NIH Is Unclear If It Should “Dial Up or Down Our Training Pipeline”

So sayeth NIH director Francis Collins:

I would argue that we don’t know. Quite surely our biomedical research work force study a couple of years ago did show that only about a quarter of the people that we trained ended up in tenure-track academic positions, although most of them assume that’s what they are being trained for.

Maybe you could argue that if we are bringing more people on board in a research-intensive university, we need to clarify that there aren’t enough [tenure-track] positions for that to happen. But there are lots of other opportunities out there that we need to expose students to that may be beneficial for many of them anyway. And they are not “alternative careers,” they are just careers. So I would be loathe at the moment to say we have enough data to be able to dial up or down our training pipeline.

First point–because we like helping!:

employment19-1042
(from here)

In the most recent data, there has been no increase to speak of–job creation has stalled out. If someone can convince me that either a massive increase in private foundation or VC funding is going to ride to the rescue and bring us back to the glory days of massive year-to-year job increases, I’m all ears. But I’m not seeing how that happens. And the very alternative jobs have already been taken for the most part. So I think we have some data regarding what we should do with our training pipeline.

But the other thing Collins’ question reminds me of is the debate over whether inflation is about to spiral out of control (no, really). The weird thing about that debate is that we know how to bring inflation to a halt–the Fed cranks up rates. In other words, there’s a lot of concern about a problem we know how to fix (and which doesn’t yet exist). So how does this relate to training scientists?

Easy. We know how to train PhDs, lots of them if needs be. It’s much harder to figure out what to do with a bunch of surplus PhDs–just ask humanities PhDs. So maybe we should err on the side of scarcity. And before anyone shrieks TEH SCIENTISMZ ARE IN CRISIS!!, as Michael Teitelbaum describes in Falling Behind? Boom, Bust, and the Global Race for Scientific Talent (if you’re a scientist, science policy maker or science journalist, you must read this book along with Paula Stepan’s How Economics Shapes Science), science has always been in ‘crisis’, which is to say, there probably isn’t an immediate crisis at all.

So why don’t we dial down that pipeline a bit?

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4 Responses to NIH Is Unclear If It Should “Dial Up or Down Our Training Pipeline”

  1. crestwind24 says:

    Reblogged this on CauseScience and commented:
    Great post from Mike the Mad Biologist addressing the number of PhDs being trained in response to Sara Reardon’s recent article with Francis Collins for Nature.

  2. lurker says:

    But Mike, where will Francis and his fellow BSDs get there cheapo labor if we dial the pipeline down? Oh, right, F1s and J1s visas! Done and done!

  3. coloncancercommunity says:

    The emperor (a.k.a. the NIH) has had no cloths on this issue for decades. They need the cheap labor to fulfill their grant obligations.

    There are only two ways for this to be addressed:
    1. Create a mid-level track where scientists are PAID for their work while enacting policies that heavily curtail the use and abuse of graduate students, post-docs and guest workers as slave labor. In this case, the labor would be available but the labor would actually be paid salaries and get benefits commensurate with their educations. Expensive, but doable.

    2. Or….cut down the pipeline and accept that this will impact our standing in the international food chain..

    There is no incentive for either at the top and that’s the problem. The status-quo suits them just fine.

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