October 5, 2011 - ASM Comments on NIH RFI on Biomedical Research Training

Sally J. Rockey, Ph.D. 
Deputy Director for Extramural Research
National Institutes of Health
Shannon Building
1 Center Drive, Room 144
Bethesda, MD 20892

Re:  RFI NOT-OD-11-106: Input into the Deliberations of the Advisory Committee to the NIH Director Working Group on the Future Biomedical Research Workforce

Dear Dr. Rockey:

The American Society for Microbiology (ASM), which has a long standing interest in building a strong research workforce, recently solicited input from its members involved in Ph.D., M.D., or Ph.D./M.D. research training programs, to be used in providing information to the National Institutes of Health (NIH).   Ongoing concerns over the quality and quantity of the future biomedical workforce have provoked actions by government agencies, academia, and other stakeholders to preserve the Nation’s global leadership in biomedical sciences.  In response, the Advisory Committee of the NIH Director established a Working Group to examine the future of the biomedical research workforce in the United States. 

The NIH Working Group on the Future Biomedical Research Workforce is charged with developing a model for a “sustainable, diverse, and productive US biomedical research workforce using appropriate expertise from NIH and external sources.”  It is soliciting input from multiple sources to design this model, which will be used to “help inform decisions about how to train the optimal number of people for the appropriate types of positions that will advance science and promote health.” 

The ASM survey requested comment on a list of issues identified by the NIH Working Group, as well as additional issues compiled by the ASM Public and Scientific Affairs Board.  Queries were sent to microbiology and immunology department chairs and principal investigators of NIH institutional training grants, and other ASM members requesting observations related to the microbial and immunological sciences.  The following broadly summarizes comments on each issue received from scientists involved in training future researchers (not all respondents provided comments on every issue listed).

Workforce Issues Identified by NIH

The balance between supply, including the number of domestic and foreign trained Ph.D.s and post-docs, and demand, i.e. post-training career opportunities.  Respondents generally agreed that there is an imbalance between supply and demand, with too many Ph.D.s and post-docs competing for too few jobs in the public and private sectors.  In the words of one, “I am now reluctant to encourage students to consider a Ph.D. and career in biomedical science….Post-docs I know from across the country are having very limited success in obtaining positions.  To have spent so much time and effort in training, they are very disheartened and have been forced to seek jobs outside biomedical science, for which they are overqualified.”

As another respondent notes, this has created “the current situation of endless post-doc years [with] too many Ph.D. students and post-docs simply carrying out work that could be done by technicians.” They caution that decreasing support for trainees to lower numbers of job applicants would be a short sighted solution, “as we still need the best and brightest.” One partial solution could be more emphasis during training on alternate career paths other than the traditional full time academic research model.  It may also be prudent to raise the standards for admission to graduate school in the biomedical sciences.  There is a perception by many that we are no longer recruiting the best and brightest students into the biomedical sciences.  This may not be surprising given the decline in general in the quality of math and science in K-12 and the remedial courses required for many students upon college entry.  By increasing the stipend levels as well as entrance criteria, you would lower the number of trainees but increase the quality.

A discussion must ensue to address why there is an oversupply of trained biomedical researchers.  Data are needed to confirm that the best and brightest are going into the biomedical sciences.  This has received little attention.  Does the fact that retirement situations (researchers retiring at later years resulting in the lack of job openings and that some are retiring from government and non government positions and going into academic programs) impact job availability?  Along this line, might we look at other countries, especially those that are our competitors, and peruse their training program’s characteristics (length, financial support, age at which their young scientists become independent, etc.) to determine if there is something to learn.

Characteristics of Ph.D. training in biomedical research, including issues such as the length of the Ph.D. training period, recommendations for changes to the Ph.D. curriculum, and training for multiple career paths (including bench and non-bench science).  The majority of those who responded to this specific issue believe that current Ph.D. training periods are in general too long, noting that some programs already are trying to shorten training by more careful mentoring.  Although the data are anecdotal, there are cases where length of time to degree is resulting in some of the best foreign students staying in country for their graduate education or going to other countries. 

