The Malthusian dilemma in biomedical research has been described by Shirley Tilghman and is hardly news to academic research scientists: We have too many scientists competing for too few resources.
Research-intensive universities are still using a model that began as an effort to build capacity for academic scientific research. More than 70 years ago, Vannevar Bush’s report "Science: The Endless Frontier," recommended that the government fund basic research in universities and medical schools as well as provide scholarships and fellowships for training researchers. The model worked as long as the resources (funding, facilities, tenure-track faculty positions) exceeded the needs of the scientific community.
But it wasn’t long before universities began relying on this support for faculty salaries and indirect costs as well as for research itself. This has led to the current model, in which most academic research is carried out by graduate students and postdoctoral fellows, often funded with grants. The focus has shifted from training Ph.D.-level scientists to carry out research to using Ph.D. students and postdocs as an inexpensive labor force.
Now there is a need for an increase in both the amount and the stability of federal research funding; the boom-and-bust cycles have been a significant part of the problem. Although there has been some success with alternative funding sources (industry, philanthropic sources, crowdfunding), they are unlikely to be large enough to replace federal funding.
Meanwhile, the model used by research-intensive institutions is not sustainable. This is a double-edged problem, because universities with a lesser focus on research generally look to them as models of success. Instead of trying to emulate a failing system, they should be looking ahead to the changes necessary for sustainability.
In fact, teaching-intensive institutions may find themselves ahead of the curve in reaching research sustainability, since they are already likely to be less reliant on external funding.
What can research-intensive institutions learn from their teaching-intensive counterparts?
First, colleges that hire faculty members primarily to teach are more likely to guarantee faculty salaries. Both the National Institutes of Health’s "Biomedical Research Workforce Working Group Report" and the report "Sustaining Discovery in Biological and Medical Sciences," from the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology, recommend that research-intensive universities reduce their dependence on federal funds for faculty salaries. Institutions that already guarantee faculty salaries, and so are not reliant on grant money, will not have to increase salary budgets to accommodate this shift in financial burden.
Second, the practice of providing large start-up packages for researchers to equip stand-alone labs relies on relatively high funding rates, so that researchers have money once those funds are exhausted. With already low funding rates, the new normal will include smaller start-up packages, shared lab space and equipment, mechanisms for continuing support, and encouragement of collaborative projects.
My institution, Midwestern University at Glendale, already has modest start-up packages, shared lab space, shared major equipment (microscopes, floor centrifuges, incubators, imaging systems), and funding from within the university. All this calls for planning by faculty members to choose projects that can be carried out within the limits of guaranteed funding, and to either obtain outside funding or initiate collaborations for work that requires a larger budget.
Third, the consensus is that too many postdocs (with the exception of those holding clinical degrees) are produced relative to the number of tenure-track faculty positions.
Proposed solutions include reducing the number of students entering Ph.D. programs, shifting funding of Ph.D. students to training grants, preparation during graduate training for nonacademic careers, increasing postdoctoral pay, reducing the duration of postdoctoral support for research grants, decreasing the number of Ph.D.s going on to postdocs, and requiring a master’s degree before continuing to the Ph.D.
Midwestern University does not have a Ph.D. program, but we have discussed creating one jointly with some of our professional degrees (e.g., D.O.-Ph.D., Pharm.D.-Ph.D., D.V.M.-Ph.D.). Such a program would add research training where necessary to an existing professional discipline.
Last, it has been suggested that that there needs to be a reduction in the number of trainees relative to career scientists (staff scientists and technicians) in the lab. Many academic labs today use Ph.D. students and postdocs as an inexpensive labor force. In fact, this has been a major source of resistance to reducing the number of Ph.D.s and postdocs.
That reliance is also a result of one of many counterproductive financial incentives: Postdocs’ salaries are lower than those of staff scientists, but their training represents significant investment that will have no return if the postdoc doesn’t obtain a research position.
Midwestern has no undergraduate programs, either; our trainees include a limited number of students in our master’s program in biomedical sciences, summer fellows from our professional programs (D.O., D.V.M., D.D.S.), and elective or work-study students during the academic year.
However, we have an institutionally supported research staff, whose members are primarily holders of bachelor’s and master’s degrees. While the faculty hopes that we will eventually increase their numbers, supporting stable careers is an improvement over short-term, grant-funded positions and using trainees as cheap labor.
As the nation moves forward in scientific research, it is important not only that research-intensive universities consider more sustainable models like those seen in less research-intensive institutions, but also that institutions like mine focus on what they have been doing right rather than attempting to adopt a system that has seemed successful but is, in fact, deeply flawed.
D. Ellen K. Tarr is an associate professor of microbiology and immunology at Midwestern University at Glendale, Ariz. The opinions expressed here are hers and do not represent those of her institution.