The Crapification of Biomedical Research

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.

Here is the PNAS overview:

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.

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  1. John

    Some of us who follow the life science industry could see Big Pharma losing it’s grip. Many of them have slashed their R&D budgets over the years and re-structured them into smaller, entrepreneurial departments without much success. (Big Pharma and the Biotech industries spent $1.1T on R&D between 2002 – 2011.) Once you get to know the industry players you come realize a few things. Because quarterly results are so important, trimming R&D was expected to deliver better results, I mean better results for Wall Street and to the CEOs. Patent protections played too important of a role in decision making. I would add that some, small, niche, biotech companies held all the cards with their life-saving medications for extremely rare diseases. Since they had the patents, they charged anything they wanted for these drugs. I’m talking in the tens-of-thousands of dollars per treatment.

    Delivering care is a thing of the past. Its about delivering as much money to the CEOs and shareholders as possible. Unfortunately, this is not just an American biotech / pharma phenomenon, most international players are in the same profit driven camp.

    1. mikkel

      I found this to be a major oversight of the PNAS paper. Granted, the paper was correct in all of its points, but it is self flagellating to not include the relationship to the private sector. When the private sector had strong applied research in order to translate the basic science done by public grants, then a wide variety of scientists could find places and profits were (arguably) justified by risk.

      Yet as a commenter below has personally experienced, with the private sector R&D collapsing to increase profits, corporate capture has turned public grants into free corporate opportunity. Couple that with universities underwriting a lot of start ups, and the larger biomed players are now little more than M&A shells. I know people that have sat in meetings with top biomed decision makers and they see themselves in this light — the whole “our profits are justified because of our risk” is a canard. The only risk is business, not investigational.

      Moreover, these corporations then do everything in their power to minimize their tax burden and have thus completely broken the social contract. In my opinion, if the government is going to insist on applied “translational” research, then they might as well just keep the IP and license it. At least then it’d probably be able to pay for itself.

      The scenario is just as bad in computing, where most of Silicon Valley arises out of either directly academic research or an academic/military collaboration. So often Google or Apple get credited for “inventing” something, but with a little bit of research you can quickly discover the small company they bought which was founded to commercialize some Masters or Ph.D thesis. However, at least the computing giants have a semblance of R&D, which is more than I can say about biomed.

  2. Paper Mac

    “The underlying problem is a huge mismatch between the supply of scientists and the research dollars now on offer.”

    That’s part of the problem, but I don’t think it’s “the underlying problem”, nor is the ponzi structure of graduate training. My feeling, as someone who’s been through the graduate training system and at the bench over the last 12 years, is that the biomedical sciences, particularly molecular biology, are now experiencing diminishing returns. Even if all the problems in the PNAS paper (which are real, intractable, and are driving myself and many other taxpayer-trained graduates out of the field) were somehow rectified, and we had more funding and more researchers, I don’t think we’d be achieving major breakthroughs in basic research at a much greater pace.

    Although instrument manufacturers in the bubblicious biotech sector are fond of claiming that basically what biologists need is bigger, deeper, ever-more-multiparametric datasets, we’re now at the point where it’s possible to generate absurdly deep, rich datasets for almost no money. It’s a couple grand on an Illumina Hiseq platform to get a full genome, or a map of proteins bound to that genome, or a full transcriptome, or whatever you want. I can get full transcriptomes from single cells that I’ve laser ablated out of fresh tissue sections. I can watch neurons firing in live, freely-moving animals in real time in response to stimuli and construct full wiring diagrams of the relevant pathways using existing transgenic animals and off-the-shelf tech for maybe a million bucks starting from scratch. We’ve got an incredible amount of whiz-bang at our fingertips and while more would be nice, I don’t think jacking up the rate at which we’re accumulating data is going to produce more genuine knowledge, given that we’re barely making use of what we’ve got.

    The physicists and engineers who believe that biologists basically have enough data but are just bad at math and theory are a little closer to the truth. The ones who actually get involved in the fray usually eventually realise that the problem is less that biologists are mathematical illiterates and more that the data are incredibly recalcitrant to theorising about. We’ve got to the point where the low hanging fruit, on both the basic side and the applied side, have been picked, and we’re piling up data about systems that we just don’t have theoretical tools to deal with. We’re at the point now where we’re throwing obscene amounts of money at projects like the BRAIN initiative, run by guys like Christof Koch, who in a recent interview with Wired ( expressed the opinion that consciousness is basically a function of the number of connections in a system and the throughput of those connections (the latter caveat is added to explain why the internet is not conscious). If this sounds a lot like the philosophically braindead program of the American AI folks in the 70s, that’s because it’s the same goddamn idea that Hubert Dreyfus memorably shot down at that time. Mapping the human brain isn’t going to do a thing for us as long as we have biologists who don’t have the philosophical or conceptual tools to deal with the data they’re generating.

