The National Institutes of Health (NIH) should make changes to workforce policies in order to promote the long-term sustainability of the biomedical research workforce, according to a new report by a government advisory group. NIH must address the increasing completion time for graduate degrees, low postdoctoral pay, and declining proportion of young researchers who obtain tenure-track positions.

The report by a working group of the NIH Advisory Committee to the Director considered the future of the nation’s biomedical research workforce. The goal of the study was to ensure “future US competitiveness and innovation in biomedical research by creating pathways through undergraduate, graduate and postdoctoral training” that attract and retain the best scientists and prepare researchers to participate in a “broad-based and evolving economy.”

One troubling trend is the decline in the proportion of Ph.D. scientists who obtain tenure-track faculty positions. Since 1993, that proportion has declined from 34 percent to 26 percent. Given that most students will not obtain research faculty positions after completing their education, graduate schools need to do more to prepare students for a greater range of anticipated careers, according to the report’s authors. NIH could facilitate the development and implementation of such programs by supplementing training grants to institutions.

The report also expresses concern about the length of training in the biomedical sciences. The time it takes to complete a Ph.D. plus postdoctoral research in biomedicine is longer than in other scientific disciplines, such as chemistry and physics. The working group recommends that NIH should only support an individual student for up to six years, with an institutional average of five years.

The NIH is a major supporter of young researchers in the United States. According to the report, the vast majority of graduate students in the U.S. are supported by NIH training grants, fellowships, and/or research project grants. Although the number of students supported by the first two categories has not changed much over time, there has been substantial growth in the number of students supported by research grants.

The report does not call for a decrease in the number of students trained and supported by NIH. It does recommend, however, that the total number of graduate student and postdoctoral positions supported by NIH remain the same, and that the agency should try to support more young researchers directly through training grants and fellowships rather than through research grants. This would ensure that the students and postdocs receive proper training.

NIH should also increase pay for postdoctoral researchers to $42,000; it is currently $39,264. The stipend should increase each year thereafter by 4 percent, and later by 6 and 7 percent. The salary scale would also apply to postdocs supported by research grants. The goal is to incentivize institutions to move postdoctoral researchers to more permanent positions. Additionally, all NIH-supported postdoctoral researchers should receive benefits comparable to other employees, including paid time off, health insurance, and maternity leave.

The report also addresses issues for biomedical researchers who are further along in their career. For one, NIH should consider gradually reducing the percentage of funds from NIH that can be used to support faculty salaries.

Read the report at http://acd.od.nih.gov/bwf.htm.

 


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