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.

Ginther? Remember her? Wonder how NIH is coming along on the R01 funding disparity issue? HAAHA, I crack myself up.

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.

36 Responses to “Why we can't have nice things in NIH extramural research”

  1. Evelyn Says:

    Oh man, not only are the alternative careers drying up, the salaries are inching down as well. If I would have skipped the Ph.D. and pursued a similar career with an M.S. I would be making at least $20,000 more right now. But because of my degree, I missed out on 5 years of experience and hence am where I am. I have grad students come and talk to me all the time and my advice is always the same “Get out.” So few listen though.


  2. drugmonkey Says:

    Your alternate career is not on my good list today, though.


  3. Evelyn Says:

    Sorry. But we all have to eat.


  4. zb Says:

    Yeah, deck chairs indeed. Not surprising really that the people in charge will never change anything because they benefit from how things are — small businessmen arguing in favor of cheap, temporary, (and, yes, immigrant) labor. And they wonder why US citizen undergraduates don’t want to study STEM fields?

    As with the humanities PhDs, though, I think this kind of report shows how dependent the operators of the system are on the cheap labor, so dependent that the problems are not going to be fixed by self-reform.

    I’m thinking, kind of like the dependence of the American economy on slavery before a war was fought to end it.

    Fortunate, though, that though they are cheap throw-away labor, grad students and post-docs are not slaves and thus can make the choices not to be exploited. I think that the system will not change as long as grad students keep coming to grad programs.


  5. professa Says:

    I am growing to favor the idea of a “professional experimentalist” track that may be more useful for many grad students. If their fate is to be locked into the postdoc/postdoc emeritus/unemployed because they cost too much/ career track, they really don’t need a PhD.
    So perhaps one way to improve things now is to push harder for a MS track, well designed with fewer didactic classes but real bench work, rather than as a consolation prize for bailing on the PhD program.
    How many of the grad programs you are affiliated with have a real MS track, and how do they pay for it since NIH training grants won’t support such a mechanism?


  6. drugmonkey Says:

    kind of like the dependence of the American economy on slavery before a war was fought to end it.

    I think probably the less offensive and less ridiculous analogy would be the industrial worker around about the early 20th century.


  7. SteveTodd Says:

    Don’t worry. In 20 years when today’s youngsters get to the power positions they will change everything. Too bad it will be 30 years too late to do anything.

    Who wants to play “I wish I had been a ___________ major?”


  8. zb Says:

    — I’m not comparing grad students to slaves, merely comparing the economic dependence of the scientific enterprise to a dependence on labor that makes otherwise good people try to find ridiculous rationalizations to exploitation. But I’m being willing to be chastised that subtitle distinctions get lost and that the comparison can undermine the understanding of slaver, which was evil.

    That being said, I agree that turn early 20th century industrial labor might be an overall better analogy. So would unions and sit ins have an effect? I think not.

    Maybe the analogies break down because the real issue is the development of low success high exploitation models everywhere.


  9. drugmonkey Says:

    So would unions and sit ins have an effect? I think not.

    The fundamental problem is that academic and science workers do not see themselves as labor.

    Of course this is secondary to the clear success of the right wing oligarchical efforts to shift the Overton Window such that practically nobody else sees themselves as labor anymore either.


  10. NIH Budget Cutter Says:

    But of course people in academia (and the NIH) do not want the gravy train to stop! Why would they, when they are greatly benefiting from the current system?

    This complete mismanagement of Federal dollars causes a lot of inefficiencies to the economy, mainly by misallocating labor and funds where these are not needed.

    My solution is Draconian but effective:

    CUT THE NIH BUDGET, and the gravy train will stop.

    And yes, there would be a lot of collateral damage, but it would mainly affect the very people in academia that act so selfishly, so I am perfectly OK with such collateral damage.


  11. Dave Says:

    So bored of this shit. Waste of breath talking about it anymore. Nothing changes.


  12. NIH Budget Cutter Says:

    And I forgot to point out the issue of Conflict Of Interest. This is the NIH’s Advisory Committee to the Director:


    Yep, almost everyone is from academia. No wonder the NIH cannot do anything on matters that would adversely affect academicians.

    Despite the ramblings from professors and academic scientists, I find their profession one of least ethical ones.


  13. Dave Says:

    I am growing to favor the idea of a “professional experimentalist” track

    Really? You are?


    For fucks sake, that is the most ridiculous thing I have heard in ages.


  14. qaz Says:

    I don’t know why this is rearranging the deck chairs. Most of these suggestions would make things worse, not better. This is more like drilling holes in the lifeboats.

    The problem with training graduate students for nonacademic careers isn’t the training; the problem is getting credit for it. (My department has lots of graduate students who go on to very important and impressive nonacademic careers. NIH dings us for it.)

