Shaping the Future of Research: a perspective from junior scientists[v1;
ref status: approved 1, approved with reservations 1,http://f1000r.es/4ug]
Gary S. McDowell1*, Kearney T. W. Gunsalus2*, Drew C. MacKellar3, Sarah A.
Mazzilli4, Vaibhav P. Pai1, Patricia R. Goodwin5, Erica M. Walsh6, Avi
Robinson-Mosher7, Thomas A. Bowman8, James Kraemer9, Marcella L. Erb10, Eldi
Schoenfeld11, Leila Shokri12, Jonathan D. Jackson13, Ayesha Islam14,
Matthew D. Mattozzi7, Kristin A. Krukenberg3, Jessica K. Polka3
1Department of Biology, Center for Regenerative and Developmental
Biology, Tufts University, Medford, MA, 02155, USA
2Department of Molecular Biology and Microbiology, Tufts University,
Boston, MA, 02111, USA
3Department of Systems Biology, Harvard Medical School, Boston, MA,
4Department of Computational Biomedicine, Boston University School of
Medicine, Boston, MA, 02118, USA
5Department of Biology, Brandeis University, Waltham, MA, 02453, USA
6Department of Pathology, Brigham and Women's Hospital and Harvard
Medical School, Boston, MA, 02115, USA
7Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering, Harvard Medical
School, Boston, MA, 02115, USA
8Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging, Tufts University, Boston, MA,
9Department of Biology and Howard Hughes Medical Institute,
Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA, 02139, USA
10Department of Molecular and Cellular Biology, Harvard University,
Cambridge, MA, 02138, USA
11Synthetic Biology Center, Department of Biological Engineering,
Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA, 02139, USA
12Division of Genetics, Department of Medicine, Brigham and Women’s
Hospital and Harvard Medical School, Boston, MA, 02115, USA
13Department of Neuroscience, Brandeis University, Waltham, MA, 02453,
14Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology, Boston University School of
Medicine, Boston, MA, 02118, USA
Grant information:The author(s) declared that no grants were involved in
supporting this work.
The landscape of scientific research and funding is in flux and affected by
tight budgets, evolving models of both publishing and evaluation, and
questions about training and workforce stability. As future leaders, junior
scientists are uniquely poised to shape the culture and practice of science
in response to these challenges. A group of postdocs in the Boston area who
are invested in improving the scientific endeavor, planned a symposium held
on October 2ndand 3rd, 2014, as a way to join the discussion about the
future of US biomedical research. Here we present a report of the
proceedings of participant-driven workshops and the organizers’ synthesis
of the outcomes.
Corresponding authors:Kristin A. Krukenberg , Jessica K. Polka
How to cite:McDowell GS, Gunsalus KTW, MacKellar DCet al.Shaping the
Future of Research: a perspective from junior scientists [v1; ref status:
approved 1, approved with reservations 1,http://f1000r.es/4ug]F1000Research2014,3:291 (doi:10.12688/f1000research.5878.1)Copyright: 2014 McDowell GSet al. This is an open access article distributed under the terms of theCreative Commons Attribution Licence, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited. Data associated with the article are available under the terms of theCreative Commons Zero "No rights reserved" data waiver(CC0 1.0 Public domain dedication).
No competing interests were disclosed.
First published:28 Nov 2014,3:291 (doi:10.12688/f1000research.5878.1
)Latest published:09 Jan 2015,3:291 (doi:10.12688/f1000research.5878
The Future of Research Symposium, held in Boston in October 2014, was born
out of a desire on the part of junior scientists to influence discussions
about the future of biomedical research in the United States. Current
trainees in academic research represent a talented pool of people
contributing to scientific progress. This pool, however, is far larger than
the current system is able to support in the long term. As structural forces
governing the funding and administration of science push many graduate
students and postdocs out of research, the public funds supporting their
training are poorly repaid.
We view the current policy makers’ reluctance to invest in science as a
short-sighted and potentially catastrophic mistake. Furthermore, the current
distribution of funding priorities and the way that funding agencies,
universities, and journals reward scientists leads directly to
inefficiencies within the conduct of research. While scientists continue to
advocate for increased funding, they must also create a scientific
enterprise that is sustainable with the current resources. A sustainable
long-term investment in science, and an appreciation of the young people who
carry it out, are essential to the long-term economic and social interests
of the US. Specifically, the hyper-competition that we have all experienced,
which stunts scientific curiosity and productivity, breeds fabrication and
carelessness in the publication of data, and leads to a waste of valuable
resources and intellectual capital, must be alleviated. In all of our
discussions, we have kept two goals in mind: maximize the potential for wide
-ranging and fundamental scientific discovery; and minimize the loss of
talented young researchers who can contribute greatly to science.
In addition to voicing our concerns, we junior scientists recognize that we
need to become more aware of the issues facing the research enterprise,
comprised of academia, industry, publishing, and government. To accomplish
this, the initial sessions of the symposium consisted of a series of talks
and panel discussions from leaders who have been outspoken about the
challenges that science faces. These were followed by workshops designed to
elicit the opinions and ideas of participants, largely postdocs and graduate
students, on problems and solutions surrounding training, the structure of
the research workforce, funding, and incentives and rewards in science. We
present the outcomes of those discussions in this report, which represents a
united voice of young biomedical scientists, conveying our concerns about
the sustainability of the research enterprise and our hopes for change.
