NIH Report on Biomedical Workforce Released

In what might be a case of putting data and institutional weight behind conventional wisdom, the NIH Biomedical Workforce Working Group has released its draft report (or at least the executive summary and introduction while the report is being made 508 compliant – which I think means accessible for those with disabilities, but I lack context).  The working group was formed in April 2011 to consider such questions as:

  • What is the right size of the workforce?
  • What are the appropriate types of positions that should be supported to allow people to have successful careers and to continue to advance biomedical and behavioral sciences?
  • What is the best way to support these various positions?
  • What types of training should be provided?

The variety of topics covered by the recommendations in the Executive Summary suggest that this report could be long, detailed and sprawling.  Not unlike the research workforce it seeks to analyze. What will likely get the most attention are the recommendations that seem to recognize the long-understood conventional wisdom – too many students are being trained for too few academic positions.  The report encourages the development of staff scientist positions, capping the number of years for graduate student support and improving the support provided (in both salary and benefits) for postdocs.

While I applaud the better-late-than-never recommendations to acknowledge occupational reality, this report is insufficient for instilling the necessary changes.  There needs to be political will in both the NIH and key top-tier universities that receive its support. Given the reluctance of most in scientific communities to change long-standing practice, especially in the face of changing economic realities, I’m not terribly optimistic.  The NIH grantee communities seem mired in denial about the fact that the doubling of the agency’s budget came to an end, and won’t be repeated anytime soon.

For what it’s worth, the recommendations do seem responsive to many of the comments received from the NIH request for information in the fall of 2011. As I noted at that time, I think other fields could look long and hard at this report and see many of the same phenomena that biomedicine has been struggling and failing to deal with over the last dozen years.

The workforce working group was but one of three to report their recommendations on Thursday.  I’ve just not been following the other two working groups, which are focused on diversity in the biomedical workforce and data and informatics (which presented earlier today). Depending on what they said, there may be more to read in this space.  These reports are made to the NIH Director, who would be the one to issue formal policies based on these recommendations.

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