By Howard Garrison
On September 16, the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology (FASEB) hosted its second roundtable in a series of discussions on “Sustaining Discovery,” this time focusing on the research workforce. The 27 participants included representatives of FASEB societies, senior officials from federal agencies, officers of other research organizations, and labor economists who have studied the scientific workforce. FASEB President J.R. Haywood and FASEB President-Elect Parker Antin moderated the discussion, and Vice President-Elect for Science Policy Thomas Baldwin served as a discussant.
In the first session of the roundtable, participants discussed three questions pertaining to the size and composition of the biomedical workforce: Are there too many PhDs? What are the incentives leading to growth? What are the alternatives to a trainee dominated workforce?
Not everyone agreed that growth in number of biomedical science PhDs was problematic. There was, however, substantial consensus that prospects for academic employment are continuing to decline, and that this information needs to be communicated to incoming students. We also need to provide students with more information about career paths, and the career outcomes of each department’s graduate students and postdocs should be publicly available. There was substantial support for encouraging prospective graduate students to consider options such as professional science master’s degrees.
Increased reliance on external funds for salary support was the topic of the second session. Participants agreed that, over the long-run, we must strive to limit the dependence on external salary support. The current system of “soft money” salaries encourages growth by limiting the cost to the employer and shifting risk to the employee. When faculty members are required to cover up to 95 percent of their time on external research grants, they are under inordinate pressure to submit grant proposals and have little time for mentoring and other academic duties.
To help re-balance the system, it was proposed that funding agencies develop and expand bridge funding programs with mandatory institutional matching components. To reduce instability associated with the funding and renewal of individual grants, research funding agencies should provide partial funding for investigators with review scores near the payline. Participants also called for the commitment of a plan to support physician scientists, who become increasingly at risk in times of funding shortfalls. Suggestions included modification to K99/R00 awards to align better with the stages of specialty and subspecialty training and more protected time for research and mentoring.
The final session focused on regulatory burden and what can be done to help investigators. Over-regulation wastes time and money and is a growing source of frustration for the research community, and several recommendations were proposed to mitigate these problems: 1) investigators must insist that institutions implement efficient regulatory practices; 2) individuals and faculty committees need to demand that their universities provide data on turn-around time for regulatory processes, like human subjects and animal protocol review; and 3) institutions performing below the national average should be encouraged to improve.
We need to develop standard templates for regulatory approval and insist that regulatory bodies do not penalize individuals or institutions who are following an approved protocol. It was also suggested that we consider ways to hire professionals or consultants who can support researchers in the regulator arena. This might include the use of external IRBs or commercial IACUCs.
At the national level, efforts to harmonize regulations and policies have begun to yield positive results. We need to support and extend these efforts by bringing concrete examples of over-regulation to the attention of those able to make changes, such as the Research Business Models Subcommittee, a chartered interagency component of the National Science and Technology Council, and the National Science Board Task Force on Regulatory Burden, which will be transitioning into a standing committee.