Mike the Mad Biologist

By way of DrugMonkey, we come across NIH’s new working group that “will examine the future of the biomedical research workforce in the United States.” It’s headed by Princeton’s Shirley Tilghman, who in a recent interview, said:

At the root of the problem is the fact that we are overproducing Ph.D.s. As a consequence, there are too many people chasing too few jobs and too few grant dollars. This problem will only get worse in the next decade, given the current federal budget.

I believe there could be changes made to the structure of the typical biomedical research laboratory. The typical lab consists of about 10 trainees, a technician, and a principal investigator. The majority of those trainees will not become principal investigators, because those jobs are not multiplying. And at the moment, there aren’t enough career alternatives to capitalize on the time investment of these trainees. So I think we need to change the scenario.

From years of being a mentor, I know that not all students want a career running their own lab and raising money. Instead, they want to do what they love: research. Perhaps more members of a lab could be permanent employees, and fewer could be trainees. We need to explore such options.

As I wrote in response to a Nature feature about the Ph.D. glut, the problem is an economic one–paying for the increased salaries:

…the Cyranoski article hints at the fundamental problem:

Anne Carpenter, a cellular biologist at the Broad Institute of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, is trying to create jobs for existing PhD holders, while discouraging new ones. When she set up her lab four years ago, Carpenter hired experienced staff scientists on permanent contracts instead of the usual mix of temporary postdocs and graduate students. “The whole pyramid scheme of science made little sense to me,” says Carpenter. “I couldn’t in good conscience churn out a hundred graduate students and postdocs in my career.”

But Carpenter has struggled to justify the cost of her staff to grant-review panels. “How do I compete with laboratories that hire postdocs for $40,000 instead of a scientist for $80,000?” she asks. Although she remains committed to her ideals, she says that she will be more open to hiring postdocs in the future.

Nature incorrectly believes that too many Ph.D’s is a bug, not a feature. That’s wrong: neither research universities nor funders think the Ph.D. glut is a problem.

Hell, they like the glut.

From the funders’ perspective, why should they pay a salary of $80,000, when they can get the same help scientist for half the price? On many grants, especially those given to individual labs (“R01s”), personnel are already a huge cost–often over half of the direct costs (the non-overhead/fringe benefits budget) of the grant. If we assume a fixed amount of money, then funders will have to cut back on the number of projects they can support. Of course, overhead/indirect costs could be lowered too.

Dr. Isis details the problem:

At my institution the minimum salary is $60,000 for a Ph-D level, non-PI scientist position with ~ 10 years experience. Add our 41% fringe rate, and you add another $24,300 per year. Then, consider a PI were to appoint herself for 20% effort. You could end up spending $100,000 per year for a technician and a 20% PI. That’s only the cost for two people and not realistic on a $250,000 per year modular budget, let alone any of the smaller funding mechanisms or private grants that PIs often use to fund a grad student and some work with the aim of securing an R01.

If you’re working off a start-up? Sister, puhhhhlease.

So, unless Tilghman has started printing money in her basement, or has some kind of “in” with her boy Obama to influence the next budget cycle, it’s all a fruitless discussion.

I suggest we start working on the unicorn technology.

Actually, Magic Ponies work better.

The fundamental problem is that the individual PI/small lab model is analogous to a small business (I believe I stole that analogy from Comrade PhysioProf). When every lab group has to reinvent the wheel (or write the new script, develop that technique, and so on), there are no efficiencies of scale–and more importantly, no ‘efficiencies of expertise.’ So NIH is either going to require collaborative, focused centers or the continuing exploitation of scientific labor.

The only way I see this working is if NIH begins to move towards a research center model. As Dr. Isis points out, unless NIH receives more money, that will mean the R01 mechanism (independent PI grants) will take the hit.

That will receive massive opposition from academic PI’s who are used to both institutional (i.e., they don’t have to clear projects with a ‘boss’) and intellectual independence. And if this NIH initiative somehow does build serious momentum, then expect some real asshole statements to be fired off by some senior people who have profited greatly by the current system (nothing turns a liberal academic into a conservative greedyhead faster than grant budgeting issues).

On the other hand, I am a big believer in publicly funded entertainment, so there could be an upside to this.

Comments

  1. #1 DrugMonkey
    May 9, 2011

    Waaaaaaah!

    Look, centers and humongous collaborative projects take justifiable fire for other types of inefficiencies. Sunk cost fallacies, intellectual stagnation, Titanicism, etc. The individual PI/R01 model is much more nimble and flexible when you look at the entire NIH portfolio.

    The only objective answer is going to be “it depends”. On individuals, projects, scientific domains, etc. So I’m not convinced your suggestion is much improved over the current model of diversity.

    Exploitation built into the system at present is a huge problem and very much violates the spirit of labor protections which, as commenter becca pointed out somewhere or other, people fought, bled and died for in a prior century. I’d like to see the focus on this part rather than nattering about how NIH extramural research “should” look. Focus on labor first, then work with what ya got…

  2. DM,

    I don’t disagree with you about the issue of labor exploitation, but the only way I see wages rising for Ph.D’s is if the center model is more widely adopted. The alternative is more NIH funding (lots more) & I don’t see that happening. I’ve never been in favor of cutting R01s back, but we’re then going to need much more funding (billions).

  3. #3 James VanEe
    May 9, 2011

    I read a lot of the distinguishing characteristics of local core facilities in this article. Run them well, and as a business, and there are careers to be made.

  4. #4 becca
    May 10, 2011

    The comment about labor exploitation was over at Dr. Isis’ and was specifically in reference to those ‘making a living’ (and I use the term loosely) adjuncting… i.e. those freeway fliers who work long hours for piddling pay and generally without benefits. This is an arena in which higher ed has failed to be even as ethical as large companies that have to answer to stockholders, which is such a low bar that we ought all to be shocked and appalled.

    I am, frankly, not shocked and appalled about wages of most PhD biologists who are employed in research. I’m just worried about getting employment.
    That said, I don’t see anything wrong with trying also to make things peachykeen for bioscience PhDs and getting researchers’ better wages (or just more steady employment that wastes less talent), and research centers might very well be a part of that. I personally think I’d rather work at one. Plus, if the casualizaiton of the teaching workforce is any indication, the whole infrastructure supporting academic PIs might very well come crashing down around their ears. You can certainly make the argument that science is too important to leave it to the universities to the degree we do… particularly given what we’re doing to our universities these days.

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