    In any case, from my perspective this is all a bit of a wank anyway amongst the anointed clergy of the Church of Progress (that is, those of us in the sciences). We’re well into a diminishing returns dynamic here, the major breakthroughs have been made, and we need systems theory and philosophy to catch up with us, which is going to take decades. All of the work we’re doing right now is incredibly energy intensive and dependent on highly distributed global manufacturing and logistic infrastructure, not to mention funding from governments that are much less interested in the mysteries of life and consciousness than they are in GDP-enhancers. Climate change, peak oil, and the ongoing failure of capitalism are going to preclude anything but desperate scrambles for GDP enhancers (ie lab-grown organs so wealthy Americans can drink themselves to death and then get new livers) and vectors for corporate neofeudalism (patentable drought, salt-tolerant plants). Those of us who are genuinely concerned about what the biomedical sciences can contribute to the world as it’s shaping up down the pike need to be less concerned about pumping more money into philosophically bankrupt “get more Big Data and we’ll figure it out” research programs and more concerned with determining how we can bequeath a robust, sustainable molecular biology toolkit to future generations who won’t have the profligate energy expenditures or global logistical systems we benefit from; this might actually help them deal with disease, the necessity of adapting plants to changing climate, and so on. Unfortunately, what we have instead is a scientific and academic establishment that is completely blinkered to the reality that their students are going to see the preconditions for pursuing their work evaporate within their lifetimes.

    1. Paper Mac

      Apologies for the length of this comment. TL;DR: Basic underlying problem is diminishing returns; climate, energy, economic crises mean this is largely irrelevant anyway; focus on handing down knowledge & tech that will be usable under actual conditions likely to be faced by subsequent generations is more productive than hoping for major breakthroughs from basic research which probably require philosophy & systems theory to catch up to data.

      1. Skeptic

        “Basic underlying problem is diminishing returns; climate, energy, economic crises mean this is largely irrelevant anyway; focus on handing down knowledge & tech that will be usable under actual conditions likely to be faced by subsequent generations….”

        I agree except that Science itself may do us in. How much “bad” Science do we need to trash the Biosphere itself? Very little. Bill Joy, ex chief scientist at Sun Microsystems discusses this in his piece, WHY THE FUTURE DOESN’T NEED US.

        The underlying assumption that Science is all Good, No Evil and only has to be better done is a recipe for extinction.

    2. mikkel

      This is exactly true. I went into the field thinking that perhaps the more advanced math and mindset of systems theory would help elucidate the matters, only to find that biology doesn’t play so kindly. The fact that biology is the study of a self organizing and adaptive system means that any reductionism is out the window and even the basic premise of the scientific method is suspect for going much further than we have.

      We’ve made enormous strides of understanding when we can control everything, like the myriad of genetically altered mouse/rat strains which can represent just about anything. But I’m not sold it tells us much about the health of normal field mice, let alone humans. In fact, I know for a fact that much of the biomedical science is built on cases where our “understanding” has no relevance to humans whatsoever, because the basic mechanism is so different in the test subjects. The researchers would joke that if they were actually expected to discover relevance to humans, they should be allowed to experiment on them, but it was the morbid sort of joke one makes when you feel your work is largely pointless and yet cannot conceive of any way for it to be better.

      At one conference, some of the physicists and engineer sorts you mentioned gave a presentation. They were actually from NASA and worked on the space shuttle program, only to switch to biology in the late 80s to “quickly fix the problems of the field.” They had naively thought that better math and more data would be the answer, but decades of frustration left its mark.

      Their conclusion is that in order to get much further we’d need to have completely new logic, philosophy and mathematics, which would take at best hundreds if not a thousand years.

      It confirmed what I had begun to suspect and led me to quit, so that I could focus on climate, energy and economics. Not only is it more urgent, but it’s also more rewarding. Plus, the best biomedical advance that can be made is for people to eat better, live more actively, reduce their anxiety and find purpose in life. Those things will do more than any scientific breakthrough and are well within our power.

      I often wish that most of the biomed researchers — who are greatly pained by the collapse of social justice and the environment — would quit and put their talents to more immediate use. But that would mean leaving academia and most cannot fathom the thought.

        1. Steverino

          I’m reminded of the old joke about the guy who cleaned up the elephant poop following circus performances. After complaining at length about what a filthy disgusting job it was, he was asked why he didn’t find another line of work. Incredulous, he responded “What?! And quit show business??!!”

      1. Paper Mac

        I’m pleased you were able to escape, Mikkel!! Best of luck with your (now undoubtedly much more practical) endeavours.

      2. A reader

        At one conference, some of the physicists and engineer sorts you mentioned gave a presentation. They were actually from NASA and worked on the space shuttle program, only to switch to biology in the late 80s to “quickly fix the problems of the field.” They had naively thought that better math and more data would be the answer, but decades of frustration left its mark.

        Their conclusion is that in order to get much further we’d need to have completely new logic, philosophy and mathematics, which would take at best hundreds if not a thousand years.

        Do you have some reference to this, like a paper, name of the scientists, or similar? I’m very interested in this.

      3. Skeptic

        I am late to the Party here but will add this.