From the many ideas presented in the workshops and continued discussions
among the organizers, we have distilled the following three principles to
guide future activities towards scientific reform:
We recommend increasedconnectivityamong junior scientists and other
stakeholders to promote discussions on reforming the structure of the
We advocate for increasedtransparency. This includes the number and
career outcomes of trainees, as well as the expectations of the balance
between employment and training in individual postdoctoral appointments.
We call for an increasedinvestmentin junior scientists, with
increased numbers of grants that provide financial independence from
Principal Investigator (PI) research grants, and increased accountability
for the quality of training as a requirement of funding approval.
Junior scientists must take a larger role in engaging with these issues. As
the engine of academic research, junior scientists must be given a voice
fitting their role as major stakeholders in the scientific enterprise.
Equally, junior scientists must be educated about their role so that they
have the context necessary to make a well-informed contribution and to
effectively advocate for their interests. By bringing our concerns into the
conversation that guides policy, the dialogue will be enriched with
diversity and fresh perspectives. We encourage our peers to continue this
conversation, engage their colleagues, and to get involved in shaping the
Future of Research.
Genesis of the Future of Research Symposium
““The government should provide a reasonable number of undergraduate
scholarships and graduate fellowships in order to develop scientific talent
in American youth. The plan should be designed to attract into science only
that proportion of the youthful talent appropriate to the needs of science
in relation to the other needs of the nation’s high priority”.And I
think that is one of the places where we have in biomedical science gone
Shirley Tilghman, quoting Vannevar Bush, at a meeting of the President’s
Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST),September 19 2014,
(“PCAST Meeting 2014”, 2014).
A large portion of the nation’s science and engineering research is carried
out by graduate students and postdocs. Because of this, the current culture
of training places a heavy emphasis on research and publications, at the
expense of “soft skill acquisition” or career development.
In the US, pre-doctoral training in the biomedical sciences takes 6.5 years
on average (Figure 3of (Biomedical Research Workforce Working Group,
2012)), and includes research experience culminating in a PhD dissertation.
This process is overseen by a committee of 3–5 faculty members and requires
the development of some core skills.
In contrast, it is notoriously difficult to determine how many postdoctoral
scholars there are, let alone what kind of training they are or should be
receiving. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the National Science
Foundation (NSF) define a postdoctoral scholar as “an individual who has
received a doctoral degree (or equivalent) and is engaged in a temporary and
defined period of mentored advanced training to enhance the professional
skills and research independence needed to pursue his or her chosen career
path” (Bravo & Olsen, 2007). Most postdoctoral “trainees” conduct
research under the supervision of a single Principal Investigator (PI), and
there are no explicit guidelines to determine what training a postdoc should
receive or when this training is complete. In reality, postdoctoral
research is often not a training period at all, but a time when experienced
junior researchers contribute significantly to the goals of a PI’s grant.
There is no expectation of specific training, and no defined period in which
the training takes place: “training” ends only when the postdoc takes
In spite of the number of years spent in pre- and postdoctoral training,
only a handful of scientists feel that they are adequately prepared for any
job other than conducting research. Many feel they are unaware of what jobs
they should be training for, let alone what skills those jobs require. One
common complaint is that scientists are not being prepared for non-faculty
positions, yet the number of new faculty who are unprepared for their non-
research responsibilities (such as managing employees and budgets or
teaching) suggests that graduate students and postdocs are not even being
properly trained to become future faculty.
Where did all the graduate students and postdocs come from?
While the number of US graduate students in biomedical science have
increased from about 46,500 in 1993 (Table B-18in (National Science
Foundation, 1994)) to almost 71,000 in 2012 (Table 16in (National
Science Foundation, 2014)), the fraction of PhDs in life sciences in a
tenure-track position 5 years post-PhD decreased from 17.3% (1993) to 10.6%
(2010) (Table 3–18in (National Science Board, 2014). There has also
been a tremendous shift in the job market outside of academia over the past
decades, with a general slowdown and even contractions in government and
industry. This situation has long been deemed unsustainable by many senior
academics (Bourne, 2013a;Stephan, 2012a;Stephan, 2012b;
With the number of graduate students increasing faster than the number of
faculty positions (Figure 1in (Schillebeeckxet al.)), it is
unsurprising that the NIH estimates that the number of postdoctoral
researchers also doubled during that time. However, estimates of the number
of postdocs vary drastically. The National Research Council puts the number
of postdocs at just over50,000(National Research Council (US)
Committee to Study the National Needs for Biomedical, Behavioral, and
Clinical Research Personnel, 2011), but the NIH states that this could be
under-estimated by as much as afactor of two(Biomedical Research
Workforce Working Group, 2012). According to a recent report by the National
Postdoctoral Association (NPA), the NPA’s 167 member institutions alone
estimate that their postdoc offices serve about79,000postdocs (
Where do graduate students and postdocs actually go?
