AYFK NIH?

Jun 22 2012 Published by under Academics, NIH, NIH Careerism

There is no excuse for this. None.

The head of the NIH's Office of Extramural Research, Sally Rockey, has just posted this amazing comment within her report on the biomedical workforce.

I was quite surprised by the idea that the majority of our trainees do not end up in academia. Did this surprise you?

It is 2012. The trends have been unrelenting since the 70s. Fewer PhDs landing jobs within three years of defending. More taking postdoctoral "training" slots. Those postdoctoral stints lengthening in time. The increasing age of the time to first R01 award. People bailing the hell out of this racket because they can't see a path to the success they wanted.

How can someone this high in the NIH, someone who has the responsibility to oversee all the F32/F31/T32 training mechanisms, be this utterly clueless about what time it is on the streets?

How?

This kind of incompetence is just mind blowing.

But you know what? It's familiar. The NIH likewise didn't seem to have any clue the only "New Investigators" getting decent scores were not young or early stage but rather grizzled researchers who happened to have funding from DOD, NSF, CDC, other federal or big private funders or just moved to the US from other countries. They had no idea, apparently, that the A2 queing/traffic pattern phenomenon was developing. R21 demands for prelim data. Failure of R29/FIRST winners to blossom as expected. Etc. They can't even work out that clinical K-level mentored trainees fall out of the pipeline because they can just go back to doctoring. Their response to the growing soft-money "deal" was "well you shouldn't take a job at a place like that if they aren't going to support you!".

So yeah, I'm used to this.

But it still gasts my flabber when the latest bit of unexplicable ignorance is revealed.

51 responses so far

  • Permadoc McFailurepants says:

    This is one of the reasons you won't find me rushing back to academia any time soon. It frankly beggars belief that such a highly placed official in such a central granting body could be so disconnected from the reality of modern scientific careers.

    I no longer give much of a rat's arse about the NIH, its activities and officials and decisions; but if I did, if I were in academia and this Dr Rockey were someone with life-or-death power over my career, I'd be calling loudly for her resignation.

  • becca says:

    Two possibilities:
    *Their worldview was so fundamentally shaped when they were young people who were told that "STEM jobs are the way to go!" that they cannot see academic science as a place where smart people work hard and fail (because it scares them too much).
    *They know perfectly well most people wash out, but intentionally sell the idea that 'the good ones get a great career' in order to keep the hordes motivated and working hard so they can get the cheapest possible labor.

    Stupid, or evil. Take your pick.

  • green fluorescent punkass says:

    becca, can't it be both?

  • Surely stupid AND evil is a live option here.

  • Genomic Repairman says:

    NIH's policy on the matter is to play dumb and keep moving.

  • drugmonkey says:

    It frankly beggars belief that such a highly placed official in such a central granting body could be so disconnected from the reality of modern scientific careers.

    Surely stupid AND evil is a live option here.

    well, yeeees. but.

    The NIH is incredibly motivated to believe certain things, especially that their processes work or "work". Particularly that their peer review system selects for the "the best science". That is how they designed it, so that must be the outcome. Otherwise, they are not stewarding the public's money very well. So they are motivated to believe that outcome in their system is almost perfectly correlated with merit. Correspondingly, any news of people exiting the system is attributed to them either not being good enough (objectively!) or simply moving along out of personal choice.

  • whimple says:

    43% of US-trained PhDs are in permanent academic research/teaching positions? That doesn't at all reflect the numbers in my PhD cohort. Since the NIH stopped its exponential budgetary growth my expectation is for this figure to crater.

  • qaz says:

    For all of the complaining, I'm glad they've finally looked at the real data. (Yes, I agree, we've all known for a long time that this is what it approximately looks like.) But maybe, we can take this distribution as a positive statement about training and get credit for training people who are doing science outside of academia.

    From this number, it looks like 18%+6%+43%+18% = 85% in jobs that require a PhD. I take that as a good number! And we don't know how many of the 13% left over are doing things for which their PhD helped them.

    Rather than complaining that NIH should have known about this for decades, let's see if we can get them to give us credit for training people who do other things than become tenured faculty at an "R1" institution.

  • drugmonkey says:

    qaz- the recent executive summary appeared to move in this direction by proposing training for non-academia type jobs and tracking non-academic outcome in the reporting for training grants..

  • postdoctoral researcher says:

    This is like being part of Amway for 10 years and then... oh, nevermind. I exaggerate, but it is a very big deal to be in a position of such power to shape incentives and not have basic information on what people are doing. The PhD oversupply (or however you want to describe the demographic crunch) was hardly a secret. As a F awardee, it frustrates me that she might not realize the larger context for the training grants in particular. The financial pressure of receiving the F awards (reduced benefits for three years), combined with extended time in the postdoc phase, has made me think many times about leaving science.

