compromise, the instrument becomes blunter and more dangerous. For instance, it may not be too far-fetched to worry that some members of Congress will decide that the switch from RPGs to TGs should be accompanied by a sharp overall reduction in appropriations for training researchers, because the NIH supports research, while universities—not the government—should train scientists. Fearing irrational reflex responses, NIH and other federal agencies work hard to avoid offending Congress—or universities, PIs, and anybody else who might nudge Congress into a dangerous mood.

Proposal 9 in the Table is designed to control the influx of foreign postdocs with unlimited access to work visas in the US, which at present contributes substantially to the brimming postdoc holding tank (6). According to Appendix D of the TRR (7), that access depresses the job market for US citizens, reducing their interest in biomedical research careers and their salary prospects once they obtain a biomedical PhD. In contrast, Congress already sets annual caps on such visas for foreign scientists hired by US companies, in order to protect American PhDs competing for those jobs.

For proposal 9, what I call the “Congress problem” looms even bigger than for proposal 3, because a cap on postdoc visas will need coordinated participation of five sets of players: Congress, NIH, research institutions, PIs, and the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS). Unfortunately, several of these players have pursued agendas opposed to a visa cap on foreign postdocs. Biomedical PIs often complain, for instance, that the brightest young Americans often prefer more lucrative careers in finance and technology to the rigors of fields like quantitative biology. Aided by expansionist research institutions, these PIs, see foreign PhDs as cheap, invaluable assets for first-rate research, and will urge Congress to maintain exemption of academic postdocs from the otherwise general cap on work visas. Some NIH officials worry about excessive dependence of US biomedical research on foreign scientists, but fear expressing their concern because NIH needs all the support it can get from PIs, research institutions, and Congress, and recognizes that ventures into super-charged immigration politics can be dangerous.

In these rough-and-tumble times, what is the best roadmap for proponents of truly sustainable biomedical research? It is high time for thoughtful leaders in the biomedical research enterprise to pull themselves together, don their asbestos gloves, and approach Congress directly. While enlisting the aid of sympathetic elements in grantee institutions and the NIH itself, they cannot pin all their hopes on competing universities obsessed with triumphing over one another, on PIs unable to see beyond their own labs’ need for more and cheaper workers, or on a federal agency (correctly) fearful of explosive devices beneath every road-bump on Capitol Hill. As for the roadmap itself, most proposals in the Table—those marked 1+ or 2+ in difficulty—can be accomplished by a combination of NIH leadership, enlightened administrators and PIs of a few leading research institutions, and the urgent needs of a research enterprise that is (or should be) concerned by its sudden poverty and slim prospects for young scientists. To speed the overall effort, the National Academies, perhaps with help from the NIH, should begin by convening small conclaves—like the Asilomar conferences of past decades—aimed at publicizing key issues and organizing concerted efforts to deal with them. These meetings would set up groups charged with planning how to accomplish the hardest implementation tasks (3+ or 4+ difficulty in the Table). We cannot craft a clear exit in one or two years from problems that have grown over five decades.

Finally, a last word about the TRR. Approaching the end of these commentaries, I better appreciate the anguish and frustration the TRR’s authors must have experienced. At the beginning, surely, they felt their recommendations were likely to produce important results, because they were solicited and sponsored by the NIH itself. As a prospective reader before the TRR appeared, I felt the same anticipatory delight. Unfortunately, the truth was precisely the opposite: shying away from the prickliest problems, the TRR produced wishy-washy recommendations even in cases where the solution appeared (at least to me) straightforward and feasible. The problem was not that the TRR’s authors were ignorant, unthinking, or lazy. Instead, they almost surely read the writing on the wall, like Belshazzar, Babylon’s king. Probably they weighed every problem and solution I consider in these commentaries—and more.

But they failed, for (I suspect) several reasons. The TRR committee probably reflected opposing points of view within the biomedical research community, including expansionist zeal in universities and research institutes, PIs’ needs for cheap, competent workers, concern of educators and some scientists that training is not as good as it should be, and the worries of many of us that young scientists get increasingly short ends of most sticks. Moreover, NIH sponsorship constrained the TRR to a narrow view of its task, perforce requiring it to ignore measures the NIH could not accomplish on its own. It didn’t help that the NIH inveterately adopts a gingerly attitude—mimicked in much of the TRR—toward ideas that could appear controversial to PIs, universities, or any member of Congress. The result was a report that ignored or effectively blurred the most important issues and mug-wumped most of the rest.

Belshazzar saw the writing, and his kingdom fell to Persian armies. If our Babylon falls, we shall have ourselves to blame.


1. Click here

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

3. The TRR documented the decision of many biomedical PhD students to depart from research, and a recent study of such students at UCSF showed that the shift away from research occurred after a full year of laboratory research, when a significant proportion of students lost their previous interest in becoming investigators at research-intensive universities. See 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.

4. The TRR tacitly admitted that available evidence is not reliable enough to determine for sure whether the US needs to produce more or fewer biomedical PhDs. I suspect that better evidence, once it becomes available, will show that we are producing more PhDs than we need, but it’s still too early to jump the gun.

5. By switching NIH-supported PhD stipends from RPGs to TGs, proposal 3 allows NIH and Congress to control funds appropriated for RPGs and TGs independently from one another. By requiring peer review to consider outcomes of all PhD training to be considered in peer review of NIH TGs, proposal 4 enables the NIH to track subsequent careers of all US-produced biomedical PhDs, making it much easier to estimate needs for more or fewer biomedical scientists. Thus a need for more such scientists can trigger an appropriate increase in training funds, followed a few years later by a parallel increase in funds appropriated to pay for research in their new laboratories. A need for fewer scientists would trigger the opposite scenario.

6. The postdoc holding tank (TRR-VI).

7. Appendix D, pp 72-80 of the TRR (cited in note 2, above).


About biomedwatch
Professor Emeritus of Cellular and Molecular Pharmacology, University of California, San Francisco

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

  1. Dan Bonder says:

    Dr. Bourne,
    I read all of your essays on the TRR report and I think you have some very good ideas. I hadn’t read the report (until I came across BiomedWatch), so I wasn’t personally familiar with all of the problems facing the US biomedical research enterprise. You have described them quite well and many of your recommendations make a lot of sense.

    There is one recommendation, however, that I disagree with you on, and it has to do with PhD training. You suggest that we should narrow the focus of PhD training onto research (rather than broaden it), but in exchange offer mandatory MS degrees for students who are either “not cut out” for research or elect not to continue in it. Along with this suggestion is the notion that PhD training is “training for research”. I disagree on both points. First, to only award PhD’s to researchers is to say that no one else deserves one. You essentially equate “those that aren’t fit for a PhD” and “those that chose non-research careers”; why punish students or prevent them from obtaining a degree they may very well deserve? Second, PhD training in my mind is not simply research training. The real value of the PhD experience is in learning problem solving, abstract and analytical thinking, etc. These skills are applicable to varied science-related career pathways. To me, there is nothing inherent in a research career path that places one on a higher pedestal worthy of the highest degree in the land compared to another path, especially if while in graduate school the students end up acquiring the same skill set anyway. Students who are worthy of a PhD are worthy, regardless of what they plan to do after graduating. Perhaps instead of mandatory specialized MS degrees for non-research career paths, we develop specialized PhD paths (one idea among many)?

    I appreciate your thoughts on this topic, and very nice work once again.
    Thank you,
    Dan B.

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