Superstar Scientists Share visions for the Future of Research at ASCB/IFCB Meeting
by Christina Szalinski
A panel of bioscience superstars tried to throw some light on the gloomy outlook for cell research Saturday at the ASCB/IFCB 2014 meeting in Philadelphia. As NIH funding shrinks, graduate programs grow, and fewer than 10% of PhDs go on to tenure-track position, Bruce Alberts, professor at University of California, San Francisco, best-selling textbook author, and newly minted National Medal of Science winner, wondered aloud, “What brilliant young person wants to become a scientist… if they have to wait until they’re 42 to get their first independent grant?” Alberts continued, “You’re supposed to be famous to get a job as an independent investigator. You would have laughed at my CV when I got hired.” Alberts was joined on the panel by Shirley Tilghman, ASCB president elect and president emerita at Princeton University; Jon Lorsch, Director of the NIH National Institute for General Medical Sciences; and Marc Kirschner, past president of ASCB and chair of the Department of Systems Biology at Harvard Medical School (HMS); and more.
HMS postdocs Jessica Polka and Kristen Krukenberg believe that it’s time for researchers to face the new realities. To that end, they initiated this panel in Philadelphia on the “Future of Research,” pulling in leaders from across the biomedical research enterprise to a special interest subgroup session at the ASCB/IFCB meeting. Krukenberg opened the session by summarizing an earlier Future of Research symposium they organized for postdocs in Boston in October. Krukenberg reported that working groups at the Boston symposium recommended a broadening of training, changes in lab structure, diversification of funding mechanisms, and rewards for scientists who interact with the public.
In Philadelphia, Alberts had his own recommendations—techniques and equipment should be freely shared to minimize waste, scientific risk-taking should be encouraged, and labs should be a more moderate size, with 9 to 12 as the maximum. “Howard Hughes (Medical Institute) chose individual scientists to double the size of their labs, thinking they’d do twice as much work, but they started doing less interesting things because they had to manage an enterprise,” Alberts explained.
Connie Lee, Assistant Dean for Basic Research at the University of Chicago and chair of ASCB’s Public Policy Committee, said while the research situation at her university wasn’t dire yet, bridge funding for PIs caught between R01s had been increased four-fold in recent years. Lee urged institutions and researchers themselves to find other sources of funding. “Think outside the NIH box,” Lee said. Chicago now has grant writing-workshops to give critical feedback on first drafts of grants, and someone in Washington, DC, to help them identify new sources of funding. Lee said that institutions have to help create new avenues for scientists to innovate.
Kirschner said that science best proceeds in an environment of free inquiry. He cited the example of the Hamilton Smith, who was working in the obscure field of bacterial immunity and discovered restriction endonucleases, which revolutionized DNA modification and earned a Nobel Prize. “These are the kinds of things we should promote that the system is working against,” Kirschner said. “Science progresses most rapidly when scientists can focus on science. Writing grants can stimulate creativity, but rewriting them does not.”
Referring to her time as Princeton president, Tilghman joked, “I had a 12 year sabbatical thinking about binge drinking, and college football, and financial aid… In the years that I had been away [from science] the sense of optimism had been eroded… The ground conditions we’re laying out for the next generation… are not the conditions that create the very best science.” The problem, said Tilghman, is too many people chasing too little money. An easy first step, she believes, would be to require every graduate training program that gets NIH funding to post the career outcomes of their students. “I’m begging the NIH, on my hands and knees if I have to, to do this at minimum so students can make informed decisions,” Tilghman declared. She said it’s hard to say where the workforce pipeline could or should be narrowed just as it’s hard to predict who will do well in grad school. But Tilghman said one thing is clear: “We can’t afford to send 75% of students onto postdocs.”
Kenneth Gibbs, a Cancer Prevention Fellow at the National Cancer Institute, expressed concern about the “shearing forces inside the biomedical research pipeline.” At NCI, Gibbs investigates biomedical graduate student and postdoctoral training. He said that his data indicate that many PhDs entered graduate training with poor knowledge of career options and that over time in graduate programs, students move away from the goal of reaching a faculty position.
Lorsch, whose NIH institute is the primary source of federal funding for basic cell science research, wants to change the way grants are awarded. “RNAi wouldn’t have been discovered if the PI had said, ‘That’s not one of the specific aims, so you’d better get back to working on those so we can get the grant renewed,’” Lorsch said. Soon NIGMS will be piloting a program called Maximizing Investigators’ Research Award (MIRA), which aims to provide one grant per PI that’s bigger and longer than R01 averages and not tied to specific aims, according to Lorsch. The review will be based on track record and overall research ideas and there will be modified review considerations for early-stage investigators. “NIH is taking seriously all these problems, but without reciprocal changes at institutions it won’t work. Everyone is going to have to change what they do in order to right the sinking ship,” Lorsch said.
*This article is from the ASCB Post