Economic Implications of Scientific Training in the Biomedical Research Workforce: a Workshop at the 2017 AAAS Meeting

Economic Implications of Scientific Training in the Biomedical Research Workforce: a Workshop at the 2017 AAAS Meeting

 This is a guest post by Future of Research policy activist, Adriana Bankston. The biomedical research enterprise is driven at its core by junior scientists working at the bench. Postdocs are highly skilled scientific experts who provide a great deal of value to the scientific enterprise. In spite of this fact, they have historically been paid low wages, leading to professional dissatisfaction which may also cause them to leave the bench. Policy changes to increase postdoc compensation, as well as innovative incentives, may be very beneficial for retaining postdocs in science by creating an environment for them to effectively perform their work. Thinking about the biomedical research workforce from an economic point of view may therefore help us better understand the challenges faced by postdocs and facilitate solutions to these problems.   Critical discussions about the role of postdocs in the scientific enterprise occurred during the session entitled “Economic Implications of Scientific Training in the Biomedical Research Workforce” at the 2017 AAAS meeting. The three labor economists who presented in this session focused on the economics of the postdoctoral position and how it affects their career outcomes. Paula Stephan of Georgia State University and the National Bureau of Economic Research (also a member of the FoR advisory board) has served on a number of committees both in the US and in Europe, including the National Academies’ committee “On the Postdoctoral Experience Revisited.” The other two speakers, Donna Ginther of the University of Kansas and Bruce Weinberg of The Ohio State University, both have expertise in the STEM workforce and served on the NIH’s recent Biomedical Research Workforce Working Group. Paula...
New publications: Using Census Data to See the New Face Of U.S. Science

New publications: Using Census Data to See the New Face Of U.S. Science

One of the key challenges in our work pushing for reform of the academic system and the scientific enterprise is convincing those resistant to change that there is a problem. Part of the issue in dealing with this is the debate about the quality/quantity of data available about the scientific workforce; with almost no tracking of career outcomes for graduate students and postdocs, and the variable degree to postdocs are administered in the U.S. hindering data collection efforts, a key argument against reform is the scarcity of data with which to make informed changes.   To combat this, we have started working more closely with those in science policy and the social sciences who work on these issues, and recently teamed up with labor economists at the U.S. Census Bureau/NIH to look at the U.S. biomedical workforce using census data. We have produced a comprehensive analysis of the historical size, shape and demography of the biomedical workforce in our working paper, “Preparing for the 21st Century Biomedical Research Job Market: Using Census Data to Inform Policy and Career Decision-Making” which is discussed in our comment in Nature out today, “The New Face of Science in the U.S.”. Our hope is this analysis will be of use to policy-makers, and can also help to inform junior and senior scientists alike (particularly in academia) about the realities we currently face.    We used the Integrated Public-Use Microdata Series-USA (IPUMS-USA, University of Minnesota) dataset, which contains data from both the decennial census and the annual American Community Survey (ACS), to look at biomedical scientists in the U.S. (for more details on the methods, see Appendix...
The invisibility of postdocs: updating postdoc administration at institutions

The invisibility of postdocs: updating postdoc administration at institutions

In 2015, a paper by coordinated by the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology (ASBMB), “Toward a sustainable biomedical research enterprise: Finding consensus and implementing recommendations” identified a number of consensus recommendations made across academia for ways to improve the sustainability of the research enterprise. At a summit organized by the society in February, working groups discussed ways of implementing some of these recommendations. A key issue that came up was the necessity of the postdoc population, and yet the scarcity of information we have about this key step in the academic pathway.   As discussed in “Four reasons we don’t need 37 names for postdocs,” a key barrier to reforming the postdoctoral position is effectively administering it. With the huge variety of designations and ways of administering postdocs, we are in a position in the academic enterprise that we don’t know how many postdocs there are at institutions. Not only is this making identification of postdocs and ensuring their salaries comply with new federal labor regulations (see our “FLSA and postdocs” resource) difficult; it also hampers efforts to use the skills of postdoctoral researchers, a “trainee” population that is largely untracked. A key complaint from faculty search committees in trying to make a more diverse faculty is the “talent pool”; however postdocs from a diversity of backgrounds are in the postdoctoral workforce – there are more than 3000 postdocs from underrepresented minorities in the postdoc population. The nebulous nature of administering them makes postdocs hard to identify.   For these reasons and more, FoR and ASBMB are proposing a nationwide implementation of a clear system of postdoctoral administration. Mike Schaller and Gary...
The U.S. National Postdoc Survey: make sure you are counted

The U.S. National Postdoc Survey: make sure you are counted

While problems facing the scientific workforce have lately been receiving increased attention, e.g. through efforts such as Rescuing Biomedical Research and meetings such as the Future of Research, data collection on the status of postdocs has been inadequate.  In many cases, postdocs have not been clearly defined, in part due to lack of consistency in job titles, and it is unclear how many postdocs positions there currently are nationwide, with estimates ranging anywhere from ~40,000-90,000.    A shortage of data has limited national efforts to propose and assess policy changes.  The last large-scale survey of postdocs was performed in 2006.  While recommended reforms such as Individual Development Plans (IDPs) have been proposed and implemented over the past decade, such ongoing policy efforts have been severely constrained without access to adequate data to assess the effects of these policy changes.   At UChicago, postdocs have been collecting longitudinal data from postdocs at our institution for over 15 years.  These data have led to substantial policy changes that have improved the local postdoc experience.  While attending the National Postdoc Association annual meeting two years ago, Sean McConnell and Erica Westerman (UChicago survey committee leaders) realized that other institutions have also been conducting surveys of their postdocs, but rarely has this data been shared beyond individual institutions (limiting its impact), underscoring the need for postdoc data collection to be conducted on a national scale.   To address this need, last month a team of postdocs from the postdoc association at the University of Chicago launched the National Postdoc Survey (NPS).   This postdoc-led (grassroots!) survey [more info at https://postdocsurvey.org ] is being sent...

A call for transparency in career outcomes

Jessica Polka, Kristin Krukenberg and Gary McDowell have an article in today’s edition of Molecular Biology of the Cell, “A call for transparency in tracking student and postdoc career outcomes“. The article calls on the scientific community to collect and disseminate data on graduate student and postdoc career tracks.Without this data, it is not possible to tell whether there is, in fact, a national “STEM shortage”, and whether there are sufficient jobs available for graduate students and postdocs to justify the large numbers currently passing through the academic system....