Big Hopes, Small Changes for Biomedical Training

In 1998, Shirley Tilghman—then a molecular biology professor at Princeton University and now Princeton’s outgoing president—chaired a National Research Council committee that was charged with examining trends in the early careers of life scientists. That committee made several bold policy recommendations to the National Institutes of Health (NIH) that, if implemented, would have dramatically reshaped life-science training in the United States. Few of them were implemented.

“Without the financial pressure to get people through in an expeditious length of time, we will be looking at data that looks just like this [current report’s] 10 and 20 years from now.” —Shirley Tilghman

The working group’s report highlighted several dispiriting trends, most of them echoing the 1998 report. First, the number of graduate students and postdocs supported by fellowships has remained essentially constant over the past 30 years as the number supported on research grants increased rapidly. The result: Graduate students and postdocs are increasingly viewed by their principal investigators as “worker bees” rather than trainees, Tilghman said at the June meeting.

Finally, the report noted that most biomedical graduate programs and postdocs in the United States do little to prepare biomedical scientists for careers outside of academia even though considerably fewer than half (43%) wind up in academic research or teaching and fewer than a quarter (23%) wind up tenured.

Tilghman, Rockey, and the others in the working group laid out several recommendations aimed at shortening and diversifying doctoral programs and postdoc positions, increasing the proportion of trainees supported by training grants and fellowships instead of research grants, collecting more data on career outcomes, improving postdoc salaries, and promoting the staff scientist career path. After the June meeting, ACD formed an implementation team, headed by Rockey, to decide which recommendations to implement, and how to do it.

During last week’s meeting, Rockey said that, in response to the working group’s recommendations, NIH will be:

    After Rockey’s presentation, Tilghman remarked that although she was pleased that ACD seriously considered her report’s recommendations, she “can’t help but go back to [her] cynicism” about some of the language used in the implementation plans—specifically, the occurrence of words like “encourage” and “recommend.” For example, she pointed to the implementation team’s plan to encourage institutions to track and report the career outcomes for their students and postdocs. “This is a recommendation that’s been made by every single committee, and always using the word ‘encourage,’ ” she said. “It has been made for about 20 years and we know what the consequences of that [are]. … Unless you have a stick, this won’t happen.”

    Similarly, Tilghman said that a mere recommendation to limit graduate student funding to 5 years is unlikely to have much effect. “Without the financial pressure to get people through in an expeditious length of time, we will be looking at data that looks just like this [current report’s] 10 and 20 years from now,” she said.

    Judith Bond, president of the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology, believes that NIH’s “softer” approach is appropriate. “Anything that requires new money is problematic if we come up against a difficult budget,” she says.

    Rockey and NIH Director Francis Collins questioned whether NIH even has the legal standing to require institutions to track their students’ careers, or to publish anticipated durations for doctoral students. But, Tilghman told Science Careers, “Without having it be required, I don’t think it will happen.”

    The recommendation that NIH chose not to implement was the most dramatic. “To ensure that all graduate students supported by the NIH receive excellent training,” the working group wrote, echoing language from Tilghman’s 1998 report, “NIH should increase the proportion of graduate students supported by training grants and fellowships compared with those supported by research project grants, without increasing the overall number of graduate student positions.” A similar recommendation was made for postdocs. The main rationale for such a change would be to place more trainees in an environment where the quality of training—and not research productivity—is paramount.

    But there’s another rationale, suggested by the recommendation’s final phrase: giving NIH more control over the number of scientists it trains. Paula Stephan, an economist at Georgia State University in Atlanta and a member of the current report’s modeling subcommittee (Stephan was also a member of that 1998 NRC committee), writes to Science Careers in an e-mail that it’s “disappointing to see that NIH did not figure out a way to shift more funds into training grants and fellowships and away from research assistantship stipends” or “implement any requirement for limiting the amount of salary that can be written off of grants—something that could dampen the demand for graduate students.”

    At last week’s meeting, Rockey told Science Careers that implementation of this idea was doomed by opposition to the idea by some members of ACD and by worries over the complexity of implementation. She expressed hope that many of the goals of that proposal could be accomplished in other ways. “The reason we proposed putting them on training grants is because they have a really rich experience when they’re on training grants,” she said. “So we’re enriching the entire experience even for those on research grants, so it’s accomplishing the same goal without having to mechanically do it.”

    Tilghman, though, told Science Careers that she believes this change is necessary if NIH is to improve training conditions for postdocs. “Sally is right that it would take a sea change in policy at the NIH” to gradually shift money “from R01s to training grants,” Tilghman writes in an e-mail that emphasizes the importance of making the shift gradual. “But I continue to think it is the right policy for the NIH, and the sooner you get started, the better.”

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