Data from the NSF Survey of Doctorate Recipients suggests that the US-
trained biomedical PhDs “who do the longest postdocs are the ones who go on
to tenure-track academic research careers” (Rockey, 2012). However, in
spite of the number of scientists remaining in long postdocs in the hopes of
landing a tenure-track faculty position, the data show clearly that
academia is an “alternative” career, not the default. In 2010, less than
15% of US-trained science, engineering and health sciences postdocs had
obtained a tenure-track faculty position within 5–7 years of completing
their PhD (Sauermann & Roach, 2012). The rest of the job market encompasses
many fields that are expanding and can benefit from the trained minds of
PhDs and postdocs. These include (but are not limited to): consulting for
life sciences, biotech and biopharmaceutical industries, sales and marketing
of technologically advanced products, regulatory affairs, science policy,
science communications, and intellectual property.
Even though the majority of postdocs will do something other than become
tenure-track faculty members, the default assumption of many PIs (and their
mentees) remains that graduate students and postdocs will follow their
mentors’ career trajectory and acquire an academic faculty position at a
research-intensive institution. The data show that by the end of their PhD
training, only 50% of graduate students want to become academics, and that
expectations change over time: a faculty position becomes less attractive
over the course of a PhD, in spite of active encouragement by advisors (
Sauermann & Roach, 2012).
Thus, many junior scientists want, and most will obtain, non-faculty jobs.
However, few young scientists and their faculty mentors know what careers
are actually available, let alone what skills those jobs require or how to
obtain them. The mismatch between scientists’ career expectations and the
realities of the job market has led to extended occupancy of postdoc
positions and highly inflated expectations from academic employers for prior
How does the funding system contribute to workforce and training problems?
In the US, the funding system has had a profound impact on the structure of
universities and academic and applied research departments, and how the time
of principal investigators and young scientists is spent.
As early as 2003, the rapid increase in funds over the previous decade was
generating questions about where trainees would end up in the absence of a
concomitant increase in academic positions (Russo, 2003). In response to
these concerns, there have been calls for institutions to become more
responsible for funding “hard-money” faculty positions, and to increase
NIH incentives for doing so, rather than relying on external sources of
funding for “soft-money” positions (Alberts, 2010). These problems were
left unresolved, however, and now that there has been a contraction in
funding they have become immediate. For institutions and individual
researchers attempting to make long-term decisions, financial uncertainty
makes planning very challenging. It is clear that simply putting more money
into the system would provide only a temporary fix, not a long-term solution
to the systemic problems with academic research (Albertset al.;
What’s wrong with competition?
An assumption of many industries is that increased competition between
groups or individuals yields largely beneficial results. However, academic
science in the US was essentially founded on Vannevar Bush’s principle of
the “supreme importance of affording the prepared mind complete freedom for
the exercise of initiative” (Bush, 1945). These two principles are
Indeed, we believe that the problems caused by the current unsustainable
workforce are threatening the very foundations of scientific research. The
high stakes and low expectations of success prevalent throughout biomedical
research, from grant applications to hiring decisions, promote academic
dishonesty (Lang, 2013). Also, success in grant applications and career
progression relies heavily on publications (van Dijket al.). This can
lead to hyper-competition for “high-impact” publications and in some
recent cases, a lack of truth in publishing (Noseket al.;Sovacool,
2008). Competition also encourages scientists to present data in the most
optimistic light, and to include only data that lead to a clean and
understandable conclusion. As postdocs, we see and experience these
pressures first-hand. The pressure to publish needs to be balanced with
incentives for rigorous and honest scientific communication.
However, dishonesty is not the only problem threatening the integrity of
academic literature. Part of the scientific endeavor is to provide checks
and balances, reproduce results, and highlight when reproducibility fails.
However, it is difficult (and unrewarding) to publish the results of
replicative experiments or negative data, and there is a worrying trend in
the lack of reproducibility in some forms of analysis; this issue was
recently highlighted with regard to the widely-used technique of
fluorescence-activated cell sorting (Hineset al.). Some journals have
made a call specifically for papers reporting negative data, and there are
indications that the NIH may be looking to drive more studies testing
whether data can be reproduced (Collins & Tabak, 2014).
Hyper-competition can also discourage creative thinking and risk-taking,
strong foundations of the scientific endeavor (Albertset al.). Rather
than grant applications for innovative, breakthrough science, we have
observed that hyper-competition results in “safe” applications, driving
incremental, slow improvements on existing knowledge. It blunts the blade of
science, preventing it from piercing through existing ideas and paradigms
to expose new frontiers.
Junior scientists must join the debate
A range of problems with the biomedical research system in particular have
been the subject of increasing alarm in the scientific community (Alberts
2et al.;Bourne, 2013a;Bourne, 2013b;Bourne, 2013c). While
focus has mostly been on US academic science, many of the problems are
universal. These issues are not just relevant to those inside academia: due
to their importance to national competitiveness, they are increasingly
featured in the popular media as well (Harris, 2014a;Harris 2014b;
Harris 2014c;Harris 2014d).
