There have been dozens of papers in the past few years about our current biomedical science enterprise being unsustainable, starting with a prominent paper by Bruce Alberts, Marc Kirschner, Shirley Tilghman and Harold Varmus in 2014. They and others argue that the biomedical science environment is unstainable given its current growth and has led to a hypercompetitive environment where innovation has declined while possibly other factors have worsened such as authorship ethics, cutting corners, and the irreproducibility of results. There is tons of data from the NIH, NSF and academic researchers demonstrating the low rate of success in obtaining grants, longer post-docs, and less faculty level job opportunities, yet we continue to increase the number of students accepted into PhD programs. What are we going to do with the overflow of PhDs?
A recent article by Julie Gould in Nature writes about this topic. To summarize, she and others come up with several solutions of which I will discuss a few.
The first, and perhaps the most difficult for researchers and institutions to swallow, is simply reduce the number of PhDs (the entry rate). I and others have indicated that we need to decouple the labor from the training function of PhDs. Currently, PhDs and post-doctoral fellows are the labor backbone for the biomedical research workforce. Principal investigators (PIs) use PhDs as cheap labor to undertake research within their grants. The problem I think can be easily resolved if NIH was to set limits on the number of students which can be recruited for different types of NIH grants, or if academic institutions and graduate departments limit the number of PhDs they enroll. Yet there is really no appetite for such a policy shift and enormous resistance. Some argue that fewer PhD scientists could send a message that perhaps going into science is not the best vocation one can enter or that it may reduce scientific imagination overall. I’m not sure if this is a worthwhile reason to maintain the growing number of PhDs in biomedical science.