        Your comment is very important because it highlights the fact that very few professionals/well educated want to recognize that anything is wrong in their chosen field or even that, maybe, everything is wrong. This goes not only for technically trained people but for all other careers.

        I myself was working with computers back in the 80s and saw the many, many errors of their ways and quit and did something else. Very, very few people even do this because as the years go by the $$$ gets better, the experience in the BS builds and there is even more $$$$.

        The best illustratioin of the above I ever heard was in the book ONE STRAW REVOLUTION by the famous Japanese Philosopher and natural food advocate Masanobu Fukuoka. He told a story about a Japanese bureaucrat who had finally become Minister Of Agriculture. He had devoted his life to Westernizing and industrializing Japan’s food system. He had finally come to realize the folly of it all and recognized that his whole life had been spent doing something that was wrong. What a tragedy for anybody to come to that realization at the end of their life.

        1. TheCatSaid

          Fukuoka’s book is remarkable for its insight and clarity.
          After years as a successful plant pathologist he underwent an experience that transformed him and changed all aspects of how he looked at plants and agriculture. (Fukuoka is not the bureaucrat–Fukuoka fortunately had many years to put his insights in practice and teach others.)
          In particular he questioned whether various steps considered “absolutely necessary” were actually necessary, and he experimented a lot. He developed a more intimate connection to nature in the process.
          If more people were familiar with this book the world would be a better place.

          In terms of Fukuoka’s life-changing experience, it reminds me of another excellent book, “The Man Who Planted Trees” by Jim Robbins, describing David Milarch’s life-changing experience which led to him developing the Champion Tree project.

    3. Banger

      Good comment–you’re touching on a lot of things that are important but key here is your statement about philosophy and systems theory needing to catch up to the science. I would put it the other way around but it depends on who “we” actually are. The Western Humanist project of which modern science is a part of has broken down. Science has decided to go off on its own, so to speak, mirroring C.P. Snow’s ideas of the two cultures (and obviously science is superior etc.). We need to re-integrate the whole tradition. Official science has been ignoring inconvenient findings including the world of anomolies–i.e., if it can’t be measured (or, just as often won’t be measured) and replicated in structured experiments then it doesn’t exist and no amount of data on, say, UFO abductions (see the investigation of John Mack and others), but extending through all kinds of things by not taking on the implications of the frontiers of research which I don’t have time to go into. This mentality is, of course, not limited to institutional science but extends even more to society. As information has grown we become more confused as we try to make sense of it all using very limited tools, for example, the very limited tools of official Science–not that these tools aren’t useful but they don’t see, for example, what can be seen by experimenting with consciousness through yogic practices or psychedelic drugs and so on and so on and so on. In fact, philosophy itself has, in the West died because it cannot take in unofficial theories of reality that Western Humanism did not have trouble integrating in the 19th century, for example, or in the work of William James. There is a world of huge possibilities out there but Science refuses to look beyond very narrow confines (determined, of course, by funding). I remember reading an autobiographical piece by Werner Heisenberg as where he state that he could see the “end” of physics and the next frontier would be metaphysics or something like that–I can’t remember his exact words. But it is in that area we have to work–to expand the boundaries of consciousness would be a nice start (see the discussion in the links of 6/28 here at NC on Terrence McKenna here at NC).

      1. TheCatSaid

        The former Soviet Union used to be way ahead of the USA in terms of it’s openness to researching a broader reality.
        I’ve no idea what the current state of scientific thinking is in Russia, but the range of acceptable research topics and methodologies is probably still broader than in the West. Maybe that will be lost due to corporate interests though, as they “catch up” (ugh).

    4. jgordon

      I like seeing the ideas of diminishing returns of science and the likely outcome of our current unsustainable path aired on finance/political sites like this. It just might shock a few people who are in positions to do useful things enough to mitigate, a bit, the horrors that are in store for the planet, not to mention our species.

      Tangentially, at this time nuclear power poses a far greater threat to the continued existence of life on earth than climate change (which itself is admittedly pretty disturbing), and it would be nice for people to acknowledge that fact and deal with it accordingly. I can easily imagine a future of rising oceans swamping nuclear reactors left and right, all while the human species largely exhausted the fossil fuel resources required to mitigate that (existential) disaster.

    5. Nathanael

      Biology isn’t amenable to generalizations like physics and chemistry were. (This is a side effect of evolution.) Each problem has to be researched independently.

      1. TheCatSaid

        The real “problem” is that there is no such thing as researching anything “independently”.
        This is exactly the kind of limitation we will have to learn to go beyond.
        We have to learn more about how to deal with “wholes” rather than parts. Nature does this all the time. Focusing more on this partnership is long overdue–but it’s not something that will be funded by grants..

  3. amateur socialist

    Another disconnect was highlighted in a recent Frontline on multiple drug resistant bacterial infection outbreaks, some of which are occurring (very quietly mind you) in hospitals. We don’t have many new antibiotics in the pipeline – as the last 1/3 of the Frontline piece highlighted, they turn out to be lousy investments compared with drugs taken for lifetime chronic conditions (i.e. diabetes, arthritis, alzheimer’s etc.)

