Tuesday, 15 April 2014 11:32

How to Rescue U.S. Bioscience from its Successes and Excesses

Written by  ASCB Post Staff
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pnas-paper-authorsCaption: They all agree, U.S. bioscience needs
rebalancing: Alberts (top left), Kirschner (top right),
Tilghman (bottom left), and Varmus (bottom right).
Calling it "a recipe for long-term decline," four of the nation's most distinguished cell biologists describe the present U.S. system of biomedical research as "unsustainable" and "hypercompetitive," calling for a sweeping rebalancing of bioscience education, funding, and direction. In a "Perspective" just published in PNAS, Bruce Alberts, Marc Kirschner, Shirley Tilghman, and Harold Varmus advocate reforms in the scientific workforce with a gradual reduction in the number of students accepted into biomedical PhD programs and an increase in compensation for postdoctoral fellows but limits on the length of fellowships. Alberts et al. propose a reordering of government research funding priorities, using sunset provisions to rein in large, ongoing research programs while favoring proposals from young investigators that "emphasize originality and risk-taking, especially in new areas of science." They support the recent controversial decision by NIH to look at the total grant portfolio of laboratories receiving more than $1 million a year when evaluating any new proposals.

All four authors have strong ties to ASCB. Alberts, who has recently stepped down as Editor-in-Chief of Science Magazine, and Kirschner, who founded the Systems Biology Department at Harvard Medical School, are both former ASCB presidents. Tilghman, who retired last year as President of Princeton University, is ASCB President-Elect. Varmus, a longtime ASCB member, is the former Director of NIH and current Director of the NIH National Cancer Institute.

Alberts et al. say the crisis in funding and in the scientific workforce has been a long time in the making but has been masked until recently by the great successes in basic biology in uncovering the fundamental cell behaviors underpinning health and disease. That success has now run up against the inherent flaw in the great expansion of American basic research in recent decades, "the longstanding assumption in the U.S. that the system will expand indefinitely," say the authors.

An economist at Georgia State University would agree. Writing recently in VOX, economics professor Paula Stephan argues that the current model for university research, laid out more than 60 years ago, has moved far away from its original goal to invest in inherently risky basic research. Stephan likens the universities of today to high-end shopping malls—they build state-of-the-art facilities to attract students, faculty, and resources, and then lease out lab space to investigators through indirect charges on grants and salary buyouts. Stephan argues that these research "shopping malls" encourage faculty to become risk averse and overstock their workforce with more PhD students than can be absorbed in later research positions.

The present imbalance can be righted, say the PNAS authors. "The future world of biomedical science that we envision is not smaller in human talent or financial support or less ambitious in its goals to discover and apply biological principles," they conclude.