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Scientific Stagnation
Training Up Biomedical PhDs For…Nothing

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.

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  • ShadrachSmith

    We have more microbiologists than we need, and we should absorb the excess into the labor market through government funded research grants…to fight aging and other awesome purposes.

    If they are smart enough to be a microbiologist (I’m not) they can figure out how to find a niche in the state or federal government on the PhD pay schedule. Openings are cyclical, but the paychecks are forever, and very comfortable. Or open a little microbiology shop of your own, what were you thinking?

  • FriendlyGoat

    Did we need micro-biologists to tell us that handy-dandy (off patent) aspirin —–140 pills for a dollar at Dollar Tree last time I looked—– is apparently a powerful preventive measure for heart problems and a host of cancers? Did the researchers point this out to the public in a timely way? Is there ANYBODY in America who would pay a researcher to document this type of conclusion (and very likely dozens, hundreds or thousands of other cheap insights to medicine)?

  • Curious Mayhem

    Postdoctoral jobs are not supposed to be permanent positions in any case. In the more expensive urban areas, they typically pay 40-50K, in some cases more.

    This is an example of a bad trend in American society, the declining prestige and attractiveness of basic research. It seems hard to believe in the country that, while it didn’t invent basic research, exemplified it for the better part of a century and reaped vast benefits from it. But there you are.

    What killed appreciation for basic research is people with preconceived agendas, which replaced curiosity and respect for intellect and honest, open-ended scientific method. Appreciation for science has been replaced in the last 20 years or so by preconceptions and forced conclusions. The media’s approach to science, which treats it as another form of schlock, doesn’t help.

    You also have people who want government to fund more and more applied research, or twist universities into expensive social engineering projects. Applied research is perfectly fine, but has limited claim on public money, as it typically serves a narrow set of people who can commercially profit from it, if something works. There’s nothing at all wrong with this, but those investors and inventors should be bearing the associated risks.

  • Vadim Pashkov

    WRM improve quality of his papers ” only about 15 percent will get tenure-track jobs”

    and how many will get positions in pharmaceutical companies?

    “entire system is built around the false idea that all these scientists-in-training are headed to university professorships” It is not

  • Avi_in_Jerusalem

    I qualified as a biochemist in the late 1970s. I worked in the field in Israel for a couple of years but left the field as there were no real prospects for making a decent living. I got into high tech by accident and have been there for ever since. Everyone is very unhappy when they develop a disease or a condition that kills them or their family members or renders them functionally dead, like Altzheimers or dementia or similar nasty conditions.
    The overwhelming ethos of of the Excel spreadsheet driven accountants, whether in business or in government has greatly harmed basic scientific research. Those in charge want to see guaranteed returns on their investments. The history of science has shown that this may be a misguided policy. When clever people research they will stumble on all sorts of unexpected discoveries. By definition you cannot plan an unexpected discovery. What we need is greater investment in basic research (worldwide) and using those wasted graduates to push forward the boundaries of knowledge.
    In the mean time, society gets what it deserves. Things could be getting better much faster, but we are dealing with human beings, so be thankful with what we have achieved until now and hope that we don’t go into reverse gear..

  • dan

    Why is it that companies don’t invest in fundamental research? Didn’t they used to do that (XPARC, Bell Labs)? What changed? Why is the call only for more government funding? The thinking displayed above is far too limited.

    • Doug

      Fundamental research is what economists call a non-excludable good. Everyone benefits from it; the person paying for it can’t charge the rest of the world for the value of the research. That is why economists often view fundamental research as a public good, something that the public ought to pay for because otherwise it will be inefficiently underproduced.

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