    It is difficult to make the economics work for new antibiotics; by definition they have to be prescribed as carefully as possible to keep them from conveying resistance to a new generation of superbugs. Watching the program made me idly wonder why insurers didn’t see fit to underwrite antibiotic research? They are the ones most likely to be affected by minor cuts and infections turning out to require amputations/transplants after all. But since that’s not likely to happen it begs the question: How to manage devoting spare research resources to meet significant clinical need that will have to be used as sparingly as possible on the few patients unlucky enough to be affected (many because they were unlucky to be in the wrong hospital for a routine procedure on a bad day).

    It is difficult to visualize the profit maximizing tendency in big pharma continuing to rationalize this work. So how else to do it except at public expense/underwriting? Most of which is subject to political games/brinksmanship etc.

    1. scott

      I read an abstract a few months back where it was found that naturally occurring Staph can out-compete the MRSA type (which isn’t genetically resistant as much as a quick biofilm producer). Having multiple wild Staph strains on the skin prevents the MRSA strain from taking over. Bottom line, don’t sterilize the operation site.

      1. mellon

        Numerous plant substances should be considered to be natural plant antimicrobials or antifungals seem to have been evolved to penetrate the multidrug resistance when combined with antibiotics, but despite the fact that a number of studies have had success with this approach, this isn’t widely known at all. What’s happening is the drug industry is lobbying to try to take over these cheap and effective treatment strategies, (many of which are currently available to anybody who can find them – They want to take advantage of the lack of knowledge – which they seem to be trying to increase, then, after having gotten their way, patent them (even though they did not invent them) and then make the plant substances unavailable or try to demand royalties from doctors who use them. The US Big Pharma industry is really kind of sick to be doing this.

        1. TheCatSaid

          And ultimately, stopping our warfare on microbes is another mental readjustment that is overdue.
          We have more than 10 times as many microbes as we have cells. We need to cooperate, not wage war. We need a healthy, balanced microbial population in order for us to be healthy.

  4. Hayek's Heelbiter

    And don’t forget the crapification of an alternate source of employment – the private sector.

    I’m a former organic chemist who spent far too many nights in the lab while liberal arts students were out partying. Ultimately, when yet again the third company for which I worked had its R&D budget lopped by the revolving door MBAs to give themselves huge bonuses (and weaken the company to the point it was a takeover target, by which point said MBAs were long gone), I decided that enough was enough.

    I dropped out of the science biz to manage a rock-and-roll band, a career choice that was both financially and emotionally more satisfying.

    Ps. My advisor was the world’s leading authority on sesquiterpene lactones. At the time, most people (including to a degree, myself) were thinking, “What possible use could these inconsequential compounds have?”
    Forty years later, it turns out that these compounds have tremendous cancer fighting ability, and there is a great amount of research being done on them (more and more in China). But these advances would not have been possible without the seemingly pointless basic investigations done so many years ago.

    1. Susan Pizzo

      Ah the private sector – and the privatization of everything. My very successful scientist husband is retiring after 43 years from what used to be a leading institution and he has many observations to make on the subject of a less than independent National Academy, the dwindling of public funding for basic science, and the encroachment of private corporations when it comes to dwindling funding streams. Very few of his grad students and post-docs are US born as the smart kids have been following the money into MBA-land for years. I question the assertion of a surfeit of young researchers the way I question it in my own field of computer science. What’s lacking is funding and a will to invest in the US and its future. Moreover what funding exists comes out of DoD, requires a corporate partner, or stipulates precisely what work will be funded and what (specifically ‘translational’ ie immediately useful) results will be achieved. You may not be amazed to hear that crony insider scientists and corporations make a lot of hay out of such an approach – with little concrete advances to show for it.

      Bottom line? The forces at work in the broader economy are also at work in the field of science. Think not? Check out the Science twitterverse where talk of winner-take-all science is trending strongly…

  5. BigRed

    It’s the same thing in computer science, for example, especially in Machine Learning and Data Mining, currently rebranded as “Big Data”.

    I haven’t read the paper yet but do they maybe, in addition to:

    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.

    also call for increased public funding? If not, their proposals will be effectively still-born.

  6. David Lentini

    I think each of the four comments makes very valid points. Having been though this myself, albeit about 25 years ago, here are my comments.

    It’s great that the PNAS published on this very important topic, but this problem was recognized years ago. I remember that not long after I started graduate school in chemistry at Harvard, a professor in Caltech’s physics department wrote an “apology” to his students after he realized that far fewer jobs would be available than graduates. I saw this at work myself. Within a couple of years I noticed many students who got their Ph.D. left research, and those who wanted even teaching jobs at small colleges had to do two or even three post-docs.

