January 13, 2000 - NRC Research Doctorate Study

The American Society for Microbiology (ASM) understands that the National Research Council (NRC) Committee for the Study of Research-Doctorate Programs (RDP Committee) is planning the next in a series of studies of the research-doctorate enterprise in the United States, the last of which was completed in 1993. The ASM, which represents over 41,000 scientists and clinicians, requests that the RDP Committee include the discipline of microbiology among the other scientific programs to be examined as part of the upcoming study. On behalf of its membership, the ASM asks that the NRC RDP Committee reinstate microbiology as a distinct program within the category of Biological Sciences in the study design. Some of the many factors supporting this request from ASM are summarized in the comments that follow.

In the past few years, the ASM has commissioned several nationwide surveys of doctoral microbiologists and the employment outlook in the microbiological sciences. The results of these surveys, conducted by Westat and supported by the National Science Foundation, indicate low unemployment and generally positive job prospects for recent Ph.D.s in this discipline. The surveys also indicated that the majority of individuals with new Ph.D.s in microbiology seek employment in universities and colleges.

A recent NSF survey of Science and Engineering Doctorate Awards provides additional information describing recently awarded doctorates in microbiology and several closely allied fields, including bacteriology, biological immunology, and plant pathology. Within the Biological Sciences, microbiology and these allied subdisciplines account for a steady 10 percent of doctorates awarded each year during much of the past decade. Microbiology doctorates awarded through the middle 1990s surpass several other disciplines within biology, including cell biology, human/animal genetics, and neuroscience.

The ASM believes that the omission of microbiology from the past NRC study is potentially misleading to many who will use it. Certainly microbiology and the closely allied discipline of immunology are important components of expanding programs within the broad sphere of biomedical and infectious disease research supported by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the Department of Defense (DoD) within the federal sector as well as by biotechnology and pharmaceutical companies, foundations, and other entities within the private sector. The widely recognized challenges of emerging and reemerging infectious diseases as well as the problems of antimicrobial drug resistance and biological weapons control represent an increasing program emphasis for research and training.

Other federal agencies and departments, including the National Science Foundation (NSF), the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), the Department of Energy (DOE), the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) support significant microbiological research activities both in and outside the area of infectious diseases. These activities include recent NSF initiatives to study biocomplexity by means of microbial model systems and to develop microbial observatories focused on microbial ecology, ongoing programs within USDA that focus on plant and animal diseases as well as improved food production and food safety, a search for microbial life on Mars and other celestial bodies sponsored by NASA, and extensive non-pathogen microbial genomics projects that are being supported by DOE. The major successes of a variety of genome projects have been microbial sequences that have confirmed the fundamental importance of microbiology to studies of biology as a whole. Increasing importance is being attached to the natural roles of microbes in the bioremediation of soils and water contaminated with toxic chemicals. The EPA in particular is supporting extensive studies of the use of microbial "reactors" for this purpose and there are considerable European initiatives in this area. Programs and projects that receive support from these federal agencies substantiate the amazing extent of microbial diversity on this planet and the many important roles it plays in geochemical cycles, as part of biomass, and in the dynamics of critical agronomic phenomena, such as the nitrogen cycle on land and massive die-offs that affect aquaculture.

These and other expanding, federally supported research activities involving both basic and applied microbiology are accompanied by a surge of investment to support applied microbiology research and development programs within the private sector. These intensified and diversified efforts encompass many of the same interests identified within federally supported programs, but of course are aimed more directly at developing commercial products and other applications, including new drugs, vaccines, and diagnostic products within the health sector, as well as new biologically based insecticides, medicinals, and disease preventatives for the agriculture sector, and better food safety measures in the food production, distribution, and retail sectors.