    As DM says, IDP doesn’t help if there’s no job to go to.

    I am very anti limiting time to graduation. It encourages PIs to graduate students with crappy thesis projects because the time is up, which means they aren’t ready when they leave, and it discourages students from doing a grand enough project to set them aside. Every single PI from my generation that I know personally who has succeeded (by that I mean reached tenure with multiple grants to create a stable lab) took longer than 5 years to graduate. If we think graduate students are underpaid labor, let’s pay them more. Rushing them out the door before they’re ready is not the solution.

    Tracking the outcomes of graduate students actively hurts the departments that do because then NIH can complain that their students aren’t faculty. Not tracking lets NIH imagine the best.

    Looking favorably on funding from staff scientists means that those staff scientists are PIs (maybe not professors, but PIs – by definition). At that point, they have an academic job, and the university can call them a soft-money professor. And get credit for an academic job.

    This is worse than stupid.


  15. drugmonkey Says:

    My solution, qaz, is to have a K type mechanism for permanent nonPI scientists. The diff from Ks would be that it is renewable indefinitely, i.e. not a “training” mech.

    Review every 5 yrs means you can’t slack and it would have to be tied in some way to R-mechs at the University. Flexible on which Rs across time and %effort.


  16. Dave Says:

    …for permanent nonPI scientists

    I know what you mean, but it’s just a weird distinction for me. Can’t we just call everyone “scientists”?

    …and it would have to be tied in some way to R-mechs at the University.

    I like your plan and think it is a genuine solution that the NIH should explore, but I don’t like this part. Explain?


  17. Agree with Dave, can you further explain the tie in with this K award to an R-mechanism in a lab?


  18. drugmonkey Says:

    The fellowship type of support doesn’t provide any research funds to actually do any science, in my way of thinking. This person needs a funded lab to work in. They might also need this information back at the mothership to grossly balance these resident scientists against the size of each IC. (I’d rather these were not tied to a particular IC directly but that would be an alternative strategy for controlling the distribution across research domains)


  19. GAATTC Says:

    Another well articulated post from DM. Unfortunately, I don’t expect a groundswell of public support, or buy in from influential members of congress, which will be needed to actually change “the system.” Despite a few articles here and there in the media, one of which was in CNN/Money, Joe Q Public does not care/appreciate/empathize with our plight — it’s too esoteric (try explaining indirect costs to somebody and time how long it takes for them to lapse into a coma). Vanderbilt, the Cleveland Clinic and other places are cutting jobs, in part because of less NIH funding, but I think the sentiment is that this is the new normal. So like Dave said above, we talk, nothing changes.


  20. Dave Says:

    But, DM, I think we need to find a way to get scientists paid without relying on NIH grants. In my mind, it would be the opposite. The K-type grant you envision would cover research costs and the host would cover salaries, or at least the majority of them. This seems intutive to me. What you’re proposing is OK but is really not that different to existing Ks, where a funded mentor is essential and salary is covered 100% by the NIH. Sure, you get a few pennies for consumables but no way near enough to do animal/human/genomics type work.


  21. drugmonkey Says:

    Obviously we disagree about who is really working for whom and for what purpose, Dave.

    I am thinking of the non-PI scientist who works, or would like to work, their whole career at one institute. IME these types are exclusively funded by external funding. They service the grants. They work for the agencies funding those grants in every conceivable way, save the formality.


  22. drugmonkey Says:

    As far as “need to find a way”, Dave, I’m all ears. I keep asking people who agree with you where they expect the money to come from. I never hear credible answers. Certainly not the State U taxpayer. Cries of bloated Administration have some value but there aren’t enough of them to convert an entire School of-‘s faculty to hard money. Certainly not enough Deanlets on the block to also pay hard money for the postdoc/nonPI permanent scientists.


  23. Dave Says:

    You know I have never believed that any of this will actually happen, nor do I have a simple answer for where the money will come from. I’m not THAT stupid. I have also never really talked about bloated admin as being the source of the money as that’s really just a red herring. But does this mean we shouldn’t talk about it?

    I believe a complete re-think of how science is funded by the government and how institutions contribute (or not) to that needs re-evaluating. That’s if we are not satisfied with the current climate. The problem is that I think many believe that there is no real issue, including the NIH in many ways. This is probably because the issues are down below where the graduate students, post-docs and young TT/soft-money faculty reside.