    Comments I heard from both faculty and older graduates point to two major factors in the development of the graduate glut: the draft deferments given during the Viet Nam War and Sputnik. The first lead schools to agree to keep students for longer periods to help them avoid the draft; the second provided the flood of money for scientific research in the ’60s. For biomedical research, Nixon’s War on Cancer was another deluge in the early ’70s. These factors led to a shift in the behavior of graduate programs towards lengthening the time to finish a thesis (it was eight years and growing when I quit in 1989) and larger laboratories.

    The contraction of industrial research in the ’70s and ’80s was another problem. Those who were in school in the late ’50s and early ’60s have stories about how hard it was to keep students more than a few years, because industry was very competitive in attracting students out of college and graduate programs. Also, in the ’80s schools started closing endowed professorships as their holders retired.

    In short, the research university model we imported and adopted from Germany about 130 years ago is starting to collapse under its own weight. The idea that we could keep funding research by neophyte academics and maintain a nearly geometric growth curve is absurd. Worse, the American model in which students quickly move into research fields has destroyed the intellectual culture of our colleges and universities by balkanzing academic disciplines and forcing students to pursue expertise in a narrow field far too early.

    About diminishing returns and antibiotics, since I’ve spent much of my time working in the biopharmaceutical industry as a patent attorney I’ll add my two cents. I think the biggest problem in biology is not just the data glut enabled by the various technologies, but the fact that these technologies all keep researchers looking under the same lamppost. The great shock that the human genome has far fewer recognizable genes that we expected, which should not have been that big a surprise in my opinion, and other more recent discoveries, suggests that our understanding of biology at the molecular level is far too simplistic. We need better theories and different approaches, not more of the same data. System theory may help, but I think the problem runs much deeper.

    As for antibiotics, the industry has done more than many realize. The problem is the risk profile that the FDA and pharmas will accept. I’ve seen some very promising compounds put on the shelf because of a potential toxicity issue that many scientists complained was not likely to be a big deal. One of the biggest problems in drug research is the lack of good predictive models and tests for toxicity. In a business that has become very warped by profit seeking, the desire to take on new problems and the risks of research has dwindled.

  7. Middle Seaman

    Research funding in the US is falling consistently for at least 15 years. It happens to be part of lack of investment in infrastructure, here in biomedical research. Universities, the largest concentration of biomedical research, are growing in faculty of most kinds. The competition for research support is tough and the average number of grants one has to write to get money increases drastically. That’s simple arithmetic and the the large number of able competitors/researchers.

    Every area of human endeavor hits the wall eventually (diminishing returns above). That’s not really a problem; we, i.e. people, always find some giant (e.g. Newton or less) who catapults the area to a new high. Or, people move fields. Personally, I worked in one area for 20 years and a different area on in the last decade. Researchers are good students.

    Research is done by graduate students and post-docs and supervised by a researcher. That’s not a bug; it’s a very important and profound feature. Students are young, bright, creative and hard working. The research results they produce are great, essential and a great overall contribution to research, themselves, their supervisors and to society.

    Do we have too many researcher in biomedical sciences? Probably, but so what. Redundancy exists in every niche of life. This includes, your too many shirts, too many VPs, too much money paid to dysfunctional CEOs, too many gas stations, too many workers here and there and not surprisingly too many researchers. Too many is like aging, it happens. No point in fighting it.

    1. mellon

      What we have is a failing business model. the business model which has sustained us for centuries has reached the end of its usefulness and the world is struggling to figure out a good new one that is appropriate for a world of abundance where nobody “needs” to work to maintain society’s output.

      When its found, assuming its not more of the same, then, all of those who don’t care about their fields and were “just” working for money will drop out, leaving only those who really love what they do. Lots of other in many cases talented people, freed of the burden of having 90% of their time taken by something they don’t like, will be able to pursue their own – whatever- in many cases it WILL be research!

      Soon, that will pay off in a sudden renaissance of creative and dare I say it, also economic activity.

      Poof, problem solved.

  8. DakotabornKansan

    In 1961, in a less-cited section of his “Farewell Address” to the nation, Dwight D. Eisenhower warned of a “scientific-technological élite” that would dominate public policy. Eisenhower asked Americans to hold science in respect but to beware the “danger that public policy could itself become the captive of a scientific-technological elite.”

    “Akin to, and largely responsible for the sweeping changes in our industrial-military posture, has been the technological revolution during recent decades. In this revolution, research has become central; it also becomes more formalized, complex, and costly. A steadily increasing share is conducted for, by, or at the direction of, the Federal government.

    Today, the solitary inventor, tinkering in his shop, has been overshadowed by task forces of scientists in laboratories and testing fields. In the same fashion, the free university, historically the fountainhead of free ideas and scientific discovery, has experienced a revolution in the conduct of research. Partly because of the huge costs involved, a government contract becomes virtually a substitute for intellectual curiosity. For every old blackboard there are now hundreds of new electronic computers. The prospect of domination of the nation’s scholars by Federal employment, project allocations, and the power of money is ever present — and is gravely to be regarded.

    Yet, in holding scientific research and discovery in respect, as we should, we must also be alert to the equal and opposite danger that public policy could itself become the captive of a scientific-technological elite.

