Today’s biomedical research is a textbook area in which the pace of technological progress has slowed down. That’s according to billionaire technology entrepreneur Peter Thiel, who did an “Ask Me Anything” question and answer session on the popular social media site Reddit. When asked for examples of slowing progress, he mentioned that it would be impossible today to declare “war on Alzheimer’s” in the same way we once declared a “war on cancer.”If Thiel’s right, perhaps this stagnation is linked to the failing investment in biomedical research, suggested by a recent NPR report on postdoctoral fellows in the science. Postdoctroal fellowships are designed to prepare PhDs to eventually take on full-fledged research jobs, but there are far more postdoctoral fellows doing biomedical and medical research today than there are jobs for them. The NPR piece takes an “injustice”angle, bemoaning that PhDs are sucked into these fellowships not realizing how poor their job prospects are:
American science couldn’t survive without this shadow labor force of some 40,000 postdocs. But only about 15 percent will get tenure-track jobs, heading a lab like the one where Hubbard-Lucey works today. […]
The entire system is built around the false idea that all these scientists-in-training are headed to university professorships.
“That’s obviously unsustainable,” says Keith Micoli, who heads the postdoc program at the NYU Medical Center. “You can’t have one manager training 10 subordinates who think they are all going to take over that boss’ position someday. That’s mathematically impossible.”
“But we’ve grown so dependent on this relatively cheap, seemingly inexhaustible supply of young scientists who do great work,” Micoli says. “From the standpoint of dollars and cents, they’re a great investment.”
But as the article points out, biomedical PhDs who don’t make it in academia very rarely go jobless—nearly all can find jobs in outside fields like consulting or government. And those in postdoc fellowships often earn around $40,000 per year. Nobody will get rich off of that, but it’s also, well, a very livable salary in most parts of the country. If the “exploited PhDs” angle is more complicated than it initially seems, however, the job-PhD mismatch highlighted in the NPR piece speaks to Thiel’s point. Part of the reason why there are more people wanting to do research than there are jobs is that funding from the National Institute for Health has progressively dried up year after year.
Pushing research forward might not be as simple as funding more permanent spots for postdoctoral fellows, as a follow-up NPR piece on the funding decline notes. But we have a body of trained researchers ready to go to war on all sorts of diseases. We should find a way to use them.