Gas station without pumps

2014 March 13

Suggestions for changes to biomed training

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Yesterday I attended a a discussion lead by Henry Bourne (retired from UCSF) about problems in the training system for biologists in the US.  His points are summarized fairly well in his article A fair deal for PhD students and postdocs and the two articles it cites that preceded it:

In a recent essay I drew attention to five axioms that have helped to make the biomedical research enterprise unsustainable in the US (Bourne, 2013a). This essay tackles, in detail, the dangerous consequences of one of these axioms: that the biomedical laboratory workforce should be largely made up of PhD students and postdoctoral researchers, mostly supported by research project grants, with a relatively small number of principal investigators leading ever larger research groups. This axiom—trainees equal research workforce—drives a powerful feedback loop that undermines the sustainability of both training and research. Indeed, unless biomedical scientists, research institutions and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) act boldly to reform the biomedical research enterprise in the US, it is likely to destroy itself (Bourne, 2013b).

I’m basically in agreement with him that very long PhD+postdoc training current in biology in the US is fundamentally broken, and that the postdoc “holding tank” is not a sustainable system.

I also agree with him that one of the biggest problems in the system is paying for education through research grants. Grad student support should be provided directly, either as fellowships or training grants (I prefer individual fellowships like the NSF fellowships, he prefers training grants). By separating support for PhD training from research support, we can effectively eliminate the conflict of interest in which students are kept as cheap labor rather than being properly trained to become independent scientists (or encouraged to find a field that better fits their talents). By limiting the number of PhD students we can stop pumping more people into the postdoc holding tank faster than we can drain the tank by finding the postdocs real jobs.

I disagreed with one of his suggestions, though. He wants to see the PhD shrunk to an average of 4.5 years, followed by a 2–4-year postdoc. I’d rather keep the PhD at 6.5 years and eliminate the postdoc holding tank entirely. In engineering fields, researchers are hired into permanent positions immediately after their PhDs—postdoc positions are rare.  It is mainly because NIH makes hiring postdocs so very, very “cost-effective” that the huge postdoc holding tank has grown. If NIH changed their policies to eliminate support for postdocs on research grants, allowing only permanent staff to be paid, that would help quite a bit.

Draining the postdoc holding tank would probably take a decade or more even with rational policies, but current policies of universities and industry (only hiring people in bio after 6 years or more of postdoc) and of the NIH (providing generous funding for postdocs but little for permanent researchers) make the postdoc holding tank likely to grow rather than shrink.

He pointed out that NIH used to spend a much larger fraction of their funding on training students than they do now—they’ve practically abandoned education, in favor of a low-pay, no-job-security research workforce (grad students and postdocs).

A big part of the problem is that research groups have changed from being a professor working with a handful of students to huge groups with one PI and dozens of postdocs and grad students. Under the huge-group model, one PI needs to have many grants to keep the group going, so competition for research grant money is much fiercer, and there is much less diversity of research than under a small-group model.

The large-group model necessitates few PIs and many underlings, making it difficult for postdocs to move up to becoming independent scientists (there are few PI positions around), as well as making it difficult for new faculty to compete with grant-writing machines maintained by the large groups.

A simple solution would be for NIH to institute a policy that they will not fund any PI with more than 3 grants at time, and study sections should be told how much funding each PI has from grants, so that they can compare productivity to cost (they should also be told when grants expire, so that they can help PIs avoid gaps in funding that can shut down research).  The large groups would dissolve in a few years, as universities raced to create more PIs to keep the overhead money coming in.  The new positions would help drain the postdoc holding tank and increase the diversity of research being pursued.

Of course, the new positions would have to be real ones, not “soft-money” positions that have no more job security than a postdoc. NIH could help there too, by refusing to pay more than 30% of a PI’s salary out of Federal funds.

Of course, any rational way of spending the no-longer-growing NIH budget will result in some of the bloated research groups collapsing (mainly in med schools, which have become addicted to easy money and have built empires on “soft-money” positions).

I think that biology has been over-producing PhDs for decades—more than there are permanent positions for in industry and academia combined. That combined with the dubious quality of much of the PhD training (which has often been just indentured servitude in one lab, with no training in teaching or in subjects outside a very narrow focus on the needs of the PhD adviser’s lab), has resulted in a situation where a PhD in biology is not worth much—necessitating further training before the scientist is employable and providing a huge pool of postdoc “trainees”, many of whom will never become independent scientists.

Tightening the standards for admission to PhD programs and providing more rigorous coursework in the first two years of PhD training (rather than immediately shoving them into some PI’s lab) would help a lot in increasing the value of the PhD.

Unfortunately, I see our department going in the opposite direction—moving away from the engineering model of training people to be independent immediately after the PhD and towards a model where they are little more than hands in the PI’s labs (decreasing the required coursework, shrinking the lab rotations, and getting people into PI labs after only 2 quarters). I gave up being grad director for our department, because I was not willing to supervise this damage to the program, nor could I explain to students policies that I did not agree with.

One thing we are trying to do that I think is good is increasing the MS program, so that there is a pool of trained individuals able to take on important research tasks as permanent employees, rather than as long-term PhDs or postdocs. Again, the engineering fields have developed a much better model than the biomedical fields, with the working degree for most positions being the BS or MS, with only a few PhDs needed for academic positions and cutting-edge industrial research. Note that a PhD often has less actual coursework than an MS—PhD students have been expected to learn by floundering around in someone’s lab for an extra 5 years taking no courses and often not even going to research seminars, which is a rather slow way of developing skills and deadly to gaining a breadth of knowledge. Biotech companies would probably do well to stop hiring PhDs and postdocs for routine positions, and start hiring those with an MS in bioengineering instead.

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