  24. miko Says:

    Why is it acceptable for a senior management figure to complain that any labor reform would reduce management “autonomy?” This is the most backward, unreconstructed, fucking asshole comment imaginable, yet all coverage I’ve seen as long as he’s been making this dickwad comment (a couple years at least) treats it as some wise, reasonable opinion. As DM points out, the relevant comparison here is the early 20th century labor movement. Let’s stop pretending we’re all on the same fucking team here. Labor (trainees) and management (PIs, institutions) have *fundamentally* different interests on many, many issues related to the scientific enterprise. And every time a bunch of students or PDs are boondoggled by some charismatic graybeard telling them “calm down, it’s all about the science” they are being punked in the motherfucking extreme.

    Fuck Horvitz and fuck the NIH. Trainees need to get loud and they need to get disruptive, and PIs have a moral responsibilty to support them in doing so. We also have a responsibility to start defunding at the top. The generation in power is not going to let go… we have to take it from them.


  25. Miko, Full disclosure, I am probably part of what you consider “The generation in power”. I really dislike these generalizations about “everybody in power”. Not all boomers are evil, selfish and self-absorbed and this maybe throwing out the baby with the bathwater. Some of us (not the Horvitz’s) are open to change, committed to our mentees, and not holding >1 R01s. Rather than saying “all people of X race are lazy” or “no women can do math”, target the problem, not the group.

    Yes there are more greyhairs with too many grants and too much arrogance than any other group. But thats like there are more of X group in poverty. Its not necessarily about the group, but about the situation that has supported/allowed/generated the problem in that group.

    NIH needs structural changes, and so do MRU that rely on the BSDs with ++R01’s to generate the overhead that keeps them afloat. I think “taking power” isn’t going to work too well. You need to enlist the allies who have some voice to make the changes that will matter to everyone.


  26. miko Says:

    Your point is well-taken, Potnia. Some of my friendliest acquaintances (and mentors) are Boomers. I do think a group can collectively be a problem (Congress, Wall Street, Mumford & Sons) even if each individual member of that group is not a direct or equal contributor to the problem. We are dealing with a structurally defective system that encourages bad behavior. Could 10% (or 15% or 30%) of responsible, ethical mortgage lenders have done anything to prevent the subprime disaster? No way. The incentives ran the other way. Is there any sign senior scientists will demand structural changes at the NIH? Or that it would matter if they did? I see the opposite from the ones who are vocal.

    As evidenced by what DM describes here and many, many other examples of the same dithering nonsense, I don’t think “change from within” by senior scientists who are sympathetic to trainees and junior faculty is going to accomplish anything, because it never has….ask Shirley Tilghman. Years of “studying the problem” and having meetings about it has accomplished exactly nothing, and there is no sign that it will. One way to shift or force a dialogue is to up the rhetoric and take a more adversarial position. Another is to take action that is actively disruptive. Maybe that means a movement to sick Congress on the NIH…obviously a disaster on the scale of Walt bringing in Uncle Jack, but worse than what young scientists face now? I don’t know. Compare university tuition in countries without student loan systems like the US, where instead of accepting crushing debt, students (and often faculty) take to the streets–routinely, as often as it takes–to fight for education access against their own administrations and governments.

    Ultimately, everyone wants to keep their job and everyone wants grants and there isn’t enough. I’m not saying I have an objective opinion about who is deserving to have the jobs and the grants–obviously there is no objective answer, but the distribution is highly skewed, and a generation of scientists is getting screwed. I’m taking a Murakami position here: “Between a high, solid wall and an egg that breaks against it, I will always stand on the side of the egg.”


  27. Dave Says:

    This is the NIHs response to the career crisis in biomedical research. Another fucking program where the NIH spends dollars training academic scientists NOT to be academic scientists


    Sad state of affairs if you ask me. Just stop training scientists if they can’t be scientists any longer. It’s not that complicated.


  28. AcademicLurker Says:

    Maybe that means a movement to sick Congress on the NIH…

    The source of the problem isn’t the NIH, though. The perpetual boom/bust cycle is driven by the universities, mainly medical schools. As long as they see no problem with out of control expansion followed by shedding unfunded investigators followed by yet more expansion, the basic problem will persist.

    Personally, I think the only solution might be for the NIH to take a direct interest in the organizational practices of the institutions they choose to fund, but that’s extremely unlikely.


  29. sciencedude Says:

    Nothing will change until grad students and post-docs from all publicly funded laboratories organize and go on strike. However, since grad students and post-docs enjoy near middle class wages now, I don’t know if enough of them are sufficiently disgruntled to do that. This has been a problem since at least the time I was in graduate school in the mid 90s (and probably before). I assumed that eventually word would get out and people would stop volunteering to be exploited for a nearly worthless piece of paper with the letters PhD on it, but 15-20 years on, apparently not. I don’t hesitate to caution my undergraduate students about the PhD path, but I am the only one in my department who does.


