Starting a national conversation in Michigan

ANN ARBOR, MICHIGAN—On 3 May, 250 people from 110 institutions across the country converged at the University of Michigan to talk about how to fix the system of grant-funded university research performed by graduate and postdoctoral trainees, who have few opportunities for scientific careers within academe and little preparation for the possibilities that exist beyond the campus.

Many issues were discussed, but some that are critical to the functioning of the current system—and to the origins of its current crisis—got little attention, and one was intentionally ignored.

Unquestionably successful as an effort to encourage an inclusive, multilevel national conversation, FOBGAPT is the latest in a series of events that, over the past year or so, have begun crystalizing increasingly common foreboding about the system’s flaws into attempts at action. These efforts include the manifesto published in April 2014 by four stars of the biomedical community and a series of related high-level meetings instigated by that foursome. Also, in October 2014, hundreds of young Boston-area scientists at the other end of the power spectrum attended a postdoc-organized meeting of their own, the first Future of Research symposium.

During the winter, a group of University of Michigan (UM) faculty members led by David Engelke, professor and interim chair of biological chemistry, decided to bring together people representing the full spectrum of academic bioscience, from top professors and administrators to graduate students and postdocs, to share ideas and look for answers. FOBGAPT is the result of that effort.

UM recognized their quickly organized meeting as an “A-list” occasion worthy of the campus’s premier venues. UM President Mark Schlissel welcomed the registered participants, and UM grad students and postdocs who were invited to the opening plenary session in the splendid art deco auditorium of the Rackham Building, headquarters of the Rackham Graduate School. Breakout sessions and dinners took place in a number of Rackham’s elegant rooms and in other campus landmarks.

Schlissel opened the proceedings with an illustration of how young scientists’ fortunes have deteriorated over the decades. He obtained his first independent research grant, he said, at 34—a decade younger than the average first-time grant recipient today, according to National Institutes of Health (NIH) figures—but he “felt old” compared to many of his counterparts.

The first plenary speaker, Gregory Petsko of Weill Cornell Medical College in New York City, introduced themes that resonated throughout the conference. Having chaired the 2014 National Academies committee that produced , he presented a number of its major conclusions about the shortage of faculty jobs and postdocs’ need for better preparation for the opportunities that exist in the wider labor market. He astutely noted that, in contrast to such titles as “student” or “faculty member,” “postdoc” indicates a temporal point rather than specific functions or rights and “implies no obligation” of the university or individual faculty members toward the individual. That oversight, he said, is indicative of the treatment many postdocs receive.

Petsko also recognized that the internal academic market for laboratory workers has no connection with the labor market for careers outside of academe. But, citing labor market expert Paula Stephan as his source, he argued that the outside economy could absorb all the Ph.D. researchers that America’s universities could produce. In an e-mail conversation with Science Careers, however, Stephan denied ever expressing that view. “Perhaps he is referring to the fact that the unemployment rate is extremely low for Ph.D.s,” she wrote. “This, of course, does not mean that they are using the skills they took many years to acquire. It just means that they found a position. … The job situation is very field dependent.”

Such reforms would cause “lab demographics” to change, Yamamoto told the audience. That demographic shift will include “more staff scientists,” he told Science Careers after his talk. Funding considerations make that prospect “scary,” he added, and he doesn’t want the use of more permanent members to evolve into the hierarchical “Herr Professor model common” in other countries, he said.

Recurring themes

At the culminating dinner, workshop representatives presented summaries of their proposals—a list of ideas far too long to summarize here. Several themes, though, recurred in the groups’ suggestions, including:

  1. the need to collect much better data on trainees’ experiences on campus and after they enter the career market. This information should be publicly available, and trainees should be able to use it to direct and revise their career planning as they progress through their training.

Many issues were discussed, but some that are critical to the functioning of the current system—and to the origins of its current crisis—got little attention, and one was intentionally ignored. A number of speakers avoided discussing the issue of grant-supported foreign students and postdocs, who do much of the work in academic labs. The availability of unlimited temporary visas permits universities to short-circuit the market feedback that would otherwise control trainee numbers.

Even so, it’s encouraging that so many people from so many institutions came to Ann Arbor, Michigan to look earnestly for answers. FOBGAPT could be a harbinger of improvement to come. But even if the reforms proposed in at the meeting were fully implemented, they may not go deep enough to resolve the contradictions inherent in the existing system. The group plans to reconvene next year to evaluate progress.

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