    It is the task of statesmanship to mold, to balance, and to integrate these and other forces, new and old, within the principles of our democratic system — ever aiming toward the supreme goals of our free society.” – Dwight D. Eisenhower, Farewell Address, delivered January, 17, 1961

    Eisenhower’s words carrying as much meaning and are as relevant for us today.

  9. mf

    Anyone who has been trained as a physicist in the last thirty years understands very well what is happening in biomedical sciences. This is a sputnik syndrome. Nothing can grow exponentially forever, not even biomedical sciences. There was a time in not too distant past, when yearly increase in the NIH budget (increase, delta, not the budget) was larger than the entire budget of the National Science Foundation. This sort of thing cannot continue indefinitely, so you have now the beginning of the shakeout.
    I also agree with some posters here that biology is very complicated, compared to just about anything else. So there must be many dead ends, and probably lots of unrewarding careers spent there.

  10. Jim A

    It’s my impression that as the MBAs rather than MDs and PHDs started running the big pharma companies that they have to some extant switched to a “wildcat” business model. Rather than developing new drugs in house, they rely on buying out small companies that have developed drugs. Instead of discovery, big pharma’s “core competency” is development, that is doing the studies required to get drugs approved by the FDA. This serves to insulate the big company from the costs and risks of discovering new drugs. The downside is that it is harder for small start-up companies to muster the resources to actually discover new drugs.

    1. RUKidding

      Not a scientist but have friends who are, and that’s the impression I have from what they’ve said. Some friends have a small lab, where they’ve been working on Alzheimer’s meds (to ameliorate the condition) but spend tons of time writing grants & not enough time doing the research they’d like to do. Have lost touch with them, so unsure how things are going now. The 2008 crash resulted in a huge loss in NIH funding for these small labs and lots more competition for grants.

  11. Lune

    I agree with everything the PNAS article mentions, but wish to add a few points

    1) As much as biomedical researchers complain about the lack of funding, the NIH *dwarfs* every other source of civilian science funding combined. I sympathize with the complaints (I’m a physician) but this is biomedicine’s post-Sputnik moment. The NIH’s budget doubled between 1998-2003. It could not continue growing at that pace. If geometric supply growth (multiple students per researcher) meets less than geometric demand growth, inevitably a shaking out will occur. We witness large portions of math and physics majors head to Wall St for the same reason. I’m not saying this is a good phenomenon (asking a youngster to waste 8-10 years of his/her life developing skills which ultimately won’t be used is pretty cruel, not to mention a waste of taxpayer money). Ultimately, the field itself will need to develop a way to constrain the supply of researchers to the demand.

    In some respects, this is very similar to medical residencies: residents are highly skilled, super-cheap (often below minimum wage) labor that is essential to keep an academic hospital running. It would be much cheaper for hospitals to hire a bunch of extra residents than more full-time physicians or even NPs/PAs (who get paid much more than residents for doing less work). They even used to have what were called pyramidal residencies (especially in surgical fields) where they would hire 5 first years and cut a position every year until only 1 person graduated fully trained after 5 years. The only thing that keeps this in check is that residencies are accredited by the specialty associations and hospitals have to apply for extra slots. This allows for overall supply management which can’t happen when everyone hires their own cheap labor without consequences for the field — or even their own students — at large. While plenty of arguments are made that they go too far and constrain supply too much in order to drive up their own salaries, a similar system of accrediting PhD programs might at least avoid this tragedy of the commons.

    2) As other posters have mentioned, biomedicine has been hit with a double whammy of stagnant public funding and declining private funding. I agree that drug companies these days have turned into little more than M&A shops or at best venture capitalists: their strength is in shepherding a drug through the extensive clinical trials process and then marketing it afterwards. It is no longer in doing the fundamental drug discovery process, which is now done by numerous small biotech startups (often started by researchers in academia who realize they’ll get more money from a VC firm than from the NIH) which are then bought out by the majors when they find something promising. Increasingly, even the clinical trials are being outsourced to specialist firms while drug companies focus on the marketing effort required to turn a drug into a billion dollar blockbuster.

    3) IMHO, large Universities are no longer supporters of academics, they’re parasites. It used to be that universities spent time, effort, and money to educate and develop researchers. But now, with increasing amounts of grants that must be paid as “overhead”, researchers and labs are seen as profit centers who generate revenue for the University, not the other way around. In clinical medical research (which is what I’m most familiar with), young physicians who wanted to develop an academic career and therefore started in a university practice would be given protected research time, perhaps a funded grad student, and reduced clinical responsibilities, at least for a few years until he could start getting his own grants. In return, he earned a lower salary than his private practice peers. Nowadays, academic physicians are expected to see as many patients or do as many surgeries as someone in private practice (leaving little time for research), find his own funding right away, of which he must pay a high overhead to the University on top of the Dean’s tax on his clinical income, all for the privilege of paying rent on a cramped closet that he calls his lab. I imagine the scenario is similar for PhDs.