Some acknowledged that the individuality of programs and students makes broad changes in curricula likely impossible. However, recommended changes to Ph.D. curricula included greater efforts to educate trainees on ethical conduct of research and a broader spectrum of courses or experiences. The training of students in the ethical conduct of research, though greatly improved in part due to the efforts of NIH and professional societies, varies in extent and quality depending upon the institution.  One key recommendation did not involve changes to curricula, but instead suggested “drastic cuts in the number of graduate student slots” and separate fellowship funding for students apart from grant project funding.  Competition for fellowships could also help to address the quality vs. quantity issue referred to in the above paragraph.  Comments included the following:

“Training programs (both predoc and postdoc) are too long. Shorter periods were previously satisfactory and consequently some of the top scientists who benefitted from these shorter periods are very productive today.  To say that research has become more complex should also include that the technology to answer questions have become more precise and data can be obtained and analyzed more quickly.  Additionally, much research is being accomplished through collaborations which provide for quicker and more precise data.  If anything, the periods should be shorter, given the advances in instrumentation and intellectual knowledge.”

  • “I do not believe that PIs should be responsible for training students to pursue alternative careers in policy issues, science writing, K-12 science education, etc.  PIs do not have the training to do this.  PIs should be training trainees to pursue high quality biomedical research careers which cannot be pursued as community college instructors and at universities that do not have the resources to support these career goals.  If individuals want to enter these career paths, we need to consider establishing “alternate” degree programs that focus on these “alternate” career paths.”  

Characteristics of clinician research training, including issues such as the balance between M.D.s and M.D./Ph.D.s, career development of clinician researchers, and recommendations for changes to the curricula for training clinician researchers.  Respondents concurred that M.D./Ph.D.s were a valuable asset to biomedical science, but that, not being familiar with the statistics of M.D.s vs. M.D./Ph.D.s, could not specifically comment on “balance” per se.  They did, however, iterate the difficulties in attracting students to the dual path and retaining them as career long clinical researchers.  Enumerated problems included:

  • “[It is] too difficult to juggle all the clinical paper work and all the research related paper work and still have time to do clinical research.”
  • “Often the Ph.D. part of the M.D./Ph.D. training is quickened for the sake of fitting it into the expected timeline to receive funding.”
  • “The M.D./Ph.D. students are the most productive, but also have a difficult time as medical schools require these individuals at the early stages of their career to devote time to clinic as well as research.  Thus, it is hard for many to keep doing research with the current funding and tight institutional finances.”
  • “Getting an M.D./Ph.D. is a good thing, but certainly not the only (or sometimes the best) way for someone to do clinical science.  An M.D. with a truly rigorous research-based fellowship can often have the skills needed to do excellent clinical science. 
  • The M.D. can enter non degree research training programs such as those offered by the NIH and successfully pursue a clinical research program.  For example, one can cite the many successful M.D. researchers who’ve headed NIH institutes and the NIH, for example.  This dual degree program results in individuals spending many long years of training through residency and end up with extensive student loans and “no retirement benefits” by the time they get their first jobs when they are in their early to mid 35 years of age.”

Recommendations to facilitate change included more pairing of clinicians with Ph.D. or M.D./Ph.D. colleagues as mentors, more career development awards for clinical scientists, and providing clinician researchers with a period of uninterrupted scientific training in the laboratory without concurrent clinical duties. 

One respondent also listed specific reasons why it is so crucial to have clinician researchers:  “[1] their ability to identify clinically important research questions; [2] their drive to apply science to patient care and not do purely basic research; [3] no one better to design and run the clinical trials that translate basic to applied science; and [4] the access to patients, human samples, etc. that they provide to the scientific community…for investigating human disease.”

Length of postdoctoral training.  Those surveyed were concerned that prolonged post-doc experiences impedes development of independent researchers in a timely manner.  Specific comments on training periods were:

  • “It is not desirable for anyone to spend more than 4 years as a postdoc, unless they change fields in a second postdoc.  Getting people into their roles as independent scientists at an earlier age than is now accepted should be a goal of the future.”

While some expressed the opinion that time periods should be determined case by case, in general respondents felt that it was important to monitor the length of post-doctoral training.  One suggestion worthy of consideration is to provide more “portable” fellowship awards that can be taken into a junior faculty position and provide start-up funds to be matched by the recruiting institution.  In addion more funding opportunities specific for junior faculty should be provided with criteria that would help promote independence.