  • becca says:

    Oh yes. "Both" is possible too.

    "Otherwise, they are not stewarding the public's money very well. "
    But hold on a sec there... holy RabidCapitalismRedStateOvertonWindow, batman!

    Isn't it enough for any government agency to know that they are stewarding the public's money better than other agencies (*cough*DepartmentOfOffense*cough*)? And if not, isn't it enough for any government agency to at least know they are stewarding the public's money to achieve goals private industry would not deign to even consider (e.g. pain research, malaria, much basic science), and that they thus are providing a unique service to mankind?
    When the HELL did it become the mission of NIH to 'steward the public's money very well' by providing a Fair and Just world for scientists? I mean, I want a Fair and Just world for scientists as much as the next hapless postdoc, but c'mon. NIH can be doing an awesome job, and scientists can still be getting a raw deal as a career. Hmmm. Wonder if Rockey realizes that.

    whimple- where does it say permanent? If it includes adjuncts, the numbers make sense...

  • drugmonkey says:

    When the HELL did it become the mission of NIH to 'steward the public's money very well'

    http://scientopia.org/blogs/drugmonkey/2012/06/06/date-these-comments/

    by providing a Fair and Just world for scientists?

    that is not the point. "the best science" is the point.

  • Dev says:

    DM, what's wrong with you? e are in the year 2012, and who are you really?

  • becca says:

    Why try to fund "the best science"?
    Maybe industry can fund that science (obvious low-risk, high-financial impact projects). Or maybe the only way to fund "the best" is to fund some stinkers (high-risk/high-reward). Or maybe the best science to be done doesn't have obvious enough biomedical impact that it *should* be under NIH. Or maybe, just maybe, the cost of *identifying* the best science is such an intensive and cumbersome review process that we'd get 95% of the best stuff at 5% of the effort if we just triaged grants via peer review and then puled out the old dart board for the top 40%.

    And all that's assuming there *is* a consensus 'best science'. Which there isn't. Reaching such a consensus might not even be possible.

  • Janet D. Stemwedel says:

    Possibly we get better scientific knowledge-building when the people trained to do it aren't preoccupied with their horribly uncertain long-term job prospects.

    In other words, maybe the goal becca identifies and the goal DM identifies are different ways of describing the same outcome.

  • pancho says:

    Didn't know trainees left academia? I'd have the same view if I knew that my job was secure with the continuous onslaught of grant applications that have no chance of being funded. Why worry about that little detail?

  • Grumble says:

    Seems to me that what the NIH needs is a mini-institute devoted to the study of the practice of science (i.e., of how scientists actually work, in all its nitty-gritty detail). If Congress wants NIH to be good stewards of the public's money, Congress should demand that the NIH devote some resources to studying, scientifically, methods for funding and supporting science, with the goal that the NIH would ultimately gravitate towards methods that are the most effective. At the very least, this would reduce the level of mind-blowing ignorance at the top. And we'd have some hard data regarding what the academic attrition rate is, whether that's a good or bad number, and whether the current soft money system is really better than potential alternatives.

    In short, it's pretty outrageous that the richest scientific funding agency in the world (I think; does any other agency have a $30b annual budget?) has neither the ability nor willingness to use the scientific method to improve its practices. Of course, half of Congress doesn't believe in science anyway, so I guess I shouldn't expect them to demand change either.

  • Dave says:

    For me, the NIH needs to stop providing funds to train people who end up in non-academic careers. It is a waste of bloody money and it is not their job. So much money goes down the drain for every fuccker who gets a PhD and ends up as a sales rep.

  • drugmonkey says:

    Dave- have you considered that this is the price of making sure we have a broad selection mechanism instead of hand picking winners after completing undergrad? I think that putting the hard filter on after undergrad would lead to missing some of the best and employing some of the worst.

  • john says:

    No, Dave's right... and along the same lines why doesn't pharma pick drugs that will work from the beginning rather than wasting $B on non-viable or ineffective trials?

  • No, Dave's right... and along the same lines why doesn't pharma pick drugs that will work from the beginning rather than wasting $B on non-viable or ineffective trials?

    Yeah! And what the fucke is the purpose of little league, and college, and minor league baseball, anyway? Just pick those little fuckers when they're four or five, take them away from their parents and put them in camps until they're ready for the majors!

  • drugmonkey says:

    John- because they are idiots. (says NCATS and all the prior versions of "rational drug design" promoter)

  • Beaker says:

    CPP's "alternative model" for identifying and training scientists is very much like what the USSR and Red China used to develop Olympic athletes and world-class chess players. Identify them as youngsters, train them intensely as interchangeable elements in the process, and then skim the cream of that crop. CPP's suggestion was exaggerated to make a point, but you gotta admit that it sort of worked if assessed by the numbers of Olympic medals and championships earned under communism.