The public debate surrounding these issues has so far been led bysenior
members of academia(Albertset al.). One group that has yet to
contribute significantly to the discussion is the largest group of
researchers affected: graduate students and postdocs. Boston-area postdocs
organized the Future of Research Symposium to raise awareness of the
difficulties faced by young scientists and to provide a venue for further
discussion and problem-solving during a set of interactive workshops.
We issued acall-to-armsto our peers to announce what we were doing,
and to emphasize our view that young researchers should have a say in
shaping the future direction of the research endeavor (McDowellet al.).
To achieve our goal of giving a voice to the aspirations of young
researchers, wesynthesized the current issuesthat have been identified
as obstructing the progress of scientific research into four focus areas:
funding for biomedical research, training of the scientific workforce, the
structure of the workforce, and incentives and rewards for scientists (
McDowellet al.). Interactive problem-solving workshops honed in on each
topic to explore the problems and propose solutions with the aim of
formulating a response that we can provide to the larger scientific
community. This document is the first to begin disseminating that response
to foster and foment further discussion and action. Here we present the
problems identified and tentative solutions suggested by participants in the
workshops. We then discuss areas identified through ongoing discussions as
requiring the most urgent action from young scientists to improve the Future
“To be creative…emphasize new possibilities by disclosing those hidden
episodes of the past when, even if in brief flashes, people showed their
ability to resist, to join together, occasionally to win”.
Howard Zinn (Zinn, 2014)
Survey of participants prior to the symposium
In order to focus the aims of the workshops, participants were invited to
complete an anonymous survey of their ideas about how science should be
conducted and supported, and the problems they identified with the current
system. In all, 409 people responded to the survey, although not all offered
a response to all questions (raw data are available in Appendix 1).
Respondents were primarily postdocs and graduate students, but also included
administrators, faculty, industry, research assistants and undergraduates (
Figure 1). The survey included five short-answer questions; while these
responses are not amenable to quantitative analysis, we have summarized them
Figure 1. Breakdown of the self-identification of respondents in the Future
of Research Symposium registration survey.
Download as a PowerPoint slide
“What is the biggest problem facing the way science is conducted today?”
Answers focused on several key points, listed here by the frequency with
which they were mentioned, starting with the most commonly cited problems.
In the US, funding for basic science is inadequate to support long-term
The quality of the scientific results being produced is compromised by the
current structure of research funding and execution.
The research environment at present selects for proficiency at securing
funding and publishing high-profile positive results, rather than rewarding
scientific skepticism, curiosity, and balanced presentation of sometimes
The current funding system is unnecessarily bureaucratic and insufficiently
transparent, reflecting temporary political whims, and the duration of NIH
grants is too short to support the lengthy explorations necessary to
accomplish truly novel, beneficial basic research.
The number of enthusiastic scientists competing for scarce funding
encourages counter-productive levels of competition.
Existing publication models exacerbate the problems arising from the
inefficiencies of funding and the promotion of talent; journals disseminate
research results in a periodic, page-limited manner that is outmoded in the
There were many concerns about mentorship, trainee freedom and related
issues indicative of an imbalance between the supply of qualified scientists
and the demand for sufficiently-funded basic research positions.
“What behaviors should be encouraged in scientists?”
The most common responses to this question (most commonly mentioned first)
Collaboration, meaning interdisciplinary teamwork between scientists in
different institutions and fields, as well as across boundaries of status
Openness in data, reagents, and evaluation of each other’s work.
Integrity and ethical research practices, innovation, and risk-taking.
Critical thinking in the reporting and reproducibility of results.
Greater outreach to the public to improve non-scientists’ awareness of the
most crucial results in recent research.
Greater efficiency in the research process, as well as entrepreneurship,
academic-industry partnerships, and more effective measurement of training
and outcomes in basic research.
“What does ideal scientific training look like?”
The overall consensus from responses to this question focused on the
importance of teaching scientists how to solve problems with scientific
methods in an ethical fashion.
Training should be consistent across institutions, be multidisciplinary, and
be independent of the race, sexual orientation, gender, gender identity or
expression, national origin or cultural identification of its participants,
to promote a community of diverse intellects.
Mentorship should involve close interactions between mentor and mentee and
should include well-defined expectations for both parties.
A common request was for job security amongst researchers. Suggestions for
implementation included a restriction upon the total number of PhDs awarded,
an expectation of retirement based upon the age of PIs, an increase in the
number of staff scientist positions supported by federal research funds, and
more rigorous evaluation of scientists across institutions, from the
undergraduate to the principal investigator level.
“What should be the purpose of government funding for science?”
Respondents replied that government funding should balance an interest in
both the long-term (basic) and short-term (applied) benefits of science.
Industrial/commercial entities should assume responsibility for the advances
that are most directly commercializable, while federal funding should
address projects that are more prospective.
Government funding should support public health and environmental health
research that is otherwise not addressed by the immediate, private concerns
of individual donors.
To help support long-term research, some grants could be awarded to
institutions, rather than individuals, to allow a community of researchers
to decide among themselves which projects they find most meritorious.
