It’s a Great Time for the Life Sciences, but a Terrible Time to Be a Life Scientist

Despite numerous recent breakthroughs and discoveries, the extreme competition and lab-research feedback loop don't bode well for the future of the field.
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(Photo: Matej Kastelic/Shutterstock)

(Photo: Matej Kastelic/Shutterstock)

By outward appearances, this is a great time for the biomedical sciences. Headline-grabbing discoveries are reported nearly every week. Biotech is booming. Genome science and the revolutionary new technologies that go with it have transformed almost every corner of biomedical research. With modern computing and imaging technology, scientists can collect and analyze more biological data than ever before.

Despite these successes, it's a terrible time to be a biomedical scientist. The system is "geriatric" and "unstable", leaving "established investigators and talented young scientists at the dawn of their careers, struggling to obtain even modest resources" to keep their research going. Our biomedical institutions resemble a pyramid scheme that is destroying the next generation of life scientists, who now have worse employment prospects than other scientists and professionals (PDF). The peer-review-based quality control system is failing to ensure that published research is reproducible. Last week, four biomedical scientists from the upper echelons of our biomedical research institutions—Bruce Alberts, former editor-in-chief of Science and former president of the National Academy of Sciences; Marc Kirschner, chair of Harvard Systems Biology; Shirley Tilghman, former president of Princeton University; and Harold Varmus, a Nobel-winning former director of the National Institutes of Health and current director of the National Cancer Institute—issued a blunt warning: "The US research community cannot continue to ignore the warnings signs of a system under great stress and at risk for incipient decline."

The system churns out freshly trained scientists, who go on to establish their own labs and train even more scientists, creating an insatiable demand for research jobs and federal funding.

The fundamental problem is that our biomedical research institutions were developed in the post-World War II era on the now-outdated premise of never-ending increases in federal funding. In the years after the war, federal funding for research at universities ballooned, from less than $1 billion (in 2012 dollars) in 1955 to nearly $7 billion a decade later. It reached $30 billion at its peak in 2004. Universities naturally responded to this federal investment by expanding: they built new buildings, hired more science faculty, and, crucially, scaled up their Ph.D. programs.

Decades of a growing federal research budget created a growing demand for the low-wage Ph.D. students and postdoctoral fellows that staff university labs. This practice of staffing labs primarily with trainees established a positive feedback loop that is particularly strong in the biomedical sciences: The system churns out freshly trained scientists, who go on to establish their own labs and train even more scientists, creating an insatiable demand for research jobs and federal funding. The functioning of this system critically depends on ever more federal funds. As Georgia State economist Paula Stephan puts it, the end result is that "U.S. universities behave like high-end shopping malls. They are in the business of building state-of-the art facilities and a reputation that attracts good students and faculty. They then turn around and ‘rent’ the facilities to faculty in the form of indirect costs on grants and the buy-out of salary. Faculty, in turn, create research programs, staffing them with graduate students and postdocs, who contribute to the research enterprise by their labor and the fresh ideas that they bring, but who can also be easily downsized, if and when times get tough. Universities leverage these outcomes into reputation." With a better reputation, universities attract better faculty and students ... and the cycle continues.

Federal funding for university research has sometimes sputtered along, particular after the 1970s, but every bust has invariably been followed by a funding boom, culminating in the rapid doubling of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) budget between 1998 and 2003. But in the decade since then, the NIH budget has steadily eroded, except for a brief injection of stimulus funding in 2009. While there are occasional calls in Congress to boost federal science funding (PDF), the prospects for regrowing the R&D budget are not good, given the current budget deadlock in the government and our nation's ongoing economic woes.

FEDERAL FUNDING MAY BE declining, but do our research institutions really need to change? Alberts, Kirschner, Tilghman, and Varmus answer with an emphatic “yes.” Drawing on multiple studies of trends in the biomedical workforce, they argue that biomedical science's unchecked population growth has now led the community into a corrosive zone of hypercompetition. While some competition in science is clearly good, "hypercompetition for the resources and positions that are required to conduct science suppresses the creativity, cooperation, risk-taking, and original thinking required to make fundamental discoveries." Instead of a meritocracy, science becomes a set of lotteries: a lottery for grant funding, with success rates down to nearly half of what they were 15 years ago; a lottery for a publication slot in career-making top journals that reject the overwhelming majority of submissions, and often, as Alberts and colleagues write, "base judgments about publication on newsworthiness rather than scientific quality;" and a lottery for good jobs, with hundreds of applicants for every position because the system has produced more scientists than academia and industry can put to use. Hypercompetition is incredibly wasteful, eating up the time of established scientists who spend too much of it raising funds, misusing the taxpayer-funded training of talented students drawn to science but who can't find jobs commensurate with their skills, and ultimately producing rushed, sloppy, short-sighted, and overhyped science.

How do we fix the system? Alberts, Kirschner, Tilghman and Varmus repeat various recommendations that economists and blue-ribbon committees have been making for years. Most importantly, we need to kill the positive feedback loop that creates unchecked expansion of our biomedical institutions. This includes staffing labs with fewer temporary trainees and more long-term staff scientists, changing how grants are reviewed and awarded, limiting the federal funding that universities can use to expand their facilities, and giving Ph.D. students clear opportunities to train for non-academic careers. Many of these recommendations impose costs on the winners of the current system: Universities will have to spend more of their own funds on faculty salaries and new buildings, while established scientists will face higher personnel costs. These changes are unlikely to happen without some federal muscle from the agencies tasked with allocating research dollars.

In terms of discovery, it is unquestionably a great time for the life sciences, but as long as it remains a terrible time to be a life scientist, those findings will soon begin to disappear.

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