The ratio of Ph.D. students and postdoctoral fellows on training grants to those supported by research grants.  In general, those commenting saw a need for more training grants. Some felt that the training phase of the scientific career should be treated as such and that all students and postdocs should be paid from training grants, and that research grant personnel should be limited to technicians and project leaders. The peer review process in awarding of training grants and required tracking of career development of individuals on training grants greatly enhances the quality of the training programs.  This is critical if we are to strengthen our training programs in the biomedical sciences.  Currently, graduate programs in general are not reviewed by external accrediting bodies.  The reviews by the LCME accrediting body of U.S. medical schools includes training programs in the basic sciences, the reviews represent a very cursory review as does the overall accrediting body for undergraduate institutions. 

Possibilities for professional/staff scientist positions and the level of training required for such positions (e.g., Ph.D. or M.Sc. degrees).  The precise intent of this NIH listed issue was unclear.

Issues related to the attractiveness of biomedical research careers (e.g., salary, working conditions, availability of research funding).  The lack of stability inherent in grant cycles is a deterrent to some trainees.   In addition, minimal health insurance provided by NIH training grants andlack of institutional support for trainees with family issuesare also problematic.  Despite these uncertainties, all respondents felt that biomedical research remains an attractive career path.  Some subgroups may be the exception.  See the following quote.

  • “It has been my observation that underrepresented minorities and women enter graduate programs to become bench research scientists and only begin to think about “alternate” careers when they realize the lack of job opportunities and begin to dislike the laboratory training environment.  In my efforts to encourage those who are doing very well and who have a high probability of success, their collective responses are that they’re burned out, don’t want anyone to replicate their experiences, fear of the nonavailability of jobs, drying up of grant funds, etc.”

The effect of changes in NIH policies on investigators, grantee institutions, and the broader research enterprise.  Aware that NIH is the major sponsor of academic research in microbiology and immunology, those responding were duly concerned that policy changes would significantly affect these areas of biomedical research.  These impacts are likely to affect the number and quality of graduate students and postdocs. Resigned to the changes, the respondents cautioned that institutions and administrators must be more diligent in regards to what the NIH policy changes mean for their biomedical researchers.

Workforce Issues Identified by ASM

Have you observed a change in the number or qualifications of your applicant pool, domestic and foreign?  Do any changes correlate with reduced job opportunities inside or outside the United States?  The respondents did not all agree on the quality of the current applicant pool, but most felt that overall the applicants are less qualified.  Even more felt that today’s graduate students are less willing to work as hard as past generations of trainees.  Whether their number of applicants has increased, decreased, or remained steady varied with the respondent’s institution.  At least one institution has experienced a decline in applicants from China, likely attributable to the booming Chinese economy. Observed decreases in domestic applicants were linked to reduced job opportunities, as well as the research funding environment in the United States. Another institution saw quality vary, depending on the cohort: 

“Our pool of applicants is more impressive than ever. This is due, at least in part, to a new track that links basic and clinical aspects of infectious disease research. We have seen no fall off in the quality of applicants at the upper end, but the old middle ground, students who are very competent and can have very successful careers, has shrunk. This is probably a case of self-selection. Students perceive that competition for jobs and grants is at an all-time high and don’t want to put themselves in that bind, unless they are pretty sure they can succeed.”

  • “Colleagues have commented that current trainees are less qualified.  This appears likely and the fact that they do not have the same drive and work the long hours is what others are seeing in medicine and other disciplines.  All one has to do is speak to a senior medical professional and hear what they are saying about the decreased residency requirements.  But society and prospective medical professionals will not have it any other way. 
  • One respondent said: “The number of domestic student applicants continues to decrease. Whereas the number of foreign applicants to our graduate programs has remained the same, they seem to work harder and perform better than our domestic students.  This trend is not apparent among medical students.
  • “Both domestic and foreign students seem quite discouraged by the current funding environment and by news regarding the scarcity of good job opportunities and/or job stability in the US. However, foreign students are focused on getting their degree from the US with a general feeling that they can be more competitive within or outside the US.  In general, students from certain countries feel that their job prospects in their home country will be much improved by having their degree granted through a US institution. Domestic students, in addition to being discouraged by the current funding environment, are less likely to venture abroad, although the number of domestic students willing to take science jobs abroad is slowly increasing.” 