Within basic research, funding outcomes should be independent of
expectations of immediate profitability. Many crucial advances within
science have been made based on open-ended inquiry, driven by the curiosity
of the individual personalities involved, and these contributions have
subsequently proven essential to technical innovation.
Respondents also noted that excessive competition hinders collaboration and
encourages non-productive duplication of experimental effort on select “hot
topics”. The competition among qualified personnel for independent jobs is
also highly inefficient in terms of wasted human capital.
“The NIH has lost approximately 25% of its purchasing power over the last
10 years. Should the scientific workforce (i.e., make-up of the labor force:
grad students, postdocs, senior scientists, etc.) adapt to this change, and
if so, how?”
Only 13% of graduate students, 16% of postdocs, and 18% of faculty
respondents suggested that the workforce should not adapt to the existing
funding trends. Of those opposed to adaptation, established researchers (
faculty) considered it more important to ignore fluctuations in funding.
Most respondents suggested adaptation, using varying strategies. Several
faculty respondents focused their attention upon lobbying congress and
turning to public outreach in order to convince our fellow citizens of the
importance of funding basic biomedical research. Other suggestions included:
Reaching out to alternative funding sources, including state, local, and non
Instituting longer timelines for approved grants.
More direct funding by universities for employee researchers, encouraging
smaller labs with more direct PI-trainee oversight.
Greater understanding that non-academic careers are actually the major
outcome for PhD holders, and support and encouragement for students and
trainees who enter such careers.
More transitional funds for entrepreneurial research and private-public
Changing the ratio of academic lab personnel between grad students, postdocs
, technicians, and senior scientists.
The responses to this question were predominantly in favor of reducing the
number of trainees per permanent position available in basic research, to
steer funds towards more permanent positions, to seek alternatives to
traditional funding sources (including private and nonprofit sectors), and
to encourage greater regulation at the institutional and lab levels to
address the efficiency of spending relative to the scientific research
Overall, the respondents’ concerns and criticisms centered on a few key
themes; however, there was disagreement regarding which issues are most
important to the future of groundbreaking and sustainable science. We
considered these suggestions indicative of a general dissatisfaction with
the current research paradigm, but not necessarily prescriptive of specific
and comprehensive solutions. The output of this survey is informative in
gauging the general opinion of educated, disciplined, and curious people
pursuing science in the US. Practical adjustments to academic science were
discussed in the workshops, described in the following sections.
Participant-led Workshops at the Future of Research Symposium
Workshops were designed to allow participants to discuss issues identified
as obstructing the progress of scientific research. Each workshop was
overseen by three to four moderators from the organizing committee who
provided some background on the current system and posed the specific
objective for each session. The four objectives were to ask:
How can trainees be better prepared for careers in science in 2014?
How should the supply of postdocs and graduate students be matched to the
demand for jobs in order to create a sustainable workforce?
How can the funding of academic research be structured to promote desired
outcomes such as the discovery of basic knowledge, finding applications of
knowledge for the betterment of society, and training the next generation of
How can the current system of incentives be fixed so that scientists and
institutions are rewarded for the behaviors that are believed to support
Workshops were broken down into two separate 90-minute sessions. The number
of participants per topic per session was typically between 20 and 30.
Individual participants were asked to write down the perceived problems with
the current system on post-it notes and to post them on the wall. Working
as a group, participants categorized these individual responses and
identified major themes. Participants were then asked to individually write
down possible solutions to the identified problems. This was once again done
on post-it notes. Solutions were categorized according to the level of
implementation, ranging from actions that can be accomplished by individual
graduate students and postdocs to those requiring action from society as a
whole. If time permitted, participants voted on solutions they found most
compelling and discussed the pros and cons of these solutions further.
Generally, there was not sufficient time to discuss any potential solutions
in depth. We view these sessions primarily as a way to begin debate, not to
The workshops identified a large number of problems and potential solutions,
many of which were raised repeatedly, though the immediate topic of
conversation varied. In the following sections, we present lists of proposed
solutions, without necessarily endorsing each possible solution, together
with a few common themes distilled from each workshop. The raw data for each
workshop can be found in Appendices 2A–D.
Training for careers in science in 2014
Participants identified problems with the current training system in the
following key areas (Appendix 2A):
Culture of academia-focused training:The prevailing view of training
focuses heavily on academia, where few scientists can obtain positions. This
creates a sense of failure for those leaving academia.
“[Young scientists have the] feeling there is no way to exit [academia]
Absence of awareness of non-academic job opportunities:Scientists have
limited knowledge of careers outside of academia that require scientific
training. They are not aware of the kinds of jobs they may be qualified for;
the skills these different jobs may require; and how to successfully apply
for these jobs.
“[Scientists are] unaware that careers in science exist (outside of
PIs are not equipped to advance their mentees’ careers:PIs have little
incentive to act as a mentor for a trainee’s career development, and
limited training that would make them competent to do so.
“For a lot of mentors, it’s not a priority to engage in your career path”.
Informal training leads to inconsistent training:There is a lack of
standardized training for any scientific career, be it academic or non-
academic. PIs require multiple skills learned only from experience; current
training was described as “spotty” and “overly specialized”. Training
standards are highly variable between institutions and research groups.