  30. miko Says:

    “However, since grad students and post-docs enjoy near middle class wages now, I don’t know if enough of them are sufficiently disgruntled to do that.”

    Not sure if it’s the wage, the personal/professional hold PIs have on their trainees, or the well-developed sense that you are immediately, easily replaceable with versions of you that will STFU and sit at the goddamn bench, thus have no leverage. Your university won’t care because you’re not a real employee. Your PI will have a heart to heart about how maybe this isn’t the right career for you if you are finding it so upsetting. Anyone sufficiently angry is easily mentored right the fuck out the door.


  31. Juan Lopez Says:

    Maybe I am not the typical early years PI, or maybe I am doing something wrong, but my students are not easily interchangeable. Some of them have several years of experience, and are really good at what they do. Each student in my lab drives a project and is responsible for it. If they leave before completing their project, they will leave a noticeable void.


  32. “Maybe that means a movement to sick Congress on the NIH…”

    Oh please, congress will only make it worse, as they have every time they stick their oar in the water. NIH would only fund the diseases of rich white men.

    I wish that going on strike would change things. I don’t think it will. There are too many complacent faculty, who just wouldn’t care. There are too many foreign postdocs who are too damned scared to do something like that.

    and finally. THIS–> ” Just stop training scientists if they can’t be scientists any longer. It’s not that complicated.”

    In general- the incentives are not aligned with the changes that are necessary, the incentives are set to make things worse.


  33. sciencedude Says:

    This topic has been addressed before, but I have never found any reliable statistics on the fraction of PhDs in the biomedical sciences that actually find employment in science (i.e. actually utilizes one’s training) beyond the level of a postdoc. By the term “postdoc” I also include permanent postdocs that go by other names, for example “staff scientist,” intended to disguise their permanent postdoc status. I was “promoted” to staff scientist when my postdoc ran into its sixth year, and I didn’t even know it until I got a letter telling me so.

    I have certainly seen reports claiming that unemployment among PhDs is very low, but that does not account for the type of work they do. All I generally hear about is anecdotal reports. For example, I graduated from a prominent western university. There were 5 women and 4 men in my class. I found a job at a reasonably good Primarily undergraduate university. Among the other men, two found jobs in industry and one is employed at a company that does not utilize his science training. All five women became full time moms after unsuccessful postdocs or job searches. I have not followed up with them for a while, but I am guessing their current employment, if any, is not quite what they dreamed of when they entered graduate school. I also know a number of grad students and postdocs who simply switched fields, for example, went to medical school or law school. My sense based on the scientists I have met is that maybe 30% find employment in science beyond a postdoc.


  34. miko Says:

    “Oh please, congress will only make it worse…”

    That’s exactly my point… trainees have nothing to lose, so if lobbing a congressional dumb-bomb into the NIH gets their attention, why not? I am looking for disruption of any sort….it is one of the few weapons of the weak and a last resort for getting a seat at the table. Right now the vast majority of postdocs don’t exist as far as the NIH is concerned, and the only solution I see to faculty complacency is faculty pain.

    The spectrum of career discussion the NIH is willing to have seems to run from “Everything Is Fine STFU” to “F32 Holders Should Fill Out A Form About Their Career Goals.” The poles of this discussion need to move, and so I am trying to stake out where I think a reasonable end of the spectrum should be… one that is non-violent and legal but actively disruptive to the current trainee model and incurring direct cost/harm to the NIH, universities and PIs. Some of it might come off as generational warfare, but right now one generation is taking all the punches. I’m not saying I stand at this pole IRL, but I think that’s where one edge of the discussion should be.

    sciencedude, I hear ya. Yes, most people with PhDs find employment. The hilarious part is attributing that to the fact they have a PhD rather than the obvious fact that this a sample enriched for relatively competent and intelligent people who would probably be employed at something no matter what. The stats I’ve seen about science career outcomes are purposefully dishonest, e.g. “Percent working in field 5-years post PhD.” And, of course, it’s a super high percentage because that includes postdocs.


  35. DJMH Says:

    miko, my favored solution is to become director of NIH, myself. AND THEN CHANGE THE SYSTEM.

    Unfortunately this is a long-term goal and unlikely to (a) work out or (b) occur within the next two decades.

    Also presumably by the time I get there, I will have come around to the notion that everything is just fine anyhow.

    My grad institution just sent out a poll to all PhD holders about our job status. Entertainingly, one of the questions was along the lines of, “What aspects of graduate training were most important to you in getting the job you hold now (excluding postdocs)?”


  36. HelloKitty Says:

    Collins just wrote a silly editorial on Rock Talk about how everything is so bad because of funding. If you really want to start somewhere, why not go there and share your thoughts?


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