Changing equilibria in the research enterprise – An #xBio #SBRE debrief

Many scientists spend years and even decades learning how their favorite systems – growth factor signaling, for instance – work and how to fix them when they go awry. We now have a daunting system to define and modify – the biomedical research enterprise.

On Sunday, the ASBMB Public Affairs Advocacy Committee brought together scientists at Experimental Biology to discuss the state of the biomedical research enterprise and the changes that need to happen to make it sustainable. Before opening the floor for questions and comments, four panelists set the stage for discussion:

  • Jeremy Berg – ASBMB president, faculty member and Associate Senior Vice Chancellor for Science Strategy and Planning at the University of Pittsburgh, and former director of the National Institute of General Medical Sciences
  • Paula Stephan – Professor of economics at Georgia State University and author of How Economics Shapes Science
  • Michael Marletta – Chair of Chemistry and Chief Executive Officer of the Scripps Research Institute
  • Teri Melese – Assistant Vice Chancellor, Industry Research Alliances at University of California, San Diego

Berg and Stephan provided a picture of the current state and how we got here. Although it may seem counterintuitive, it started with what scientists dream of – more money.

The big boost in research funding in the late ’90s and early ’00s was an important investment, but it had unintended consequences that damaged the biomedical research enterprise. More faculty, more postdocs, more grad students. This meant more grant applications (and applicants) and a surge of new PhD graduates onto the market just as the budget increases ended, with economic crises just over the horizon.

“Economics is about costs and incentives. That’s what put us in this position,” Stephan said. As early as 1977, National Research Council reports were recommending slower growth of the biomedical sciences workforce – recommendations repeated in 1994 and 1998. But compared to staff scientists, graduate students and postdocs are relatively cheap labor. So when more money became available, Berg noted, PhD production grew to fill the need to do research in academic labs, not training to fill a hole in the job market. Expanding the trainee pool was cheaper than hiring staff scientists, and there was no incentive to discourage it.

However, economics is also about finding more than one way to generate the desired product, in this case output of quality scientific research. Stephan suggested some contentious but concrete ways to change the system, such as increasing postdoc salaries (in part, to help promote a shift towards staff scientist support) and discouraging soft money positions. Another was changing the mix of support for students, moving students off research grants and providing fellowships that might give them a little more leverage. She also proposed that students should pay a nominal portion of training costs, the rationale being that students might give more thought to their trajectory and the necessity and desire for a PhD.

As I said before, this is a complex problem. There’s no single change or even single player that can significantly alter the current course of the biomedical research enterprise. So it should come as no surprise that, when discussion began in earnest, there was disagreement over what solutions were appropriate and even what issues were or were not problems. Some pointed the blame at pharma or capitalism. Bruce Stillman contended that science isn’t “broken”, rather funding is, and that’s a separate problem. He felt that getting “fresh blood” in the lab on a regular basis is important for research, but that it might be worth considering shrinking the size of labs by other mechanisms. An emeritus faculty seemed to suggest that there really wasn’t a problem with the number of postdocs or the training provided (at least at her institution).

Everyone sees problems (albeit different ones) in the system, but the vision for the future of biomedical research – beyond “not this” – remains murky. Nigh to the end of the session, Jeff Moran (University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences) asked perhaps one of the most critical questions – and one of the hardest to answer:

Has anyone defined what a sustainable research enterprise looks like?

Marletta nailed it during his initial remarks. “We agree [we need sustainability], but we might disagree on what it looks like.” For his part, Marletta emphasized scientific merit as the major driving force in a sustainable enterprise. Melese noted the need to redefine academia-industry partnerships, finding the balance of propriety and pace that suited for both parties. On the training issue, we can’t really know what balance should look like, in part because there’s no real data on where PhDs go. Stephan remarked, “I think it’s a killer that we don’t require PIs and universities to report placement data.” Stephan thinks that grant funding should be contingent upon collection of this data.*

Defining a vision of a sustainable research enterprise is likely the first step in moving forward. We need diverse perspectives for it to be truly sustainable, and it’s in the best self-interests of scientists at all levels to get involved. One approach is participating in discussions like this that are happening at national meetings. ASBMB has invited comments on the associated white paper and intends to keep the discussion going.

“Pain-free solutions are unlikely to exist,” Berg said. The pain will be distributed. The ones who will lose the most are those who don’t have a voice in the room, either their own or that of an advocate. As Marletta put it, quoting a lobbyist, “If you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu.” It’s time to pull up a chair.


*  It’s important to note, Stephan was not advocating that funding decisions should be contingent on actual placements, only on submitting the data. My impression was that Stephan did not have a bias regarding specific areas of science (e.g. research vs. non-research, academic vs. other sectors), just that in healthy system most PhDs would continue to work in some related field.


If you’re interested in more notes & rapid responses from the session, check out the Storify. There are some gems that just didn’t fit here.

For this post, I attempted to minimally editorialize. There’s plenty I have to say on some issues, in due time.

Correction via Jeremy Berg: I incorrectly identified the 4th panelist as Lana Skirbol; she was scheduled to participate but was unable to attend due to illness. The post has been updated to reflect the comments made by Teri Melese. I will also add a note to the Storify.

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7 Responses to Changing equilibria in the research enterprise – An #xBio #SBRE debrief

  1. ihstreet says:

    My worry with this discussion for sustainability is that Ph.D.’s and postdocs will not be considered ‘major stakeholders’/not be a voice in the room (we have numbers but no money, and sadly money matters more than people do in many, many cases– I really am trying not to be cynical). I know ASBMB is US based primarily, but are there other research enterprises that are structured better/more sustainably that we can take ideas from? I do like the idea of tracking what happens to Ph.D.s after they leave; I know my alma mater was starting to do that when I graduated, not sure if they kept up with it though.

    • biochembelle says:

      I’m getting the impression that there are problems elsewhere too; a couple of folks weighed in via comment or Twitter that they needed similar discussion in Australia.

      I didn’t include it in the post, but I especially had trainees in mind when I close, “It’s time to pull up a chair”. Because in these discussions, I’m looking around and wondering, Where are the postdocs and the students?

      The National Postdoctoral Association is probably the biggest advocate for this group in the US, and they have some very engaged participants. They’re pushing important issues for postdocs and gathering data.

      But having an advocacy organization doesn’t diminish the need for individual engagment. Trainees talk and vent a great deal, but I feel it’s often only in their own circles and often without broader context, e.g. data and understanding the complexity of the system. I was both surprised and not by the lack of trainees present in the session. I don’t know if it’s disenfranchisement, complacency, fear… I understand that many might not feel comfortable speaking up, but at the very least, I think they should be showing up to learn more about the issues in broader contexts, beyond their personal experiences, and to understand the solutions proposed and how these might affect their futures.


      (Edited: I decided to pull this out into another thread. Trainees, claim your seat or get left behind.)

  2. Pingback: Trainees, claim your seat or get left behind. | Ever on & on

  3. M-R says:

    This issue alive and well Downunder, especially with a new government that despises science and research. You can imagine the difficulties our academics et al. are having in terms of dividing up the remaining bits of pie …

  4. Jeremy Berg says:

    Biochembelle: Thanks for your coverage of the sustainability panel discussion. I hope these discussions continue. One correction, Lana Skirboll from Sanofi was unable to attend due to an illness. Teri Melese, Assistant Vice Chancellor, Industry Research Alliances at UC San Diego, stepped in to help out. Dr. Melese, not Dr. Skirboll, made the comments about industry-academia interactions.

  5. katiesci says:

    It took me months to get to this but I finally posted some of my thoughts on this as a graduate student.

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