Published On January 24, 2018
Peter Hotez became a biomedical researcher in a golden age, when the value of that work was seldom questioned. By his early 30s, he had a good job, as an assistant professor at Yale School of Medicine, and he received his first National Institutes of Health grant as a principal investigator in 1991, when he was 33. The subject of his research—the pathogenesis of hookworm infection—may have been arcane in the United States, but that wasn’t a concern. After World War II there was a tacit agreement among the scientific community, the government and the American people that biomedical research, however obscure, was worthy of generous support.
For Hotez, now 59 and dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine, that NIH funding ultimately led to a vaccine that entered clinical trials in the 2010s—more than 20 years after his grant proposal. Indeed, a steadily increasing flow of federal money beginning in the late 1940s helped countless other young scientists hone their skills and advance scientific knowledge while working with mentors in their fields. Between 1950 and 1959, the value of those grants more than quintupled, from less than $53 million to nearly $292 million. After that, the NIH budget roughly doubled every decade through the late 1990s.
That support, and the hospitals and research centers where the money was put to work, became a global magnet for students and young researchers. “The United States has always been the training ground for the best and brightest biomedical scientists,” says Harry W. Orf, senior vice president for research at Massachusetts General Hospital. “People from all over the world have come here.”
The payoff has been unequivocal. Thanks in no small part to investments in researching cancer cells, gene sequencing, immunology and dozens of other fields, an American child born today can expect to live 30 years longer than one born in 1900. “Now we can take advantage of diagnostics, devices, drugs and behavioral interventions that were unimaginable when I was in training 30 years ago,” says Christopher Austin, a neurologist and the director of NIH’s National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences (NCATS).
Early in the new century, however, the broad consensus that medical research was worth every penny began to unravel. A combination of budget cuts and modest but steady inflation led to an almost 25% reduction in the amount of research that was funded by NIH grants between 2003 and 2015. At the same time, competition for academic jobs like the one Hotez found at the outset of his research career became increasingly fierce. For the more than 40,000 new Ph.D.s in science and engineering earned each year in the United States, there are just 3,000 full-time jobs available at U.S. universities. According to a 2015 National Science Foundation survey, six in 10 newly minted Ph.D.s in the life sciences had yet to receive commitments for postdoctoral positions or other employment in their fields.
Pursuing a research career has always been challenging. But those who started a generation ago had a path to develop their skills and eventually, perhaps, direct their own labs, Hotez says. Indeed, ample funding didn’t just spawn research; it also created a career pipeline by which promising postdoctoral fellows could gain essential experience before embarking on their own projects.
Now, as that pipeline clogs, a new exodus is taking shape. Gary McDowell was a postdoctoral researcher at Tufts University in Medford, Mass. when he left research for good in 2016. At age 31, he, like many of his peers, realized that years of experience and multiple degrees were leading only to an ever more difficult fight for grant money, lab space and recognition. What hope do young researchers have, he thought, when even luminaries are struggling to keep their labs afloat? The joint winner of the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2017, Jeffrey Hall, began his prize-winning work on biological clocks in the 1970s—but he gave up scientific research in 2008, telling Current Biology at the time that issues with research funding were a major reason.
McDowell’s work, on the role of the cytoskeleton in early left-right body patterning of frog embryos, may never have led to a Nobel Prize. But if he and great numbers of other young scientists continue to leave research because of limited opportunities, there will eventually be a day of reckoning. “If fewer of our brightest, most talented people get started as biomedical researchers over the next five to 10 years, we are going to find ourselves falling behind,” says Michael Lauer, deputy director for extramural research at NIH, “and the next generation of great scientists simply won’t be there.”
BIOMEDICAL RESEARCH IN THE United States happens in a variety of settings: universities, medical schools, drug companies, hospitals and other research institutions. The focus of that research is broadly broken into three categories: Basic research looks at the underpinnings of biological processes and diseases; translational or preclinical research moves those findings closer to practical use in new drugs, treatments and medical devices; clinical research is done in conjunction with patients, often to test new drugs, and is normally supervised by physicians.
