Lambert flagged an extremely important article at PNAS, the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, on what it describes as systemic flaws in biomedical research. I strongly urge you to read the article in full. It shows how US biomedical research is going down the tubes, with researchers spending far more time writing grant proposals than doing investigations, and with research increasingly focused on what amount to applications, or “instrumentalist” studies, rather than more fundamental work with higher payoffs.
The underlying problem is a huge mismatch between the supply of scientists and the research dollars now on offer. The PNAS account should put paid to the idea that the US has a broad based STEM crisis, as in a lack of people with sufficient training. Instead, the big problem is that universities and scientists expected the funds committed to biomedical research to continue to increase, and that combined with exciting new tools and technologies, made biomedical research seem like a promising career choice. But National Institutes of Health funding has fallen by at least 25% in real dollar terms since 2003 while the cost of studies has increased.
In the context of such progress, it is remarkable that even the most successful scientists and most promising trainees are increasingly pessimistic about the future of their chosen career. Based on extensive observations and discussions, we believe that these concerns are justified and that the biomedical research enterprise in the United States is on an unsustainable path.
One of the drivers is what amounts to a Ponzi scheme, that established scientists teach and leverage students well in excess of replacement levels. This is not unlike the law or consulting firm model, with one senior person who has a number of junior staffers working for him. At those firms, it is understood that not everyone will make partner and some of the younger employees will have to find a career elsewhere. This dynamic, by the way ia s big source of pressure for these firms to keep growing. An expanding business will provide more opportunities for the yeoman workers to become partners, which in turn makes the firm better able to attract top graduates. But in the biomedical research community overall, there simply aren’t enough job opportunities for all the scientists that have been trained:
The mismatch between supply and demand can be partly laid at the feet of the discipline’s Malthusian traditions. The great majority of biomedical research is conducted by aspiring trainees: by graduate students and postdoctoral fellows. As a result, most successful biomedical scientists train far more scientists than are needed to replace him- or herself; in the aggregate, the training pipeline produces more scientists than relevant positions in academia, government, and the private sector are capable of absorbing. Consequently a growing number of PhDs are in jobs that do not take advantage of the taxpayers’ investment in their lengthy education (2). Fundamentally, the current system is in perpetual disequilibrium, because it will inevitably generate an ever-increasing supply of scientists vying for a finite set of research resources and employment opportunities. The resulting strains have diminished the attraction of our profession for many scientists—novice and experienced alike.
The article describes how “hypercompetition” is leading more and more effort being devoted to non-science activities (grant writing and more elaborate papers) and perversely, to less ambitious research topics and most troubling of all, exaggeration or faking of results:
Now that the percentage of NIH grant applications that can be funded has fallen from around 30% into the low teens, biomedical scientists are spending far too much of their time writing and revising grant applications and far too little thinking about science and conducting experiments. The low success rates have induced conservative, short-term thinking in applicants, reviewers, and funders. The system now favors those who can guarantee results rather than those with potentially path-breaking ideas that, by definition, cannot promise success. Young investigators are discouraged from departing too far from their postdoctoral work, when they should instead be posing new questions and inventing new approaches. Seasoned investigators are inclined to stick to their tried-and-true formulas for success rather than explore new fields.
One manifestation of this shift to short-term thinking is the inflated value that is now accorded to studies that claim a close link to medical practice. Human biology has always been a central part of the US biomedical effort. However, only recently has the term “translational research” been widely, if unofficially, used as a criterion for evaluation. Overvaluing translational research is detracting from an equivalent appreciation of fundamental research of broad applicability, without obvious connections to medicine. Many surprising discoveries, powerful research tools, and important medical benefits have arisen from efforts to decipher complex biological phenomena in model organisms. In a climate that discourages such work by emphasizing short-term goals, scientific progress will inevitably be slowed, and revolutionary findings will be deferred (3).
Traditional standards for the practice of science are also threatened in this environment. Publishing scientific reports, especially in the most prestigious journals, has become increasingly difficult, as competition increases and reviewers and editors demand more and more from each paper. Long appendixes that contain the bulk of the experimental results have become the norm for many journals and accepted practice for most scientists. As competition for jobs and promotions increases, the inflated value given to publishing in a small number of so-called “high impact” journals has put pressure on authors to rush into print, cut corners, exaggerate their findings, and overstate the significance of their work. Such publication practices, abetted by the hypercompetitive grant system and job market, are changing the atmosphere in many laboratories in disturbing ways. The recent worrisome reports of substantial numbers of research publications whose results cannot be replicated are likely symptoms of today’s highly pressured environment for research (4⇓–6). If through sloppiness, error, or exaggeration, the scientific community loses the public’s trust in the integrity of its work, it cannot expect to maintain public support for science.
The article describes other symptoms of fundamental decay of the system: a degradation of the peer review system, scientists getting their first NIH grants much later in their career than was the case in 1980, and universities trying to cover more and more of their academic staff and other overhead costs with grants.
The PNAS paper makes specific recommendations, including one that would effectively reduce the number of graduate students in biomedical research, particularly the number of postdoctoral fellows, by having the students supported more by training grants and fellowships rather than research funding. Training of graduate students also needs to be broadened to increase their ability to find work outside academia. It also makes several suggestions on how to improve the grant-making process so as to focus it more on more original, potentially higher-payoff studies.
This paper is clearly meant to throw down a gauntlet to the scientific community. It describes processes that are at best dysfunctional and are starting to become corrupt. It’s distressing to see the practice of science degraded by the same mercenary and survival pressures that afflict much of the rest of the economy.