“Training is not formalized (expected to pick up stuff along the way)”.
Lack of professional skills training:Current training fails to teach
skills that can be applied to both academic and non-academic careers,
including people management, networking, writing, and presentation skills.
Scientists learn to conduct research, but not to manage a research group.
“Lack of “real world” professional skills”.
Little or no training on transitioning to industry:There is a dearth of
training about how to transition from academia to industry. There are too
few internship programs providing experience in industry.
“You need to know someone in industry to get a job there”.
Individual graduate students and postdocs
Graduate students and postdocs can identify the skills they need to develop
(such as via themy Individual Development Plan (myIDP)tool (Fuhrmann
et al., n.d.)), then collaborate with each other and with graduate
programs and postdoctoral offices to acquire training.
Postdocs should advocate for themselves, network with each other, and
provide mentorship to each other.
PIs and research groups
We must correct the misconception that all scientists will pursue an
PIs should allow time for career development; recent data suggests this will
not detract from research productivity (Rybarczyket al.;Strategic
Evaluations, Inc., 2014).
Institutions should make adequate, appropriate training available and insist
that PIs allow attendance. “Adequate, appropriate training” should
enhance the professional skills that graduate students and postdocs have
identified as important for their chosen careers.
Institutions should develop teaching and industry opportunities.
Institutions could create networks that allow for past, current and future
trainees to communicate about careers.
Funding agencies and the scientific community
Availability of adequate, appropriate training should be mandated across all
Grant incentives should be used to encourage PIs to facilitate adequate
The current culture of training places heavy emphasis on research and
publications, leaving little time for “soft skill” or career development.
Postdoctoral “training” is a misnomer: as one participant put it, “If you
’re going to call me a trainee, thentrainme”.
Rather than force everyone to be trained for the same (academic) career path
, institutions should provide opportunities for trainees to acquire skills
that are useful in multiple career paths, and PIs should be required to
allow trainees access to these training opportunities.
Postdocs were consistently called “the lost people” and “the invisible
people”. Postdocs do not yet have a coherent voice, and we must change this
. Postdoctoral associations should be advocating for access to training,
both in provision and time allowance, in their institutions. The National
Postdoctoral Association should have a stronger voice in advocating for
postdoctoral training at a national level. Trainees should involve
themselves with their learned societies to influence policy. Finally,
researchers should be involving the wider public: to describe what can be
given to society, to demonstrate their value, and also to highlight the
waste of human capital and taxpayer money that goes into funding inadequate
Towards a sustainable workforce
Participants identified problems with the structure of the workforce in the
following key areas (Appendix 2B):
Structure of the system:PIs currently train junior scientists (multiple
trainees per PI) in their own image, that is, for a career in academia,
though only a small minority will obtain tenure-track faculty positions.
Most PIs know little about non-academic careers, even though these comprise
the majority of future careers for today’s postdocs. These non-faculty
careers are often still looked down upon by those in academia. There is
little attention given to training for the careers that the majority of
junior scientists will eventually pursue.
“Structure of academic workforce is pyramidal/feudal, generating too many
trainees per PI”.
Use of graduate students and postdocs as cheap labor:Junior scientists
are primarily treated as cheap labor rather than as participants in a well-
rounded training program that prepares participants for a range of clearly
identified career options. Postdocs are conflictingly defined as trainees
and employees in different situations, which is made possible by the lack of
a standardized designation for postdocs and of a clear definition of their
duties and responsibilities. There is also no oversight over the number of
graduate students and postdocs and whether that number is appropriate given
the perceived job market demand. Additionally, there was consensus that
funding postdocs through research grants puts them in a vulnerable position
and encourages low postdoc salaries allowing for the use of funds elsewhere.
“Postdocs are really hired to produce results, not scientists”.
“Postdoc pay is low so PIs can hire more postdocs to generate more results
“Lack of oversight for equal pay for trainees and to prevent exploitation”.
Lack of transparency:Problems with workforce sustainability are
perpetuated by a lack of information and awareness about the situation,
particularly amongst incoming graduate students who seek the increasingly
rare academic careers that are still treated as the default career choice by
many graduate programs.
“Complete lack of information on number of postdocs”.
Funding and evaluation metrics:Current metrics of evaluation, which are
based on the number and impact factor of publications, have resulted in a
culture of hyper-competitiveness which discourages creativity, co-operation,
risk-taking and original thinking.
“Risk taking not rewarded – No reward for leadership”.
Lack of public awareness:Participants also felt a pressing need to make
the general public aware of what a scientist really is and what she does,
and to more effectively communicate the value of science to the US economy
and to humanity as a whole.
“Lack of awareness about how the system operates and functions”
Individual graduate students and postdocs
Each postdoctoral position should have a defined purpose, including a plan
for enhancing the professional skills required in that postdoc’s chosen
Graduate students and postdocs should be proactive about getting career
information and carrying out self-evaluation, and discussing these with
their mentors. They could also assemble their own career development
committee, made up of mentors from various careers of interest.
