Another BREATHTAKINGLY out of touch comment from the NIH Director and the Deputy Director in charge of Extramural Research
October 2, 2013
There have been concerns expressed that NIH is not doing anything to limit the number of Ph.D.s being produced. It’s important to remember that NIH does not control graduate enrollments. We are, however, firmly committed to the premise that bioscience Ph.D.s provide invaluable contributions to a whole variety of fields. Furthermore, there is no definitive evidence that Ph.D. production exceeds current employment opportunities.
This is why we can’t have nice things. Because the two most important administrative persons at the NIH are fully committed to pretending that they do not understand that their enterprise depends on the exploitation of doctoral “trainees”. They simply cannot acknowledge that a constantly turning-over stream of doctoral students and postdoctoral fellows generates more work for less money and therefore is essential to the system as they know it.
Yes. It is true that PhD holding individuals have vanishingly low unemployment rates in these times of economic downturn. It is also true that even graduate students (under the NIH extramural umbrella*) make far, far more than minimum wage.
But we need to have a discussion about timeline, the years spent in various uncertain “trainee” job descriptions, the hours of work and the carrots that are being extended, never to be eaten. We also have to have a discussion about what job people enter graduate school thinking they are in training for. And what their chances are of obtaining those jobs. And what balance of “cheap labor” versus “training” is really being accomplished under the broad auspices of the NIH extramural system of support for science.
We also need to have a discussion about motivations of individual behavior under the increasingly competitive system and whether it has reached a tipping point in which the labor exploitation is no longer worth it.
If competition leads to faking and fraud, this costs an awful lot of NIH money when other people have to unpack why their experiments based on a prior finding are not working. If the competition leads to secretive, noncollaborative, scoop-laden dicing for Glamour publications, at some point this is costing the NIH money and progress. Duplication of work, if motivated only by secrecy, costs the NIH money. It costs progress.
If people feel betrayed by the system, they may just…..slack. Phone it in. Spend all day playing Candy Crush instead of working because they have to just put in their 3-5 years of postdoctoral work before schlepping off to an industry job. Or trying to be a NIH SRO or Program Officer. Or Glamour Mag editor. Or whatever your “alt career” du jour happens to be.
Leadership is not just keeping the leaking ship on course, Drs Collins and Rockey.
Sometimes it requires patching some holes, painting the hull and tuning up a balky engine room.
Sometimes it requires thinking harder about the before-the-mast swabbies who are keeping your vessel afloat.
*most of the broadly-defined biomedical programs