Do you feel there should be institutional training grants that would provide cooperative training for pre- and postdoctoral experiences in other countries, including the EU, Japan, China, Africa?  The respondents split on the value of international experience, citing the currently limited funds for training.  At least part of that disagreement likely reflected uncertainty whether this meant US trainees working overseas or foreign trainees being subsidized by US funds.  There was, however, the observation made that today’s science is international in scope and that all international efforts should be encouraged, not to create a potential overseas job pool for US trainees, but to enrich biomedical knowledge. 

  • One respondent said: “Cooperative, national and international training grants may actually boost the number of domestic applicants, inasmuch as such training may afford more or better job opportunities either in the US or abroad.”  

What changes in funding mechanism would you recommend to facilitate training of pre- and postdoctoral students, as well as physician-scientists and junior faculty?  Commenters made the following observations: 

  • Students need to trust that there are career paths for them when they graduate. There should be national and regional strategic planning to ensure that science and technology trainees will be utilized properly and that there will be adequate job opportunities that take advantage of their expertise and allow them to grow professionally. The federal government could set aside funds dedicated to training pre- and postdoctoral students as well as physician scientists and junior faculty. The size of funds to be allocated to different specialties could vary based on a national strategic plan that takes into account short and long-term growth and investment goals and that project market needs and job creation in those needed specialty areas. Access to these funds could be on a competitive bases, where the quality and qualifications of student, institution and pool of mentors would be evaluated and scored based on pre-set criteria, performance history and other required qualifications.  Such funds should be separate from traditional research grants through agents such as NIH, NSF etc. and should be earmarked for use in training and utilizing highly trained and employable work force. 
  • For predocs, the current system seems as good as any.  Linkage to research grants in large part provides a good index of the market for the students, and even more so for postdocs.  The unresolved problem is how to develop an adequate cadre of physician scientists who do translational and clinical research.  More funding of junior faculty to give them sufficient time to sufficiently develop their research program is essential.
  • Drop the institutional training grants (T's) and retain the funding of individual applications (F's). Predoctoral and postdoctoral: more fellowships and training grants.  Physician scientists: protected lab training fellowships/training programs.  Junior faculty:  special start up grants, similar to RO3 and R21, limited to first-time applicants.
  • Expansion of individual awards and separate awards for young faculty.
  • Expand the scope of the Loan Repayment Program to help recruit more minority scientists and increase funding for the RO1 funding mechanism.  The difficulty in securing funding is driving many scientists out of research and making it extremely difficult to secure tenure (thus having a negative impact of career choice and growth).  The pay lines for funding RO1s are not equal across institutes.  This is very discouraging to many.
  • Foreign trainees from developed countries who intend to return home should be supported, at least in part, by their home countries.  “I would now place China in this category….The US should insist that China pay for the training of their citizens in the US Young scientists from the developing world should be encouraged to come to the US and their training should be supported as a form of foreign aid if they promise to return to their homelands at the completion of their training,” said one respondent. 

Has the funding provided for training from your institution declined in the past 5 years?  If so, can you provide the data?  Most of those responding to this question reported that they believed their institutional funding for training had declined in recent years, but they were unable to provide specific data.   Funding had not declined, however, at a notable minority of institutions, according to respondents (see attachment of full-text responses).  At least one institution has intentionally reduced its student census over concerns that it cannot support a greater number of students throughout their training periods. 

Given NIH’s four decade effort to recruit underrepresented minorities (URM) and women into the biomedical sciences, how have these programs impacted your institution?  Have these efforts enabled you to very successfully contribute to the biomedical research training of these groups, in particular in the areas of independent “bench” research scientists?  Looking at your overall progress with these initiatives, how do you see the potential role of these programs at your institution in making substantial contributions to the biomedical research workforce?  Respondents agreed that the effort to recruit more women into the biomedical sciences has been a success at their respective institutions. One respondent said, “The number of women has increased dramatically and accounts for over 60 percent of our enrollment.” They also believed that URM recruitment has had positive results, although with relatively less success than recruitment of women.  Credit is given to NIH’s URM mandates for training grants, in stimulating institutional recruitment.

