Panel calls for a postdoc tax and other measures to help biomedical scientists find jobs


The U.S. Congress, federal funding agencies, universities, and other research institutions must take significant steps, such as a postdoc “tax” and a hard cap on how long postdocs can be funded by a lab head, to better usher young biomedical scientists into viable careers, a committee from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) concluded in a report released today. The biomedical workforce recommendations, which include a congressionally mandated council that would help implement the changes, could require more than $1 billion, according to the panel’s chairman, Ronald Daniels, president of Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland. 

“We owe the young scientists who are coming into the system, from the moment they start in a Ph.D. program until they finally get to the point that they’re in faculty positions … a responsibility to give them clear information and good support in making effective, sound decisions that comport with their abilities and career aspirations,” Daniels said at a briefing on the report.

Motivating the new report is the growing mismatch between many biomedical scientists’ aspirations and the career prospects available to them. Despite efforts to promote research careers in industry, government, and the nonprofit sector, an independent academic research career remains the top goal for many budding biologists. Yet only about 18% of people trained in the United States with a Ph.D. in biomedical sciences is employed in a tenured or tenure-track position 6 to 10 years after completing their degree, according to data newly released in the report.

In many ways, the new report addresses well-known challenges and rehashes some past recommendations, including those in a 2012 report produced by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Biomedical Research Workforce Working Group. Daniels and his colleagues acknowledge this, but suggest that the newly proposed council might help their recommendations succeed where those of others have failed.

As a result, the NASEM report’s authors argue, postdoc training is haphazard and PIs have little incentive to prepare these young scientists for independent research careers. The report makes a number of recommendations to empower postdocs, including:

  1. Requiring NIH-funded PIs to show evidence that they have provided career mentorship and training to their postdocs.

By limiting how long postdocs can be federally funded and by making it more expensive to keep them designated as trainees, research institutions will have an incentive to employ more permanent staff scientists, providing a much-needed additional career option for young scientists, says committee member Story Landis, former director of the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke in Bethesda, Maryland.

To help ensure accountability for improving the welfare of biomedical scientists, the report’s top recommendation is that Congress create a Biomedical Research Enterprise Council (BREC) drawn from the broad community of stakeholders, including federal funding agencies such as NIH and the National Science Foundation, governmental research agencies, universities, private companies, and professional societies. However, the NASEM committee didn’t prescribe what powers or authority the BREC might have to enforce either the report’s recommendations or additional solutions the council might think up.

Also included in the report are recommendations that NIH require PIs to submit diversity and inclusion plans as a regular part of grant submission and provide updates on their team’s diversity in progress reports.

Elizabeth Watkins, graduate division dean at the University of California, San Francisco, says she supports efforts to make it more expensive for PIs to indefinitely keep on scientists as trainees, but fears her colleagues will balk at having to prove their mentorship. “Many faculty will bristle at yet another reporting requirement,” she said.

Chris Pickett, director of the Rescuing Biomedical Research organization based at Princeton University, added that he was initially skeptical of whether the panel’s recommendations would lead to any concrete implementations. Too many reports like this one have come and gone with little change happening, he said. But he’s hopeful that stakeholders within the proposed BERC might hold each other accountable.

“There are definitely some corners of the research enterprise that will write this off as just another report or just another list of recommendations, but I think that’s wrong,” he said. “This is a conversation and progress takes time and effort.”

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