Leading the charge: Week 1 of conversation around the biomedical research crisis


A deep blue sky, dotted by clouds, over UW-Madison's Bascom Hall

Bascom Hall and Abe//Photo by Kelly Tyrrell

As the University of Wisconsin-Madison winds up for a national discussion about a crisis threatening biomedical research in the U.S., faculty and student leaders have invited the campus community to join the conversation. The goal is to arrive at solutions, both nationally and here at UW-Madison.

The first of these conversations took place last week, on Tuesday at Ebling Auditorium on Tuesday and a repeat Thursday at the Health Sciences Learning Center. Leading up to the April 11 full-day workshop – Rescuing U.S. Biomedical Research from its Systemic Flaws: Strategies and Pathways Ahead – these pre-workshop discussions will meet every week in March, with a session at each location.

“We do have the opportunity to change policies and that’s what this is all about,” Judith Kimble said at the event. Kimble is the Vilas Professor of Biochemistry, a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator and co-organizer of the workshop. “If we have good ideas, we will make a dent.”

It started last year, when several top biomedical research leaders published a paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, outlining the severe imbalance created by a scientific community that has grown in number while federal research dollars have dwindled. The article called the current age a “golden era” in biological medical sciences but outlined the “hypercompetitive atmosphere” that is now negatively impacting scientific careers and education, and limiting scientific productivity.

Namely, there are fewer dollars to go around, fewer grant proposals are met with success, research and investment in the U.S. as a percentage of GDP has fallen dramatically, scientists are compelled to be ever less creative in their research endeavors, fewer Ph.D. students are landing tenure-track faculty positions, and those that do find academic jobs are achieving their first major research grants and tenure later in life.

A chart of decreasing federal research and development in the U.S.

From the American Academy of Arts and Sciences http://bit.ly/1E9qDpK

The pre-workshop discussions taking place throughout March will center on four main topics, and the discussion last week – led by Ben Cox, Aaron Hoskins, Kate O’Connor-Giles and Kris Saha –  focused on “Numbers in the Biomedical Research Workforce.”

Roughly 60 attendees participated last Thursday (with nearly 70 on Tuesday) to explore ways to address the numbers: by balancing the future size of the workforce, by balancing the current size of the workforce, by increasing opportunities for biomedical scientists outside of the academy, and by devising UW-Madison-specific strategies for addressing the problem.


Poll results from UW-Madison students asked about issues in biomedical research

At UW-Madison, the number of undergraduate CALS biology majors has grown precipitously over the last 20 years, which may in part be due to a national push to graduate more STEM majors in the U.S.. Yet most undergraduates are aware that jobs in academia are now limited. Polls show UW-Madison undergraduate students, graduate students, and post-docs are similarly aware of the problem and a majority say this has impacted their career plans.

The authors of the 2014 PNAS paper proposed one way to control numbers in the workforce is to limit the number of students receiving graduate training in the sciences. The pre-workshop group overwhelmingly disapproved of this approach. Rather, a strong argument was made that people trained in science are valuable across sectors, that their analytical and critical thinking skills are useful outside of a career as the head of an academic lab.

Participants argued that Ph.D. students should be encouraged to explore many of the careers available to them, be it in biotechnology and industry research, science writing, education or even law. The university and other leaders throughout the country – namely researchers themselves – can help by reducing the stigma students face when considering “alternative careers” outside the university, including by eliminating the phrase “alternative,” which suggests that the path to academic PI is the primary one, rather than just one option of many.

A brick wall full of UW-Madison graduate student signatures

A legacy of graduate students, UW-Madison//Photo by Kelly Tyrrell

Another theme of the pre-workshop explored making changes to the current structure of the biomedical research workforce, though the group did not linger long on this topic. Possible strategies mentioned included encouraging earlier retirement, changes to tenure structure and reducing soft-money faculty positions. Another idea shared was to create more staff scientist positions supported through university funding rather than federal grants, or to limit faculty numbers by granting them 50 percent support from the university.

Overwhelmingly, the faculty-and-student-led conversation remained focused on how to help current and future PhDs chart different career paths. They shared ideas, like creating banks of alumni willing to help with career advice, making improvements to the university’s Individual Development Plan, expanding Master’s degree offerings, and fostering partnerships with teaching institutions.

Additionally, faculty suggested UW-Madison leaders push the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to change their T32 student training grants as a whole to allow for more support of students considering careers outside of academia. Often, T32 success is measured only by how many graduate students go on to post-doc or faculty positions.

For more information, visit the Office of the Vice Chancellor for Research and Graduate Education’s site devoted to the issue, which includes slides and resources from each pre-workshop presentation.

Don’t miss Week 2 of pre-workshop discussion, with a session today from 2-4 pm at Ebling Auditorium and a session Thursday from 4-6 pm at Health Sciences Learning Center. Students and post-docs have the opportunity at the end of each session to share ideas without the presence of faculty members.


Here is a collection of quotes, thoughts, facts, and ideas collected at last Thursday’s session:

  • In Fall 2005, the Graduate School enrolled 1400 undergraduate students across all programs in biological sciences. The number was similar in Fall 2014. Doctoral awards in these fields totaled 170 in 2005, 230 in 2014. Time-to-degree has remained mostly consistent.
  • “13 of the last 15 graduate students I have trained are working in industry. The PhD is not the problem.”
  • This is a supply and demand question. Has anyone talked to an economist about this?”
  • “There are too few young investigators and that discourages new ideas.”
  • It’s challenging to get information about post-docs. The data does not exist, but “We need to act now! We can’t wait for the data!”
  • “It’s daunting to talk career plans with a 5-person committee.”
  • “As scientists, we are trained to solve problems. We can create opportunities rather than look for them.”
  • Private institutions should do more to support stable faculty and leave more federal money for researchers at public institutions.
  • “We need Ph.D.-level critical-thinking skills in the U.S.”
  • “Most graduate students don’t know what they want when they come to school. Some see their heroes not getting grants and that’s disheartening.
  • “I only recommend my top graduate students for academia; it’s a very difficult job.”
  • “We need to have more honest up-front conversations with graduate students.”
  • Dual-degree programs may help graduate students transition to careers outside of academic research
  • Stigma. Stigma. Stigma. Stigma. Leaving academic research is akin to “failure.” Students want career guidance, but they are afraid to ask and don’t know where to turn.
  • “Everything in training is structured toward becoming a PI.”
  • “Academia has failed me a lot. I don’t know what I want to do now.”