Although optimistic about NIH’s recruitment programs, the comments, nonetheless, cautioned that more work must be done to increase numbers of women and URM among tenured faculty, and that institutions and their PIs must be held more accountable for training truly productive scientists from among underrepresented groups.  One also emphasized the importance of training individuals for careers outside research institutes or large universities:  “For many individuals from under-represented minority groups this is a key issue, as those I have encountered frequently want to give back and return to small colleges to teach and mentor students in the sciences.”

Another respondent observed: while many programs have had increased successes in recruiting URM because of NIH funded programs geared toward increasing the participation of these groups, the ability of training programs to produce RO1 eligible and successful PIs has been extremely limited.  I personally believe this has been because of inadequate mentoring (students graduating without publications or a publication where they are tucked in with a group of 5-10 co-authors; the lack of acceptance of URM into viable research teams, continuing overall “feelings” of discrimination and a general lack of support by too many PIs) and students being burned out because of the lack of job prospects (which early in their training they’d assumed to be available) which subsequently has resulted in a lack of enthusiastic pursuit.  In general their post graduation and postdoctoral jobs do not qualify them for jobs where they will be RO1 eligible.  I’ve made these observations over the years and when I was invited to participate in a retreat for underrepresented minority biomedical predoctoral students at a prestigious University this past spring, the majority of the latter was evident and students were thinking about pursuing alternate careers.  Furthermore, I have received similar sentiments from graduate and/or postdoctoral trainees at other academic institutions and/or government agencies.  On the other hand, a recent URM male graduate from a prestigious university who had excellent mentoring and an exemplary publishing record has chosen a “policy” position and has delayed seeking a postdoctoral position.  The reason – his predoctoral training was much too long, he is “burned out” and refuses to enter a “long” postdoctoral position.”

It should be noted that there were few responses to this question.  Additionally, from these responses, though recruitment of URM has been somewhat successful and more needs to be done; the recruitment of women has been highly successful.  However, the issue was not addressed as it related to success in training “productive” URM and women, e.g., RO1 eligible and successful URM and women.  It is clear that recruitment strategies have significantly increased with individuals entering the pipelines at various levels.  

Other comments.  NIH should be more creative and flexible in its approach to fostering the future biomedical workforce, according to additional comments from some survey respondents.  One suggestion called for NIH to provide data on research jobs availability, to help academicians mentor their trainees toward specific professions, and to support job fairs in areas of the United States other than Washington, DC.   In the bigger picture, NIH was urged to look outside the traditional career trajectory presently prioritized by NIH funding, that is, tenure-track positions at academic centers.  Two of these “rethink” comments follow: 

One respondent said, “Our country needs to develop and communicate a clear strategic plan and fiscal policy that reflects the level of commitment to continue supporting science and technology. 

Students need to see career paths from which they can choose.  These paths need to be matched with long-term strategies for job opportunities and financial stability. Clear, long-term and stable strategies to provide appropriate funds for training scientists and clinician scientists, based on need and long-term strategic policies, and a commitment to secure stable resources to sustain progressive research innovation.” 

One commenter observed, “While some might argue that there is an excess of trainees in biomedical research, we have not found this problematic…for several reasons.  First and foremost, we offer trainees a balanced education and encourage them to pursue positions not only in academic and research centers, but also teaching at small colleges and community colleges as well as pharmaceutical and biotechnology firms. Unfortunately, some NIH study section reviewers fail to recognize that trainees can be successful if they venture into jobs in teaching or pharmaceutical research. Thus, when training programs are evaluated, reviewers frequently focus on number of papers and counting those trainees who stay in traditional research institutes or universities. 

“I would recommend that NIH consider the importance of alternate careers in biomedical research when ranking training programs and institutions for training.  I have also encountered or mentored trainees who go to work at non-traditional sites like the FBI for research or public
policy offices in the Federal government.  All are appropriate choices given the diversity of student interests, the job market, expanding areas of research, and the need for scientists to better advocate for biomedical science and education.  Respondents submitted the following comments: 