Graduate student and postdoc associations should collaborate within and
between institutions to provide career information and training.
PIs and research groups
PIs should be educated about career paths and trends in the biomedical
workforce and how to effectively mentor students and postdocs for available
PIs should be positively evaluated for diversity of successful career paths
taken by their trainees, and not just on the number of trainees that they
have placed in research-track careers.
Institutions should be transparent about the number and funding source of
graduate students and postdocs.
Admission of graduate students could take into consideration their career
path and the objective of their training.
Incoming graduate students should be educated about career options and
provided with career development advisors.
Institutions should offer career development courses in all areas of the
National Postdoctoral Association core competencies (The National
Postdoctoral Association Core Competencies Committee, n.d.).
Trainees should be encouraged to undertake internships outside the lab to
gain experience in other career options.
Permanent staff scientist positions should be created with funding
structures that remove the competition between the staff scientist and
cheaper postdocs or graduate students.
Scientists’ involvement in outreach, politics, and entrepreneurship should
Funding agencies and the scientific community
There should be a standardized designation for all postdocs, irrespective of
The purpose and responsibilities of postdocs should be clearly defined.
Caps should be placed on the number of junior scientists per PI.
All postdocs should receive at least the NIH minimum salary, with a
geographical cost-of-living adjustment (US Office of Personnel Management, n
.d.), and certain basic benefits.
Funding for postdocs should not be tied to PI research grants.
The hyper-competitive publish-in-high-impact-journals-or-perish culture
should be discouraged and risk-taking, leadership skills and creativity
As a community, scientists should campaign to educate the public about who
scientists are, what they do, and the value of their work.
Within the academic scientific community, we should foster acceptance of non
-academic career path choices.
There is a clear imbalance between the number of young scientists and the
number of jobs available in research. This schism has been widening for the
past few decades and producing stress on the scientific workforce which, if
unaddressed, will result in a decline in the number of productive young
scientists. The fundamental structural flaws in the system need to be
addressed; otherwise, as we have seen in the past, simply increasing funding
will only postpone and worsen the problem.
Young scientists need to be engaged in the debate about these changes and
advocate for them. They need to come together in collaboration with
institutions and the federal government to enforce and implement these
changes with a clear discussion of all possible outcomes of these changes.
Ultimately the scientific enterprise will grow if the workforce supply and
demand are balanced in a sustainable and dynamic fashion, with complete
transparency. We can build a highly efficient and productive scientific
enterprise if scientists, institutions, governments and industry are all
involved and invested in making the necessary changes to the workforce.
Funding innovation and training
Participants identified problems with funding in the following key areas (
Funding mechanisms were considered insufficiently diverse:Many
participants were in favor of extending the time scales of awarded grants,
and cited a need for alternative mechanisms to workhorse grants like the R01
, that might permit research projects with alternative aims and organization
. In addition, the NIH grant review cycle was seen as inefficiently slow and
too bureaucratic to effectively support innovative work. Participants were
frustrated at the way that funding agencies were considered to encourage
incremental steps in research, thereby discouraging paradigm shifts. They
also expressed concern that current funding mechanisms "kill novel ideas by
emphasizing preliminary results“.
“Postdocs should be allowed to apply for grants [directly]”
“Evaluation of grants [is] tied to outdated/improper metrics”
Funding priorities fail to select for long-term productivity:Congressional
and institutional trends heavily influence how research money is distributed
, such that too much of the available funding is oriented towards
ephemerally popular topics, while mature, yet important, research fields are
neglected. Concerns were also raised that recent trends in funding favor
applied research at the expense of basic research. These priorities
undermine the quality and reproducibility of science that is vital to US
“Funding rewards mainly ‘high impact’ publications, [producing]
hypercompetitive and dishonest results”.
“Emphasis on translation and the best ‘new’ idea, not reproducibility”
Grant evaluation processes disadvantage young researchers:Institutional
leanings in funding agencies were perceived as resulting in funds that are
highly centralized; with large grants being awarded to large, well-
“Bigger names/labs get multiple R01s whereas young/new PIs can’t even get
“Grant success depends maybe too much on previous success; making it much
harder for young scientists”
Funding allocation is not subject to post-award review of efficacy:
Participants voiced concerns that the current funding paradigm does not lend
itself to quantitative, objective analysis of the productivity or quality
of research investments. Name recognition and impact factors were reported
as weighing too heavily in single-blind study sections, resulting in funds
being allocated unscientifically, with few studies of efficacy or predictors
“Money spent inefficiently (lack of negotiation, duplication of equipment)”
Approaches to funding were reported as contributing to problems in training
and workforce sustainability:Participants noted an insufficient level of
direct funding support for postdocs and graduate students, such as through
training grants. They also indicated that, by focusing on research
productivity alone, funding mechanisms fail to select for graduate and
postgraduate education that would aid trainees in developing the skills that
would contribute to success in academia or other environments. Funding
agencies were also seen as contributing to the negative way that non-
academic careers are viewed.
“[The] NIH considers non-academic careers a sign of failure”.