  • Dr Becca says:

    What people seem to be leaving out of the conversation is that NIH-funded training grants do not simply serve as some abstract investment in future PIs, but also allow science to be done during the course of the actual grant by paying personnel stipends/salaries and (theoretically) freeing up a non-trivial chunk of a PI's R01 for more reagents or whatever. As long as the award supports a student or post-doc who conducts ethically sound, peer-reviewed, and published research, who cares what they do after the award ends?

  • Dave says:

    I don't see many Barcelona fans complaining about CPPs alternative model. Lionel Messi, anyone? The purpose of little league, college etc is primarily entertainment but, in the rest of the world where college sports do not exist, taking youngsters under 10 and investing in them is pretty much standard practice. At least colleges make a ton of money exploiting their athletes and dangling the pro sports branch in front of their faces!!!

    In any case, isn't the NIH already beginning to employ this kind of "invest in the best" model with the early independence award, K-grants etc? With these mechanism they are supporting only the best prospects which, at least to me, is a similar approach that most pro sports teams subscribe to.

  • Dave says:

    Becca - exactly, and that is the conflict. The NIH needs to decide whether they want to be a fuckin job center for science or just a funder that cares little for the future of the workers. They seem to want to be both. Can that work?

  • Stork says:

    So......if all the PIs knew this already why haven't they been training/mentoring their grad students and post docs for non-academic careers over the past 20 years?

    I mean NIH is awarding grants that give PIs great flexibility and independence. As far as I know NIH is not preventing PIs from properly preparing their students...are they?

    @Dave, I think it would be best for NIH to fund the science and leave the onus of preparing the future scientific workforce to the PIs. Along these lines start by abolishing T32s (except for some small wards that encourage MDs to pursue clinical research).

  • Susan says:

    Well, this attitude of willful ignorance works -- for the NIH, and the 1%. The best science gets funded. The cream of the crop rise. CEO pay keeps rising. Why should they bother with the little people, the straggling perma-postdocs, the 99%?

    Let them eat cake!

  • becca says:

    Janet- isn't that all CarebearTeaparty? I'm pretty sure the powers that be all think workers work hardest when they are scared and have no rights. Doesn't matter if it's Bain Capital or if it's NIH.

    Grumble- I'm pretty sure it's because they've got so much money that there are so many influential stakeholders invested in the status quo by default.

    "if all the PIs knew this already why haven't they been training/mentoring their grad students and post docs for non-academic careers over the past 20 years?"
    Because they haven't a clue how to do it/there are no institutional incentives for them to do so and they can't be arsed?

  • DJMH says:

    Other observations by Rockey:*

    "You guys, have any of you heard about this new idea called open access publishing? I was surprised to learn that not everyone has free access to journal articles, becauwe subscriptions cost money. Any of you ever experience this?"

    "Also, did you see this bit saying that sometimes papers get retracted due to fraudulence? Who knew?"

    "Reeling at the news that because of 'inflation,' having the same amount of grant money from one year to the next does NOT actually mean having the same amount of purchasing power. Is this something you knew about when working on your budgets?"

    * not really. I hope.

  • Confounding says:

    I see this kind of thinking a fair amont beyond the NIH - it's a failure to look at actual population endpoints. Take obesity research, where I seem to see it most often happening in conferences I go to:

    "Intervention X should have Y effect on the population…We did A, B, and C to implement X, and 96% of the population does X…success!" without ever looking at what happened with Y. It becomes research on *implementation* not an outcome, and there is an assumed step where the desired Y must follow from X.

    "Early Investigator awards should help new investigators. We've implemented the awards in the following places, and they're up and running." is just another iteration of that process.

  • CD0 says:

    I do not understand all the angry criticism. Of course this was obvious for a long time for most of us working in academic science, but at least this is the first time that the NIH provides objective data on the matter and acknowledges the problem.

    Second, only a fraction of PhDs end in tenure-track positions or government research jobs, but I do not see why NIH should stop supporting training for alternative careers outside academia, as repeatedly stated above. In my view, developing skills to optimize the best PKs of a drug, identifying new compounds trough molecular screening, etc, is also part of the NIH mission of seeking “fundamental knowledge about the nature and behavior of living systems and the application of that knowledge to enhance health, lengthen life, and reduce the burdens of illness and disability”.

    There are certain things that industrial researchers do very well, and we all need these skills to move discoveries from the bench to CVS, where they can benefit the taxpayer. In fact, I think that our graduate training should evolve to incorporate these skills in the curriculum of some programs. Because the number of academic positions is not going to grow for a long time but, most importantly, because the taxpayer does not support us to satisfy our curiosity in our labs, but to produce tangible advances that improve their health. Just an opinion.