The scientists conducting this research may earn a living in several ways. Those who work in the pharmaceutical industry, which employs an estimated 142,000 research scientists in the United States, are paid directly by their companies. Graduate students and postdoctoral researchers may get stipends, and a tenure-track university position can provide a steady income.
But many research institutions rely on a “soft money” formula, where a hospital or university provides space, facilities and academic titles, while researchers are expected to use grant money from NIH or another source to pay their own salaries and those of postdocs assisting with their projects. For generations, the soft money approach has benefited researchers and society alike, says Orf. “It makes people very motivated to do great research and to write good grants,” he says.
As the overall level of funding has dropped, however, healthy competition has descended into a darker cycle of high anxiety and “a state of hypercompetition,” says Lauer. “We have an excess number of scientists vying for fewer dollars.” Physicians in particular, long a key segment of biomedical research, are applying for fewer grants these days, Lauer notes.
Although the stiffer competition for grants affects scientists of all ages, younger researchers have been steadily losing ground to their older counterparts. In 1998, researchers 35 and under captured 971 NIH grants, outpacing the 728 grants for those over 65. By 2014, grants to younger scientists had dropped to 762, while the older group had tripled its number, to 2,318.
And while the United States still leads the world in spending on biomedical research, other countries, eager to establish themselves as destinations for the best young researchers, are closing the gap. Less than a generation ago, the U.S. share of global spending on this research was as high as 80%. That has dropped to about 45%, according to a 2014 study by The New England Journal of Medicine. From 2007 to 2012, spending by Japan, India, Singapore, South Korea and China surged, with Chinese outlays jumping about 33%. At a time when China promises top prospects full-time salaries and several years of research funding, Hotez is already advising his students: “Be prepared to live outside the United States.”
Congress has recognized the plight of young researchers as a national problem. As part of the 21st Century Cures Act, which became law in late 2016, NIH launched the Next Generation Researchers Initiative (NGRI) to become “more aggressive about funding investigators who are at earlier stages of their career,” says Lauer, who is leading the effort. NIH is also looking to expand research training opportunities to new physicians during residency, in hopes of encouraging more of them to pursue research.
IT WILL TAKE YEARS to know whether the NGRI and other such efforts will have the intended effect. In the meantime, however, another NIH initiative—the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences, established in 2012—may do more to generate jobs for early-career scientists. The stated goal of NCATS is to help “reduce, remove or bypass costly and time-consuming bottlenecks in the translational research pipeline.” That approach, with its promise of a clearer path to potentially marketable products, is drawing increasing support not only from Congress and private industry but also from teaching hospitals and other research institutions.
At MGH, for example, translational science has become a key part of the hospital’s Research Institute, a recent effort to focus attention and support on the hospital’s biomedical investigations. While MGH remains home to a wide range of basic research, “we knew we had to reduce our very heavy reliance on the federal government and also teach our investigators to think about how their work could become more translational,” Orf says. Working with industry, MGH has launched partnerships for research on vaccines, immunotherapy, neurological disorders and a number of other frontiers. The hospital’s Translational Research Center, meanwhile, has 18 hospital beds for industry-sponsored clinical trials.
In a separate effort, Partners HealthCare, founded by Brigham and Women’s Hospital and MGH, launched Partners Innovation in 2008 to improve the bridge between basic and translational research groups and businesses, thereby accelerating laboratory discoveries and making them more accessible to pharmaceutical companies, device manufacturers and venture capitalists.
Those sources of financing, however, are much less likely to support basic and early-applied research. “The early-stage work is much more difficult to fund,” says Patrick Fortune, a vice president of Partners Innovation. That’s the obvious drawback to focusing too much on translational research—the basic science needed to understand the body and its many ills will be neglected. Even the most ardent supporters of translational science, including Orf and Austin, readily acknowledge that today’s practical applications are made possible only by knowledge gained through decades of national commitment to arduous, time-consuming research into fundamental principles. And they warn of the potential consequences 20, 30 and 40 years from now if the country allows today’s generation of bright young researchers to leave such investigations behind. As Austin puts it, “Without basic research, there’s nothing to translate.”
