Oct 2013 WEB - page 3

The American Society
for Cell Biology
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Stefano Bertuzzi
Executive Director
Don W. Cleveland
Jennifer Lippincott-Schwartz
Ronald Vale
Past President
Thoru Pederson
Kathleen J. Green
Sue Biggins
David Botstein
A. Malcolm Campbell
Martin Chalfie
Benjamin S. Glick
Daniel Kiehart
Akihiro Kusumi
Ruth Lehmann
Laura M. Machesky
Mark Peifer
James H. Sabry
Yixian Zheng
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ASCB Newsletter
ISSN 1060-8982
Volume 36, Number 9
October 2013
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ASCB Newsletter
The American Society for Cell Biology
8120 Woodmont Avenue, Suite 750
Bethesda, MD 20814-2762, USA
Challenges Ahead for the
Biomedical Workforce
Our success in training a biomedical workforce
in the United States has contributed greatly to
advances in basic science and in the treatment
and cure of illness. But now
several reports and recent
in addition to what
ASCB members observe every
day in their institutions, point
to the treacherous challenges
that lie ahead for that workforce.
Notably, a report by the Advisory
Council to the National
Institutes of Health (NIH)
Director, chaired by ASCB
President-Elect designate Shirley
Tilghman, provided several
insightful analyses and recommendations, which
at least in part are being implemented by NIH.
We also anticipate the release in 2014 of a report
by the National Academies’ Committee on
Science, Engineering, and Public Policy on the
state of postdocs.
While the issue is still being studied, the
picture of the challenges that we face is pretty
clear. What years ago was a straightforward
career pipeline now looks nothing at all like
a real pipeline. The proportion of PhDs who
move into tenure-track positions has declined
from ~34% in 1993 to ~26% in 2012.
This has
occurred without an increase in unemployment,
which for biomedical scientists is extremely
low, hovering in 2011 around a miniscule
1.6%, compared with the whopping 8.9% of
the general population.
One might think that
scientists are occupied in other sectors, but
statistics show that the involuntary out-of-field
employment rate is also very low, around 1%.
“Alternative” No More
So where have all the PhDs gone? The answer,
my friend, is not blowing in the wind; it comes
instead from Figure 1.
Of those who received
PhDs in biomedical sciences in the late 1960s,
55% obtained a tenure-track position by 1973
(5–6 years after getting a PhD). By the early
1980s, only 32% of PhDs in the biological
sciences had a tenure-track position. The
opposite trend is observable for non-tenure
and postdoc positions, which have
shifted from 7% in 1973 to 34%
in 2006. Essentially, there has been
a shift from “real jobs” toward
“positions” that did not exist before,
and that are really holding tanks
for trainees. This is the heart of the
problem. Our training programs
have been designed with a linear
pipeline in mind, as indeed was
the case 30 or 40 years ago, but
that path is no longer the default
This is why in my first report to the ASCB
Council as ASCB Executive Director, I made
it clear that ASCB should ban the term
“alternative careers” to indicate those careers
that are nonacademic and away from the bench.
Based on the data above it is abundantly clear
that what was thought of as alternative
more like the norm. In addition, by talking
about alternative careers we stigmatize those
choices as second class, instead of recognizing
them as careers in their own right that produce
benefits to society and to the economy.
So what should be done? I would like to
explore this question at three different levels—at
a broad science policy level, at the level of what
our trainees can do today, and finally at the level
of what ASCB is doing to address these issues.
Science Policy Approaches to
Solving Workforce Challenges
At the policy level, it would be ideal to
increase demand for academic scientists. I am
convinced that what we know is perhaps 5%
of what we should know in biology, and if we
want to seriously tackle the enormous health
challenges in front of us, we need more—not
fewer—scientists, as I have discussed on several
occasions in my “Activation Energy” blog.
However, realistically, because of the political
Stefano Bertuzzi
by Stefano Bertuzzi
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