  • “It is noted that the NIH Working Group is charged with developing a model for a “sustainable diverse and productive US biomedical workforce.  .  .” While the lists of issues identified by the NIH working group include those relevant to international trainees, those relevant to ensuring the training of underrepresented minorities and women are absent.”
  • “The foremost issue should be how we might modify/change our training programs to ensure that we are able to recruit the best, the brightest, the most dedicated and the most promising for academic bench research positions where they are best suited to train the next generation of biomedical researchers.  If we are to maintain (or regain) our global competitiveness, this must happen.  Again, it is not the NIH’s mission to support alternate paths that include teaching (only), science writing, policy positions, etc.  In fact, in order for one to make meaningful policy decisions in the scientific community (e.g., heads of research programs, the NIH, the FDA, the NSF, governmental and nongovernmental research labs, one generally has to go through the postdoctoral and often the academic route).”
  • “…it is worth noting that here in the mid-west we do not have a shortage of US born or green card-eligible trainees interested in research or teaching.  But the key is to ensure that we have the funds to continue training these individuals for careers outside research institutes or large universities.”  

One commenter observed, “The US has always suffered from the lack of a professional class of basic scientists who are not faculty members.  Only in industry can scientists remain at the bench for their entire careers with or without acquiring supervisory responsibilities.  Going the industrial route, however, limits the kinds of projects and fundamental questions that a scientist can work on.  Someone who wants to do basic bench research really has no option except to apply for faculty positions.  If the person is successful, we lose his/her expertise in bench science because of the competing duties of faculty members. If he/she is not successful in landing a faculty position, we lose again, because the person has to either give up basic research (i.e., go into industry) or find an alternative career.” 

“In some countries, postdoctoral scientists who have been successful at the bench can apply for personal funding and even tenure through a national competition. Their salaries are guaranteed for a certain number of years and can be moved to any institution carrying out high-quality research.  Alternatively, labs can apply for long-term positions at the postdoctoral level. These are based on ongoing research projects, but are independent of specific research grants. 

“Our current system relegates our mostly highly trained bench scientists…to give up experimental work, in order to focus on administration (including writing grants and progress reports) and teaching. Creating a mechanism that allows scientists who love bench work, and are outstanding at it, to continue to do experiments would greatly advance the productivity of American science.” 

Thank you for the opportunity to provide comments.

 Sincerely, 

Roberto Kolter, Ph.D., Chair, Public and Scientific Affairs Board
Gail H. Cassell, Ph.D., Chair, Committee on Biomedical Research                                                     

                                                                                                                         

 

 


SURVEY QUESTIONS – respondents asked to comment on the following issues

 

  • The balance between supply, including the number of domestic and foreign trained Ph.D.s and post-docs, and demand, i.e. post-training career opportunities
  • Characteristics of Ph.D. training in biomedical research, including issues such as
    • The length of the Ph.D. training period
    • Recommendations for changes to the Ph.D. curriculum\
    • Training for multiple career paths (including bench and non-bench science)
  • Characteristics of clinician-research training, including issues such as
    • The balance between MDs and MD/Ph.D.s
    • Career development of clinician-researchers
    • Recommendations for changes to the curricula for training clinician-researchers
  • Length of post-doctoral training
  • The ratio of Ph.D. students and postdoctoral fellows on training grants to those supported by research grants
  • Possibilities for professional/staff scientist positions and the level of training required for such positions (e.g. Ph.D. or MSc degrees)
  • Issues related to the attractiveness of biomedical research careers (e.g. salary, working conditions, availability of research funding)
  • The effect of changes in NIH policies on investigators, grantee institutions and the broader research enterprise

In addition to the NIH-generated topics above, ASM requested comments on the following:

  • Have you observed a change in the number or qualifications of your applicant pool, domestic and foreign?  
    • Do any changes correlate with reduced job opportunities inside or outside the United States?
  • Do you feel there should be institutional training grants that would provide cooperative training for pre- and postdoctoral experiences in other countries, including the EU, Japan, China, Africa? 
  • What changes in funding mechanism would you recommend to facilitate training of pre- and postdoctoral students as well as physician-scientists and junior faculty?
  • Has the funding provided for training from your institution declined in the past 5 years?  If so, can you provide the data?
  • Given NIH’s four-decade effort to recruit underrepresented minorities (URM) and women into the biomedical sciences, how have these programs impacted your institution?  Have these efforts enabled you to very successfully contribute to the biomedical research training of these groups, in particular in the areas of independent “bench” research scientists?  Looking at your overall progress with these initiatives, how do you see the potential role of these programs at your institution in making substantial contributions to the biomedical research workforce?

TPL_asm2013_SEARCH