Are Today’s Biomedical Science Students Making the Rational Choice to Avoid Basic Research?

I have mentored hundreds of students working toward PhDs in the life sciences and beyond. Unfortunately, I have seen that low pay and long hours lead many of our best and brightest students to make rational life choices to not pursue futures in biomedical research based on a mix of objective and subjective evidence on what the future holds for them if they stay there.

This happens because there are many barriers to personal and professional advancement for people wanting careers in science. Four science policy leaders including a former Director of the National Institutes of Health and a retired President of Princeton University admit this in a 2014 paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

By making science careers relatively unattractive too many bright and creative Americans, we are drying the well of creativity that has helped American science and technology lead the world.

Academics who best combine intelligence, creativity, dedication, political savvy, luck and timing are the likeliest to overcome the odds to become tenured scientists.

Those without even one of these traits probably won’t.

I have seen undergraduates thinking about becoming scientists watch older trainees in their labs struggle to maintain good work-life balance with opportunities to advance. After watching others struggle, would you choose a career where after ten years of graduate and postgraduate training, often requiring up to 80 hour work weeks, older trainees are finding its better financially for one partner in a couple with the same advanced education and doing similar work, to be a stay at home parent because daycare for their two kids costs more than one of them earns?

If current funding and employment trends continue, an undergraduate reading this essay will have an even smaller chance than today’s published academics’ one in fifteen odds of achieving tenure in 2030. By comparison, a first year associate lawyer (at a relatively comparable level of training), must overcome odds of about five or six to one to achieve partner status while earning several times what young scientists do at little higher cost in work life balance.

Unfortunately, as costs of advanced research grow, funding doesn’t keep pace, industry can’t absorb excess jobseekers, and PhD scientist numbers rise further, students are realizing that the job market in the biomedical sciences will grow even more precarious.

Academic scientists usually spend long hours in the lab. Through the tenuring process, 70-90 hour weeks do occur. Long weeks during which young researchers earn one fourth as much as first year associates in law firms where equally long hours are expected and similar abilities (dedication, math, logic, creativity, problem solving skills, discipline) are valued.

A partner in a large law firm can earn between five and ten times as much as a tenured scientist and often works barely more hours a week. Full-time specialist physicians earn more than most tenured scientists. Primary care physicians (often the least well paid of our MDs) earn as much as tenured research scientists with comparable work hours, less required travel, and greater job security.

The only uniquely attractive feature of study in science is that graduate school and postdoctoral training (which may last several years with no guaranteed advancement to even junior faculty status), is usually funded by government grants. Young health professionals do see debt their science peers don’t have, but for too many students I’ve worked with, physicians’ job security and net life time earnings more than balance losses from medical school debt.

Unfortunately, as Alberts Et Al, note, lab directors today need cheap graduate students and postdocs to stay in business. This means there are too many students and postdocs for too few downstream positions—whether in academia or elsewhere. As a result, these bright, thoughtful decision-makers can reason that expecting long-term employment in the laboratory is not a safe life bet.

If we are to protect both trainees and America’s strong research infrastructure, a fifty percent cut in graduate students and postdocs with increased salaries for those remaining may be the only way to make careers in science more secure given reasonable expectations of externally imposed constraints (due to society’s commitments to Medicare and Social Security for example) on the growth in science spending in the 2020s and beyond.

A fifty percent cut in our young, inexpensive, science workforce is extremely risky. If it happens, we must assure that the combined intelligence, creativity, and productivity of our remaining young scientists matches that of the larger workforce we have now. There is no guarantee this will happen, and a high chance that our overall productivity per dollar will actually decrease.

Given this possible outcome, our lab directors, who are as rational in their choices as their students and trainees, are nearly certain to continue using “cheap” graduate student and postdoc labor no matter how harmful to individual students this option may be.

Some think increased lab productivity will keep us competitive. But anything we do here to increase productivity can be done in other countries where young scientists are often paid less and training is improving relative to that in American labs.

Other short-term fixes such as streamlining science administration and regulation might stretch some dollars, but these savings are insufficient to employ all of the young scientists trained here today.

Whatever we do, we must find a solution that speeds progress while giving financial and professional security to those discovering knowledge and creating technology in America. If we don’t, we will lose our lead in biomedical science, defense research, and many kinds of applied technology.

Instead, countries like India, Japan, the EU and China where attitudes toward the United States aren’t always friendly, and which have the money for so-called mega projects, will use American-trained scientists (whether born here or elsewhere), to make the advancements we are used to taking pride in.

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