AMID DIRE PREDICTIONS ABOUT the future, some young researchers assert that scientists themselves must be part of the answer—not just conducting research but also advocating greater public awareness about the importance of their work. In 2015 Devon Collins, a Ph.D. candidate at the Rockefeller University who studies neuroendocrinology, neurobiology and behavior, joined with two classmates—Avital Percher and Maryam Zaringhalam, both now molecular biologists—to launch a podcast called Science Soapbox, aimed at alerting Americans to the close connection between research dollars and public health.
Scientists tend to be more interested in lab work than in politics, says Collins, and as a result they often feel blindsided when opportunities dry up because of funding decisions made by politicians. “We didn’t know who to be angry with,” he says of himself and his colleagues. “So we took it upon ourselves to create a resource that helps us and other scientists have a deeper understanding of who’s responsible for the decisions.”
The podcast has evolved from a way to vent into a forum for trading ideas and solutions. “It was a good way to grab and engage people, for us as early-career scientists who are interested in policy and advocacy to meet people who are doing really amazing things,” says Zaringhalam. The mission also includes bridging the divide between scientists and the taxpayers who ultimately finance most of their work. “The traditional way that Ph.D.s are trained doesn’t include any kind of public-facing component,” she says. “We’re told to look down at our benches instead of looking out at society at large. We should think about where our funding comes from, which is largely from taxpayers, and think about what we owe them as our benefactors.” All three founders of the podcast now intend to pursue careers in developing the policy that underpins and supports scientific research, a move that reflects both the opportunities and the challenges of coming of age as a researcher today.
Gary McDowell, who left his frog research behind in 2016, is now executive director and co-founder of Future of Research, an advocacy organization dedicated to supporting early-career researchers. Among his other efforts, McDowell is working on a National Academy of Sciences study to recommend ways for Congress and NIH to support next-generation investigators. McDowell hopes to fill in gaps in the understanding of how and why many postdocs become frustrated with the system and ultimately abandon research, as he did. “Postdocs are just this nebulous group of people that nobody really knows and can’t identify easily, and many disappear through the cracks,” says McDowell. Universities have a responsibility to educate graduate students about the realities of a career in research, he believes, and to track what people actually do with their education.
McDowell and his Future of Research colleagues are especially interested in a cohort of researchers known as “doubling boomers,” so called because they earned their degrees during the last period in which NIH funding doubled, six-year bursts of federal largesse from the late 1990s to the early 2000s. Those scientists, attracted in part by what they saw as reliable money to pursue their ambitions, entered from graduate school at a time when funding was still booming, and then emerged into a world that seemed anything but what they expected.
One such researcher, Needhi Bhalla, received her Ph.D. in biochemistry from the University of California, San Francisco, in 2002. “It was a great time to be in graduate school,” Bhalla says. “You had the sense that lots of important questions were being asked. You had incredible freedom to answer some of those questions and go in whatever direction your research took you.”
Now 44 and an associate professor of molecular, cell and developmental biology at the University of California, Santa Cruz, Bhalla is among the fortunate few who have found an academic post and research funding—in her case, for investigations into cell division. Still, her career today is hardly what she imagined at the outset. Much of her time, she says, is spent not in the lab but trying to navigate an uncertain funding process.
At times in her career, Bhalla has found herself thinking about what would happen if funding dried up and her lab shut down. Once she even considered chucking it all and teaching high school biology, and she has seen many talented friends drop out of research. “The people who do persist are going to be great scientists,” she says. “I’m just concerned about the people we see not becoming research scientists and what that means for the direction of science.”
Today, Bhalla says, researchers are in another kind of golden age, supported by remarkable technology, an unprecedented understanding of the basic building blocks of life, and an expanding potential to cure diseases. That’s a world she’s determined to be a part of, whatever it takes. “It’s a hard time to be in science, but it’s also such an awesome time to be in science,” she says. “I don’t want my concern to eclipse my wonder.”
“Agents of Change,” by Virginia Gewin, Nature, October 2016. This article explores how three advocates for junior researchers are working to improve conditions for young scientists.
“A Generation at Risk: Young Investigators and the Future of the Biomedical Workforce,” by Ronald J. Daniels, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, January 2015. This article outlines the challenges that young scientists face, such as obtaining research grants, and offers proposals related to career paths, peer review and funding.
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