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Friday: Well, this is interesting- NIH request for information on the future of biomedical research

From Jared Berstein's blog. If you havent' found a job after 6 months, your chances of getting are slim.

A few months back when I was still working, the American Chemical Society held a webinar with some people from the Bureau of Labor Statistics where they proceeded to tell us that unemployment was really, really low for chemists.  The disconnect was astonishing until we realized that the BLS hadn’t collected data since before the Lesser Depression began.  The pharmaceutical industry has laid off something like 300,000 people since 2007 and this time, the sales division did not take the biggest hits. In my own immediate family/friends, not one of us has a full time job with benefits for the first time in our working lives.  We are all either un or under employed without health benefits and are barely managing to scrape by with paying our rents and mortgages after the industry lured us out to the most expensive part of the country to live and then stranded us here.  And we are not high school dropouts.  We all have degrees, some of them PhDs from prestigious universities, in physical or natural sciences and our performance evaluations were good.  Some of us even got performance awards (for the second year in a row!) a month before we got our pink slips.

Well, it seems like the NIH is trying to get some new data.  As Derek Lowe reports on In the Pipeline:

A reader passes along this request for comment by the NIH. The “Advisory Committee to the NIH Director Working Group on the Future Biomedical Research Workforce” is asking for thoughts on issues such as the length of time it takes to get a PhD, the balance between non-US and US workers, length of post-doctoral training, the prospects for employment after such is completed, general issues relating to whether people choose biomedical research as a career at all, and so on.

If you are in the industry, let me rephrase that, if you once had hopes to work in the industry but have had those hopes brutally dashed after you spent years slaving away over a hotplate, you may want to contribute your constructive input.  You have until October 7, 2011 to do it.  Go to this form.  Try not to get tears and snot on the keyboard while you’re filling it out.

From the  NIH website on this RFI, here’s some of the information they are interested in:


This Notice is a time-sensitive Request for Information (RFI) requesting input into the deliberations of the Advisory Committee to the NIH Director Working Group on the Future Biomedical Research Workforce.


The Advisory Committee to the NIH Director (ACD) has established a working group to examine the future of the biomedical research workforce in the United States (seehttp://acd.od.nih.gov/bwf.asp for charter and roster).  The group will gather information from various sources including the extramural community, and will develop a model for a sustainable, diverse, and productive U.S. biomedical research workforce using appropriate expertise from NIH and external sources. The model will help inform decisions about how to train the optimal number of people for the appropriate types of positions that will advance science and promote health. The working group will recommend actions to the ACD and to the NIH Director.

In its initial deliberations, the working group identified the following issues as important to consider when developing a model of the future biomedical research workforce:

  • The balance between supply, including the number of domestic and foreign trained PhDs and post-docs, and demand, i.e. post-training career opportunities.
  • Characteristics of PhD training in biomedical research, including issues such as
  • The length of the PhD training period.
  • Recommendations for changes to the PhD curriculum.
  • Training for multiple career paths (including bench and non-bench science).
  • Characteristics of clinician-research training including issues such as
  • The balance between MDs and MD/PhDs
  • Career development of clinician-researchers.
  • Recommendations for changes to the curricula for training clinician-researchers.
  • Length of Post-doctoral training.
  • The ratio of PhD students and postdoctoral fellows on training grants to those supported by research grants.
  • Possibilities for professional/staff scientist positions and the level of training required for such positions (e.g. PhD or MSc degrees).
  • Issues related to the attractiveness of biomedical research careers (e.g. salary, working conditions, availability of research funding)
  • The effect of changes in NIH policies on investigators, grantee institutions and the broader research enterprise.

I’d like to thank whoever is responsible for getting this together for actually taking an interest in the issue, even if it is years too late to save our careers or the underlying infrastructure that all Americans are counting on to produce the results we have taken for granted in modern times.  If I were to hazard a guess, I’d say that the number of PhDs produced is irrelevant if no one wants to hire you.  Regardless of your degree level, studying the sciences is not for the faint of heart.  It takes dedication to master some difficult material, perseverance to learn new information and years and years of practice before you’re any good.  You can get your 10,000 hours in graduate school or on the job.  Some non-PhD scientists are extremely capable and some PhDs come to industry with lots of attitude but no practical skills.  But whatever the degree level and regardless of where we are located in the world, there just aren’t a whole lot of us who have the skills to do research at this level.  We need to be compensated accordingly.  At some point, research becomes an art.  It’s not something that can be broken down into assembly line, just-in-time parts.  It operates best when there is “frictionless” collaboration, when the physical barriers that separate groups are minimal and leadership is partitioned away from the bean counters.