“Students/postdocs used for cheap labor”
“Trainees are often viewed as ‘robots’, leading to burn-out/mental health
/work-life balance problems”
Grant application and administration processes are problematic:There was
frequent concern regarding the bureaucracy and paperwork involved in
applying for and administering grants. Participants characterized the level
of effort required to complete auxiliary sections of grant proposals (i.e.,
outside of specific aims and experimental design) as inefficient, as well as
the number of specialized personnel required to submit, review, and
administer federal research grants. In addition, several participants found
the current peer review system to be insufficiently transparent, and
reported that study sections give too little feedback.
“Too much time spent by highest-level scientists writing grants”.
Individual scientists and research groups
Scientists should interact more directly with the public and the government
to communicate the benefits of investment in research.
Staff scientists should be supported by grants in order to improve the
continuity and accountability of research results within academic labs.
Core facilities should be developed to reduce the resources and specialized
expertise required in each lab, allowing smaller lab sizes.
Funding agencies and the scientific community
We should analyze basic science funding and outcomes to determine how
funding award mechanisms affect science.
A greater diversity of funding mechanisms serving smaller labs, younger
faculty, and even science enthusiasts within the general public, with an
emphasis on encouraging shared, collaborative workspace and core facilities,
should be developed.
New metrics evaluating scientific productivity beyond simple impact factor
should be established, along with more post-peer-review and scrutiny of
Overall, we would characterize the output of this workshop as a call by
young researchers for an increase in the efficiency and reproducibility of
science by developing new measures of the quality of research output and of
individual researchers’ productivity, and incorporating these criteria into
the approval of grants. Participants seemed to agree that this approach,
along with some of the other recommendations indicated, would more
adequately reflect the priorities of federally-funded science and encourage
young researchers to continue careers in basic research.
Incentivizing good science
What we want from scientists and science
Participants identified three major classes of behaviors they wished to see
in science (in order of popularity, Appendix 2D):
Honesty and integrity:Scientists should pursue the discovery of truth
with honesty and integrity, and to the best of their ability; and should
continue pushing the boundaries of human knowledge and asking new questions.
Communication and collaboration:Scientists should share information and
ideas freely, both among the scientific community and outside of it.
Transparency, openness, sharing, the free exchange of ideas and open
dialogue among scientists were all identified as key attributes.
Utility and application of knowledge:Science should produce useful
knowledge that can be applied in beneficial ways, with a responsibility to
taxpayers to conduct this research with the greatest efficiency possible.
Participants proposed incentives to encourage the above behaviors:
Better training in research integrity:Responsible conduct of research
education should begin early in graduate school, and ethics discussions
should be commonplace.
Tracking investments in trainees:Funding agencies should maintain
centralized information on trainee outcomes and make these data available to
prospective trainees to encourage investment in students’ and fellows’
New metrics of integrity:While current publication metrics encourage
flashy publications, metrics should be created to reward integrity and
honesty. These measures could include peer review contributions (whether pre
- or post-publication); whether qualitative or quantitative, these could
influence grant and job applications.
Open data and reducing the “minimal publishable unit”:Journals could
require data uploads prior to publication and raw data access during
revision and/or following publication. This would encourage careful record-
keeping and unbiased analysis through the scientific process. Furthermore,
many results (especially negative and contradictory results) could be
published under new models that do not require the time and resource
investment of a traditional paper.
Individual graduate students and postdocs
Graduate students and postdocs should be able to anonymously provide
feedback on their training experiences and outcomes, ideally using the IDP
as a framework.
PIs and research groups
Open data access policies and publication of negative results should be
Adequate training on the responsible conduct of research and critical
thinking skills should be provided.
Anonymous evaluation of available training by graduate students and trainees
should be aggregated at the departmental level and used to form part of a
training score for the department and institution.
Funding agencies and the scientific community
Metrics of community-minded behavior (publishing negative results, peer
review activity) should be taken into account when awarding grants.
A website should be established to track graduate student and postdoc
outcomes across institutions.
A training score for departments and institutions should be considered
during grant review.
The output of this workshop was a call by young researchers for
incentivization of transparency and honesty in science, by developing new
metrics and possibly incorporating these criteria into funding mechanisms.
In particular, we propose the creation of a website for trainees to
anonymously publish feedback on their training experiences and outcomes,
ideally using theIDP(Fuhrmannet al., n.d.) as a framework.
Trainees might complete an IDP, then later return to the site to report on
their progress. Data, aggregated at the departmental or program level, would
form part of a training score for the department and institution. This
would permit prospective students and fellows to factor this information
into their career decisions, thereby rewarding institutions that place an
emphasis on training with improved student and fellow recruitment.
Incorporating this score into the grant review process would encourage
departments to invest in training. The website could also facilitate
publication of institutions’ training plans that outlines available career
development opportunities. This could encourage the creation ofde facto
universal standards for training.
The Future of Research Symposium was organized by a group of postdoctoral
scholars from universities in the Boston area, including Boston University,
Harvard University, Harvard Medical School, Tufts University, Brigham and
Women’s Hospital, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Brandeis
University, and the Dana Farber Cancer Institute. The symposium was hosted
at Boston University thr