    I trained at a very academic residency where half of our incoming residents were already MD/PhDs. Our reputation in the field was that of actually producing real clinician-scientists. Our chairman had done some pioneering basic research on primates during his early years. And yet I was surprised that when I was having dinner with him on the eve of my graduation (he was retiring that year as well), he told me that the era of the clinical-scientist was over. In an era of declining reimbursements and increased revenue demands from the university, you had to work full time in clinical medicine just to meet your salary and pay your Dean’s tax. (What’s more, basic science is now complex enough that you can’t effectively participate in it or supervise it on a part-time basis anymore either).

    In short, biomedical research (as is all research, I suspect), is being hit with stagnant public funding, declining private funding, and increased rent extraction from a predatory university structure, all while trying to maintain a system of education with geometric output growth. Not a great recipe for success…

  12. Ron Peters

    If one of the fundamental problems is too many scientists chasing too few dollars, isn’t one of the solutions to create fewer scientists?

  13. impermanence

    All endeavors are subject to human frailty. The rot which has putrefied the hub, has metastasized to the spokes, as well.

    Science suggests that our lives are not good enough, that we can improve the quality of our existence, but this is a false promise, a never-ending treadmill of hoping for that which is never quite good enough [to allay our fears].

    Science can never be a substitute for coming to grips with life as it is right here, right now. Regardless of its “progress,” we will never overcome the cycle of birth-life-death, no matter how much we may wish that what is new [and improved] will distract us from the only reality we know to be certain.

  14. Globus Pallidus XI

    Indeed, well said. But of course, this is all by deliberate design.

    Currently there is an immigration ‘reform’ bill under consideration that would provide an unconditional amnesty to countless foreign nationals who are in the country illegally, and to all of their relatives overseas. But that’s a detail. The main event is the opening up of massive increases in legal immigration: many of these new programs have no numerical limits. In other words the country will be completely open to the entire overpopulated third world. The point of this ‘reform’ is obvious: to flood the market for labor, to drive down wages and living standards for the many, while driving up profits for the few. End of story.

    However, there is a toxic meme that some of this massive increase in immigration is because you will somehow benefit from having more people with ‘skills’. This is, typically, pure rubbish. This ‘reform’ will not only impoverish all workers – skilled and unskilled alike – it will also destroy the ability of the United States to innovate at the cutting edge of science and technology.

    The immigration policy that gave the United States people like Einstein, Fermi and Szilard was a restrictive one, that used your wealth and opportunities to attract the best from around the world, while sharply limiting the number of more ordinary people (even those with nominal physics degrees) to a number that would not drive wages down nor increase crowding. This restrictive policy helped make the United States the world’s preeminent technological power.

    The current policy has a very different purpose. It is to open the doors to unlimited immigration of people the majority of whom have (for their job classifications) average or below average ability. This will surely boost the profits of tech CEOs with business models based on large numbers of low-wage workers, but it will drive away the best minds. Albert Einstein never expressed a desire to move to Bangladesh now did he?

    Immigration ‘reform’ won’t just drive away the best minds from other countries; it will do so at home as well. As job prospects in science and engineering continue to stagnate and decline, more and more of the hardest-working and most talented Americans (including the descendents of recent immigrants) will gravitate to protected fields such as medicine. There is nothing wrong with medicine attracting good people, but if only losers who can’t get into medical school do science and engineering, well, how is that improving the quality of American science and engineering?

    Imagine a big research university. To improve it should both support current faculty and also work hard to recruit the best talent from outside. Suppose that this University simply hired all external applicants without limit or discrimination, and divided up the existing funds for salaries and lab and office space. Before too long the faculty would be crowded and poor, and anyone with any real talent would have left. As with a University, so with a nation: it can happen here.

    Of course a University – or a corporation, or a nation – can grow, but always mindful of the available opportunities and resources. Dumping an additional ten thousand engineers into a company that only has need for a thousand will NOT instantly cause this company’s business income to grow enough to pay for them. That’s ridiculous. So is the notion that bringing in more average-level scientists and engineers, when you don’t have enough jobs for the ones you have already, will magically improve your industries and create more than enough wealth to cover the living expenses for them and their extended families. Not gonna happen.

    Finally, immigration ‘reform’ will destroy the integrity and honor without which high-level science cannot exist. Competition is necessary for you humans: without competition even the most self-motivated hominids tend to slack off. On the other hand, when competition reaches the point that even the best have more chance of winning the lottery than succeeding through honest achievement, well, people will eventually stop playing by the rules. Cronyism and nepotism, which will always be present in all human societies but which under good circumstances can be reduced to a tolerable level, will dominate. Past a certain point too much zero-sum competition will reduce the level of achievement, not increase it.

