I just arrived in sunny San Diego for Experimental Biology 2014, where I’ll be blogging for the American Society of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology (ASBMB). Here’s a preview of a major topic I’ll be covering tomorrow. For more from Experimental Biology, check out the peeps in this post, or follow the #XBio hashtag on Twitter.
The biomedical research enterprise is in crisis. It has been for a while. Initially, some scientists thought it would get better. After all, there were previous valleys, but ultimately the environment improved. But this time was (and is) different. A confluence of issues hit. Expansion of the biomed workforce, despite warnings to halt growth. Economic crises contributing to a massive recession that hurt many sectors. A divided legislature that has invoked extreme measures to balance the budget.
The result: Labs struggling for funding, some shutting down. Students and postdocs staying in “training” positions longer, and still having trouble finding jobs. On the training side, ASCB has an infographic that explains the current problem pretty well.
What’s to be done?
Often it has seemed that much of the scientific community believes the answer is, more federal funding. I’m a proponent of federal support for research (and I have benefited directly from it), but I’m not convinced that simply throwing more money, even if it could be found and the investment in research justified, will solve the problems. Why? Just over a decade ago, biomedical funding increased rapidly over a few years years. But immediately after that planned rapid growth ended, grant success fell quickly. More applications went in and grant budgets rose. At the same time, the annual production of PhD graduates began to surge (coincidentally, just five years after the start of the funding influx). More cash was put into the system to fix the problems of the day; the system responded by creating an even greater demand for funds (or as DrugMonkey says, too many mouths at the trough).
The title of a perspective recently published in PNAS is accurate and telling: “Rescuing US biomedical research from its systemic flaws”. The authors include a former president of the American Association for the Advancement of Sciences (AAAS), a member of the Biomedical Research Workforce Working Group, and the head of a major federal research institute institute. In the perspective, the authors outline what they view as the problems, their causes, and some possible solutions to begin repairing the research enterprise. I could probably spend a week’s worth of posts talking about different points, some I appreciate and others I have issues with. I might get around to some of them, but for today I will say, if you’re in the biomed workforce, I think it’s worth a read.
It would be nice if throwing money at the problem would make it go away. But it’s not that easy. The system is enormously complex. There are multiple players, each with their missions and conflicts of interest. To have a sustained effect, you can’t just fix one part of the system. You have to take a broader view, understand the contributions of different pieces and how they fit together.
It will take time to implement changes, some of which will inevitably hurt some individuals, but the system can’t go on as it is. But where do we start, and how do we move forward? Tomorrow I’ll be attending a forum sponsored by the ASBMB Public Affairs Advisory Committee titled, “Building a Sustainable Biomedical Research Enterprise”. Jeremy Berg, former director of NIGMS and current president of ASBMB, will moderate the discussion. Other participants are:
- Michael Marletta, President and CEO Scripps Research Institute
- Lita Nelsen, Director of Technology Licensing, MIT
- Lana Skirbol, Vice Presisent of Academic and Scientific Affairs, Sanofli
- Paula Stephan, Professor of Economics, Georgia State University
ASBMB recently released a whitepaper with some of the issues, goals, and questions that they’re hoping to address. As an overview, here’s part of the session description:
A sustainable biomedical research enterprise (SBRE) will meet national strategic goals by training a scientifically competent workforce and creating new knowledge while guaranteeing an ongoing and vibrant innovation stream that will improve health and drive economic growth. To reach sustainability, uninterrupted federal research funding sufficient to maintain world leadership in scientific research must be balanced by breakthroughs leading to tangible improvements in therapies and products that justify the federal investment. To achieve the sustainable biomedical research enterprise, the three major stakeholders; that is, Academia, Industry, and Government, must each make significant reforms while working together to solve problems in technology transfer, education, regulatory burden, and product development. ASBMB has identified four components of the biomedical research enterprise that will need significant modification to become sustainable: Training, Workforce, Academia/Industry/Government Relations, and Funding. During this session, we discuss the roles of the three major stakeholders, the four components of a SBRE and the primary issues that must be addressed in order to establish a truly sustainable enterprise.
I will post a recap of the session as time allows, but I (and no doubt others) will also be live tweeting the session, which is scheduled to run from 12:30-3 PDT. Look for the hashtag #SBRE.