April 28, 2014

Recommendations for rescuing the US Biomedical Research System

by Debora Hamernik

A recent perspective in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences provides recommendations to rescue the US biomedical research enterprise from its systemic flaws. While you may not agree with all of the recommendations, the article is a concise and thorough summary of the current state of affairs and describes a sense of urgency for change.


In 1945, Vannevar Bush published “Science The Endless Frontier” which led to a remarkable increase in the number and size of universities to meet the growing economy’s demand for graduates. At about the same time, the federal research enterprise and the federal budget for research began to increase. While many national science leaders may have thought that “the biomedical research system in the United States will expand indefinitely at a substantial rate”, the great recession of 2008 and the federal budget sequestration of 2013 have “put the biomedical research enterprise in the United States on an unsustainable path”. As the article states, “even the most successful scientists and most promising trainees are increasingly pessimistic about the future of their chosen career”.


While competition has always been part of the scientific enterprise, hyper-competition for resources and positions “suppresses the creativity, cooperation, risk-taking, and original thinking required to make fundamental discoveries”. In addition, because salaries can be charged to federal grants and are subject to indirect cost recovery, some institutions have increased the number of faculty by seeking as much faculty salary support as possible on federal grants. As a result, many faculty members at US academic institutions now compete for their own salaries, as well as funds to conduct research.


Another flaw in the current biomedical research system is that most successful biomedical scientists train many more graduate students or postdoctoral fellows than are needed to fill a finite number of employment opportunities in academia, government, or the private sector. A recent study by the NIH documents many important issues related to the current biomedical workforce. If new investigators are fortunate enough to land a research position in academia, they usually wait an average of 4-5 years to receive a federal research grant (compared to 1 year in 1980).


To create a more sustainable biomedical research enterprise, the authors suggest gradual implementation (perhaps as long as 10 years) of the following recommendations:

1)    Plan for predictable and stable funding of science by encouraging Congressional appropriators and the executive branch to consider adding a five-year projected fiscal plan to the current budgetary process.

2)    Bring the biomedical enterprise into sustainable equilibrium by gradually reducing the number of entrants into PhD training in biomedical science and to alter the ratio of trainees to staff scientists in research groups.

a.    Help transition outstanding young scientists into a broad range of careers.

b.    Move gradually to a system in which graduate students are supported with training grants and fellowships and not with research grants.

c.     Broaden and diversify the career paths for young scientists to include science policy, administration, the commerce of science, science writing, law, or science education at all levels such that only those seeking careers that demand additional research training will need postdoctoral research positions.

d.    Increase compensation for postdoctoral fellows

e.    Limit the total number of years that a postdoctoral fellow may be supported by federal research grants.

f.      Use permanent staff scientists to play increasingly important roles in the biomedical workforce.

3)    Grant-Making that Improves Scientific Productivity

a.    Improve the Goals and Mechanisms for Scientific Grants.

                                                       i.     Provide more stable support for outstanding investigators at various career stages, focusing as much (or more) on the overall quality of their science as on their proposed projects.

                                                     ii.     Build sunset provisions into all new programs and orchestrated team efforts. Encourage the growth of new fields, by direct support for new science and by a rigorous evaluation of existing programs.

                                                   iii.     Increase the number and kinds of awards that emphasize originality and risk-taking, especially in new areas of science, without requiring extensive preliminary results.

                                                     iv.     Agencies should be sensitive to the total number of dollars granted to individual laboratories.

b.    Improve Evaluation Criteria

                                                       i.     The tools used to judge past performance should be sharpened to identify the strongest candidates for support. Evaluation criteria should put a higher priority on the quality, novelty, and long-term objectives of the project rather than on numbers and venue of publications or on technical details.

                                                     ii.     Review guidelines should be appropriately adjusted for young scientists to reveal ingenuity and promise findings with potentially broad implications.

c.     Strengthening grant review panels

                                                       i.     The quality of review groups should be enhanced by taking advantage of the full range of talent in the scientific community.

                                                     ii.     Those who plan and assemble review groups should broaden the range of scientific problems judged by each group and include a diversity of fields on each panel.

d.    Evaluate programs, policies, and their implementation

4)    Address Policies that Undermine Sustainability

a.    Develop a plan to revise federal policies associated with indirect cost recovery.


The authors encourage discussion and debate of these issues and recommendations by academic institutions, scientific societies, funding organizations, and others to ensure the future viability of the US biomedical research enterprise. Indeed, without improvements to the current biomedical research enterprise in the US, the significant biological advances made during the past 50 years may never reach the intended goal of translation to improved human health and well-being.