NIH Panel Tackles Makeup of the Biomedical Workforce

NIH Panel Tackles Makeup of the Biomedical Workforce

first_imgThe National Institutes of Health (NIH) has launched what may be its most comprehensive study ever of the biomedical research workforce. Over the next year, an expert panel will ponder such questions as how many biomedical scientists the country needs and the ideal balance among principal investigators, postdocs, graduate students, and other personnel in NIH-funded laboratories and other settings like industry and teaching. The conclusions could profoundly affect policies at NIH and the university community it supports. The study is a response to concerns such as a flattening NIH budget, the maturity (42 years) of first-time NIH investigators, and complaints from new Ph.D.s who can’t find academic jobs. Although NIH Director Francis Collins announced in December that Princeton University president Shirley Tilghman would lead the exercise, the full 12-member panel was named only yesterday. It will be co-chaired by Sally Rockey, NIH deputy director for extramural research, and report to Collins’ Advisory Committee to the Director. The other members are from outside NIH and include “an interesting mix of policy veterans” and others not involved with previous studies on workforce issues, says Howard Garrison, deputy executive director for policy at the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology. Some have complained that it is weighted with administrators and academic researchers with a vested interest in maintaining a steady supply of postdocs to work as highly skilled but cheap labor. 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It came out just before NIH’s budget began a 5-year doubling, however, and had little influence. Even now, some experts dispute the notion: In December, for example, a National Academies’ panel that advises NIH about how many research fellowships it should support concluded that new Ph.D.s have plenty of options for jobs outside of academia. (Tilghman declined ScienceInsider’s request for a phone interview, citing other commitments.) One especially contentious question for the new panel is whether investigators should rely more on staff scientists and less on postdocs. Rockey says that she expects alternatives to a Ph.D., such as a professional master’s degree “will be a very important” part of the discussion. The panel will meet for the first time next week by teleconference, and plans “live sessions” with groups such as academic researchers, postdocs, students, and scientific societies, says Rockey. The group will also maintain a Web site to collect input. A subcommittee headed by economist Bruce Weinberg of Ohio State University will develop a model for the workforce. The panel hopes to release a report by the summer of 2012, Rockey says. Garrison says the study signals a shift in NIH’s thinking from a couple of decades ago, when the agency was mostly “concerned about getting the research done” without paying attention to personnel issues. Now, he says, NIH is “thinking more and more about people.”last_img

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