What factors contribute to the state of the U.S. Biomedical Research Enterprise?

According to the Biomedical Research Workforce Working Group Report from the 2012 NIH Advisory Committee to the Director, approximately 23% of the biomedical workforce is currently in tenured or tenure-track faculty positions. That means almost 80% of the biomedical research trained professionals hold other positions. A large percentage of PhD-level scientists will seek employment in both academic and non-academic careers.

PhD career development options

Read more about factors affecting the US biomedical research enterprise

A selection of historical publications describing the U.S. Biomedical Workforce and Biomedical Education & Training:

  • Mason J. L.. et al. Labor and skills gap analysis of the biomedical
    research workforce. FASEB J. (2016) summary
    The current rate of PhD production exceeds available position in academia, prompting an investigation into the broader biomedical research labor market. While both supply into the workforce and the number of biomedical jobs have grown, supply exceeds demand. The authors recommend that trainees develop practical, transferrable skills to prepare for a continually changing job market.
  • Alberts, B. Rescuing US biomedical research from its systemic flaws. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences U. S. A. (2014) summary
    A period of rapid growth in biomedical science has created an unsustainable hypercompetitive system leading to an imbalance of available funding for the large number of PhD researchers. The authors call for the creation of a predictable and stable system of science funding, reduction of number of PhDs who are trained, and broadening the career paths of young scientists.
  • National Academies, The Postdoctoral Scientist Revisited (2014) summary
    The National Academies commissioned this report to examine the postdoctoral experience in the United States. The number of PhDs who pursue postdoctoral training continues to grow unabated – the number of postdoctoral researchers far exceeds the number of tenure-track faculty positions. One recommendation is the make graduate students aware of the wide variety of career paths available for PhD recipients. Postdoctoral positions should be reserved for those seeking advanced research training and not as a default step after finishing graduate school.
  • McDowell, S., et al. Shaping the Future of Research – a perspective from junior scientists. F1000Research (2014) summary
    This article is a summary of the Future of Research Symposium, which provided junior scientists a forum to influence decisions about the future of biomedical research. Structural forces governing funding and scientific administration have contributed to a far larger pool of researchers that the system can support. Scientific reform must include increased connectivity among junior scientists, increased transparency on career outcomes of trainees, and increased investment in junior scientists to allow financial independence from their Principal Investigator.
  • Daniels R. J. A generation at risk – Young investigators and the future of the biomedical workforceProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences U. S. A. (2011) summary
    The president of Johns Hopkins University wrote this article on the future of the biomedical workforce and focused on the distressing trend of the relative decline in research funding to young scientists. Proposals for addressing this trend are strategic reinvestment in scientific research to increase total funds available and to direct funds to young scientists, reform of the peer review process to remove incumbent bias towards established investigators, and improving career paths for young scientists so that advancement is sustainable, humane, and fair.

Public Media attention reporting on the state of U.S. Biomedical Workforce:Too Few University Jobs for America’s Young Scientists. Natl. Public Radio Morning Ed. (2014) summary

In the United States, there are more than 40,000 postdoctoral research fellows doing research for about $40,000 a year. Only about 15 percent will get tenure-track jobs. Support for biomedical research has declined by more than 20 percent in real dollars over the past decade. As funding gets tighter and tighter, the overabundance of biomedical PhDs to academic jobs will only get worse.
  • So Many Research Scientists, So Few Openings as Professors. New York Times. (2016) summary
    There has been an increase in the number of PhDs awarded, while the number of tenure-track professorships remains stagnant. This imbalance is especially noticeable in the biomedical sciences. As a result, young scientists must work harder for coveted academic positions, and can spend many years as underpaid postdocs. 
  • Too Few University Jobs for America’s Young Scientists. Natl. Public Radio Morning Ed. (2014) summary
    In the United States, there are more than 40,000 postdoctoral research fellows doing research for about $40,000 a year. Only about 15 percent will get tenure-track jobs. Support for biomedical research has declined by more than 20 percent in real dollars over the past decade. As funding gets tighter and tighter, the overabundance of biomedical PhDs to academic jobs will only get worse.
  • Glut of Postdoc Researchers Stirs Quiet Crisis in Science. Boston Globe (2014) summary
    In recent years, the postdoc position has become less a stepping stone and more like a holding tank. With federal funding for research leveling off, the supply of well-trained scientists far outstrips demand. Laboratories today are training more people than there will ever be labs to run. Postdocs are not being given the skills for the careers where they are more likely to find jobs – teaching, industry, government, nonprofit, or consulting.

Publications about Increased Numbers of Biomedical PhDs & postdocs:

  • Wadman, M. A workforce out of balance. Nature (2012) summary
    A glut of biomedical PhDs and too few minorities creates a workforce that is out of balance. A pair of reports examining these issues was presented to the US National Institutes of Health (NIH). Recommendations include a six-year cap on the number of years that a graduate student can be supported by NIH funds and making the grant review process anonymous.
  • Powell, K. The future of the postdoc. Nature (2015) summary
    While there is a growing number of postdocs and few places for them to go in academia, change could be on the way. In the current system, postdocs are so cheap that principle investigators have lots of incentives to hire them. A mixed strategy of term limits, fewer postdoc positions, and more staff scientists could help deflate the swollen postdoc population and create a more sustainable workforce. However, whether lab leaders, institutions, or funders are willing to make these changes remains to be seen.

Publications about Reduced Grant Funding:

  • Teitelbaum, M. Structural disequilibria in biomedical research. Science (2008) summary
    While recent flat funding levels for the National Institutes of Health (NIH) have had damaging effects on biomedical research, the fundamental problems are structural in nature. Biomedical research funding is both erratic (unpredictable boom and busts) and subject to positive-feedback loops (more trainees than available jobs) that together drive the system to instability. Changing the current system will be a great challenge as the system has developed over decades and has served the interests of research institutions and senior researchers.
  • Carulli, AJ. Reduced funding and sequestration impact young biomedical researchers. Am J Physiol Gastrointest Liver Physiol (2014) summary
    From the perspective of a trainee, reduced funding and sequestration lead to uncertainties in training. Graduate students may have difficulties planning which lab to choose as labs may have sudden changes in funding. With the general pessimism of academic career options, trainees must have the resources to diversify their career paths and increase the marketability of graduate and postdoctoral training to fields outside of the tenure-track academic route.