    Consider present-day India. The population is about a billion crammed into a country a third the size of the United States. There are more people there with above-average intelligence than the entire population of the United States. And yet half the Indian population is chronically malnourished, and the average physical standard of living is below that of late medieval Europe. All those smart people have made a lot of money for India’s high-tech billionaires, but seem to have done little for the average Indian. And more: despite all this talent, the contribution of India to modern science is negligible. Part of this is because the most talented Indians leave, part is because the resources required to innovate are in short supply, but a lot has to be the culture of corruption and cronyism that this level of poverty always creates. When people can only feed their families by cheating, you cannot blame them: blame instead those vile politicians and pundits that pushed to create these circumstances in the first place.

    This is the future of the United States if immigration ‘reform’ passes. The average person will be slowly but steadily crushed into poverty, and the torch of scientific and technological innovation will be passed to some other, less impoverished land that has fewer people with ‘skills’, but that has more available resources and the ability to keep and attract the best. That’s how it has always worked, and it’s how it will work in the future.

    1. mellon

      The US always makes a lot of noise about other countries being “free riders” on biomedical research but that meme has many inaccuracies.

      In my opinion, by allowing so many promising young people to be priced out of an adequate enough education for them to contribute to 21st century society, the US is itself “free riding” on other countries investments in their own people’s educations and dooming its own future, should the brain drain slow and start moving in the other direction. We’re shooting ourselves in the foot.

      Why isn’t the US funding education and research adequately? Arrogance, hubris. A increasingly unrealistic expectation that foreign scientists will want to locate here indefinitely, without the support that a vibrant US scientific community would needs to become self-sustaining again.

      The bar to employment keeps rising, both because the sum total of human knowledge keeps rising, and because of the computer, which is creating millions of low cost “workers” who will work for the cost of the electricity. So the entry level for many of the sciences is (for engineering) basically a MS, and for the pure sciences, a PhD. People also should have been more realistic about demand.

      On a related subject, the second link below (the TTIP one) has a new (to me) leaked document- which is the EU TTIP services offer. So, now I am confused. I dont know how it dovetails with TISA. Does anybody have any ideas how they interrelate? TISA/TTIP, etc? thank you.

  15. Jake Mudrosti

    Whew, it’s good to see more awareness of this issue, since my earlier link to it apparently went unseen:

    There’s lots of jaw-dropping crapification that could be linked to. For example the craptastic FIRST Act, for which immediate attention can help a lot:

    I scanned the text of H.R.4186 and can’t immediately say whether the following quote (from the first link) is describing emphasis on (which is unmistakably there in the bill’s text) or requirement for (which the following quote implies, but for which my quick scan of the bill’s text didn’t turn up anything): “According to the bill, scientists applying for an NSF grant will have to demonstrate how their research benefits the economy or protects the national security of the United States.”

    From the last link: “APS believes the legislation in its current form threatens to do irreparable harm to the nation’s scientific and technology enterprise rather than strengthening it.” That, definitely.

    Help! No way for these voices to be heard….

  16. Jake Mudrosti

    A good place to check for key updates:
    From June 6: “None of the proposed grant application restrictions contained in the FIRST Act made it into the House’s CJS budget [H.R.4660] …” Okay.

    But has yet to take its final form:
    “Major recorded votes: 05/30/2014 : Passed House
    Latest action: 06/19/2014: Motion to proceed to consideration of measure agreed to in Senate by Voice Vote”

  17. Jonathan Latham

    In my view there is much missing from this thread:
    1) Overreliance of research on reductionism (of which the big data problem is a symptom)
    2) Overreliance on animal experiments (when as one commenter did note each problem needs to be solved on its own, see
    3) That science cannot succeed inside a corrupt system. If the pharma/medical/govt/university system doesnt want real answers (e.g prevention, toxicological effects of xenobiotics, that genes are relatively unimportant, that patentable products alone are desirable findings, and many others) then there is no way to do good science and/or to cure/prevent disease and be rewarded. Even followers of this thread, who are presumably on the free-thinking end of the medical bandwagon, seem not so keen on these possible explanations? Am I wrong?
    4) The commenters on govt control of science should be encouraged to think more about the implications of this (for more see

  18. Hilaire

    I’m a PhD candidate. I LOVE doing research. I hate the environment, the politics, and the money grabbing. I got a BS in chemistry, followed by my current Medicinal Chemistry program. I agree with all the issues mentioned. Another factor people are missing is the quality of the primary and college educations people are receiving. I worked out in the “real world” so I’m older than most, if not all, the other graduate students in the department. The year I graduated from my undergrad, to “cut costs” they cut the maximum number of hours a student could take, but charged the same amount of tuition (it was on a flat fee for full-time students). That was step one in cutting what a student got for their dollar. The quality of students that I mentored over the past few years has been telling. I, personally, have no idea how most of them got into graduate school. Add in the “kit” mentality in the molecular biology field, students simply follow instruction manuals without understanding what they are doing. Isolating RNA? There’s a kit. Protein? Kit. DNA. Kit. Tagging a protein? Kit. In 2001, when I worked as a research technician, those kits were just gaining ground in popularity. I learned to do things the old school way.
    All of this is endemic to a system that has abandoned education, basic research, and investing in long-term goals. Everyone wants short-term dollar returns. That is not what Science is about.

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