Why we can't have nice things in NIH extramural research
September 17, 2013
From the Science Careers section, Michael Price reports on a recent National Academies of Science symposium on the NIH foofraw about Biomedical career trajectories. The NAS, you will recall, is a society of very elite and highly established scientists in the US. It will not surprise you one bit to learn that they cannot fathom making changes in our system of research labor to benefit the peons anymore than the NIH can:
First issued in June 2012, the working group’s report made a controversial proposal: that funding should gradually be moved away from R01 grants and toward new NIH training grants in an effort to decouple graduate student and postdoc stipends. But responses to this proposal were tepid at the June [Advisory Committee to the Director (ACD) of the National Institutes of Health (NIH)] meeting where the proposals were first presented. Such a move would reduce the number of graduate students and postdocs available to principal investigators (PIs), and make trainees more expensive to hire, some ACD members argued. That would reduce PIs’ autonomy and encumber the research enterprise. “One wants to be sure that the principal investigators, who are supposed to be doing the research, continue to have enough flexibility to be able to support the research they want to do,” offered biologist Robert Horvitz of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge.
Reduce the number of easily exploitable laborers and/or make them more expensive. Presumably by forcing PIs to conduct more of their work with a more-permanent workforce (at any degree level). Permanent employees* which have that nasty tendency to gain seniority and consequently cost more money compared with the constantly turning-over grad student and postdoc labor pool.
And reduce our autonomy to hire foreign workers to further suppress wages and expectations for the domestic PhD pool. (Individual and Institutional postdoctoral and graduate “training” fellowships from the NIH currently only extend to US citizens. So I imagine PIs are assuming a shift to more fellowships would “reduce PIs’ autonomy” to hire foreign PhDs.)
the Price article continues:
When the ACD convened in December to discuss implementing the working group’s recommendations, this one had vanished from the agenda. The discussions at the December meeting avoided controversial issues, centering on whether, in an era in which only a small minority of scientists can realistically expect academic research careers, universities were adequately training students for a range of careers beyond the tenure track.
So it isn’t just the NAS Greybearded and BlueHaired contingent. This is the NIH response to their own working group.
Pass the buck.
Really strong work there, NIH.
Anything better from the NAS meeting?
In contrast to the measured discussion at December’s ACD meeting, the attendees of last week’s NAS meeting—mostly researchers who have studied the academic labor market—were critical of the status quo, arguing that keeping things the way they are would be disastrous for the scientific workforce.
There aren’t enough permanent jobs in academia for the vast majority of science graduates—and yet little has been done to curtail the production of doctorates, Ginther argues. “Employment has been stagnant, but Ph.D. production has been zooming,” Ginther said.
Anyway…is anyone at NAS or the ACD discussing how we need to shut down the PhD firehose in addition to functionally restricting the import of foreign labor? hell no….
At December’s ACD meeting, the discussion focused on tweaking graduate programs to better prepare students for jobs outside academia, and several ACD members pointed to the relatively low unemployment numbers among science Ph.D.s as reassurance about trainees’ professional prospects.
Oh, but the scuttlebutt. That’s a brightspot, right?
None of the presenters at last week’s meeting put forth any radical suggestions for how to overhaul the academic training system, but the tenor of the discussions was far more critical of established practices than the discussions heard at NIH in December 2012. After Ginther’s presentation, this reporter overheard a chat between two meeting attendees. One suggested that science professors cannot in good conscience encourage their students to pursue a Ph.D.,
Sigh. No “radical suggestions”, eh? So basically there is no real difference from the ACD meeting. Ok, so one overheard conversation is snarky….but this does not a “tenor” make. How do you know the ACD folks didn’t also say such things outside of the formal presentations and the journalist just didn’t happen to be there to eavesdrop? Lots of people are saying this, they just aren’t saying it very loud, from a big platform or in large numbers. When you start seeing the premier graduate training programs in a subarea of science trumpeting their 30% or 50% reductions in admissions, instead of the record increases**, then we’ll be making some strides on the “tenor”.
Remember though, the NIH is taking all this stuff very, very seriously.
the ACD moved forward with most of the working group’s other recommendations, including proposals that would: establish a new funding program to explore how to better train grad students and postdocs for nonacademic careers; require trainees funded by NIH to have an individual development plan; encourage institutions to limit time-to-graduation for graduate students to 5 years; encourage institutions to track the career outcomes of their graduates; and encourage NIH study sections to look favorably upon grant proposals from teams that include staff scientists
1) Nonacademic careers in science are also drying up. This is the ultimate in buck-passing and feigned ignorance of what time it is on the street.
2) IDPs? Are you kidding? What good does it do to lay out specifically “I’d like to take these steps to become a tenure-track faculty” when there are STILL no jobs and no research funding for those who manage to land them? IDPs are the very definition of rearranging deck chairs.
3) I totally support faster time to PhD awards for the individual. However on a broad basis, this just accelerates the problem by letting local departments up their throughput of newly minted PhDs. Worthless goal if it is not combined with throttling back on the number of PhD students being trained overall.
4) Making training departments track outcomes is good but..to what end? So that prospective graduate students will somehow make better choices? Ha. And last I checked, when PhD programs are criticized for job outcome they start waving their hands furiously and shout about the intervening postdoctoral years and how it is in no way their fault or influence that determines tenure-track achievement of their graduates.
5) “encourage” study sections? Yeah, just like the NIH has been encouraging study sections to treat tenure-track traditional hire Assistant Professors better. Since the early 80s at the least and all to no avail. As we know, the only way the NIH could make any strides on that problem was with affirmative action style quotas for younger PIs.
Tilghman, who headed the working group and I think has been around the NIH for a few rodeos before, is not impressed:
Yet, the working group’s chair, former Princeton University president Shirley Tilghman, told Science Careers that she couldn’t “help but go back to [her] cynicism” so long as NIH merely “encouraged” many of these measures.
Where “cynicism” is code for “understanding that NIH has no intention whatsoever in changing and is merely engaging in their usual Kabuki theater to blunt the fangs of any Congressional staff that may happen to get a wild hair over any of this career stuff”.
Score me as “cynical” too.
[ h/t: DJMH ]
*and yeah. It sucks to have a 5-year grant funding cycle and try to match that on to supporting permanent employees. I get that this is not easy. I deal with this myself, you know. My convenience doesn’t excuse systematic labor exploitation, though.
**Dude I can’t even. Bragging about record admits for several recent years now, followed finally this year by some attempt to figure out if the participating faculty can actually afford to take on graduate students. FFS.