  • miko says:

    DM said: "...the recent executive summary appeared to move in this direction by proposing training for non-academia type jobs."

    And who the fuck would do that? Academic PIs? Why? With what skills or knowledge?

  • Dynein says:

    Have a look at Dr. Rockey's publication record and see for yourself why she is so out of touch.

  • Physician Scientist says:

    Dynein-
    You weren't kidding. Here's the only scientific citation I can find:

    Change in levels of cyclic AMP and cyclic GMP during pregnancy and larval development of the tsetse fly, Glossina morsitans.

    Denlinger DL, Gnagey AL, Rockey SJ, Chaudhury MF, Fertel RH.

    Comp Biochem Physiol C. 1984;77(2):233-6.

    Thank goodness the NIH is so well funded that we can keep her on the payroll and off the streets.

  • NeuroGuy says:

    "When the HELL did it become the mission of NIH to 'steward the public's money very well' by providing a Fair and Just world for scientists? I mean, I want a Fair and Just world for scientists as much as the next hapless postdoc, but c'mon. NIH can be doing an awesome job, and scientists can still be getting a raw deal as a career. Hmmm. Wonder if Rockey realizes that. "

    There's no doubt that a "fair and just" world for scientists will require "income redistribution" of some sort, but such can be easily justified:

    Because the NIH derives its budget from a progressive taxation system (income redistribution) that, among other things, is justified as producing a more fair and just society.

    Because we do not have a perfect meritocracy in science, any more than we do in society at large.

    Because without such income redistribution (even for the sake of argument assuming it is a bad thing) much worse things will follow: in society, crime, gangs, etc.; in science, an eventual exodus of our brightest minds working for a societal good, and instead, saying screw this, I'll make lots of money working for Big Pharma or on Wall Street.

    Because it is much easier for one with significant capital to acquire more than one without it, which runs contrary to our ideals of equality of opportunity. (In NIH-land, this is newbies getting dinged for "lack of convincing preliminary data" (which it would have taken another R01 to acquire), and "lack of an established collaboration", etc.)

    Because those with significant capital are able to form old-boys clubs whose goal is to fend off competition from those outside (e.g. on Wall Street, it's CEOs sitting the boards of other companies and electing their (equally incompetent) buddies as CEOs there; in NIH-land, it's reviewers completely neglecting flaws in their buddies' proposals that they would have unmercifully dinged a newbie for, instead fawning over the PI's being an "established investigator"). This results in a highly inefficient allocation of resources, contrary to right-wing arguments.

  • NewProf says:

    postdoctoral researcher, why does your F award pay you less and keep you in your postdoc longer? Exactly the opposite of mine.

    NP

  • Drugmonkey says:

    Dynein, PS- it is one hundred percent irrelevant how many or what papers Rockey produced. Hell I wouldn't even care if she were not a scientist. It is cluelessness as an *administrator* that has me fired up. Careerism and the state of the extramural workforce doing the job they pay for...these are the issues. Differing opinions on how things *should be* I can understand. But ignorance of how things are, in very broad strokes, is very disappointing.

  • whimple says:

    Hell I wouldn't even care if she were not a scientist.
    That's good, because she isn't.

    It is cluelessness as an *administrator* that has me fired up.
    It's not her job to administer what happens to "trainees" after they are done being "trained". She will rapidly discover what a thankless futile effort attempting to manage the (non-NIH-funded) future of the trainees is and go back to doing what she's actually paid to do, which is:
    OER Mission: Provides the corporate framework for NIH research administration, ensuring scientific integrity, public accountability, and effective stewardship of the NIH extramural research portfolio.
    There isn't anyone at the NIH whose mission is to manage the post-NIH careers of anyone. It's probably better that way.

  • Drugmonkey says:

    It is not about managing post-NIH careers whimple. It is about managing *NIH extramural* careers. Effective stewardship includes trying to get the best possible scientists doing the extramural job of work.

  • whimple says:

    So... the "best possible scientists" are the ones leaving academic science? Most trainees will leave so why all the hand-wringing over those that do?

  • Dynein says:

    It's hard for me to understand how someone can be expected to be an effective administrator of a career path that they know nothing about! I certainly wouldn't expect myself to be a good administrator of a program designed to facilitate careers in the banking industry. How can she know the *current* state of things in the scientific career path if she never participated in it to begin with? It does make a difference to me that the NIH is run by people who have some experience in how science is done in the first place, and this lady is clearly NOT one of them.

  • postdoctoral researcher says:

    "postdoctoral researcher, why does your F award pay you less and keep you in your postdoc longer? Exactly the opposite of mine."

    The F award pays me less than what I was being paid off my PI's R01. The stipend is lower (I live in a high cost-of-living area and would've qualified for low-income housing with the NIH stipend). My PI topped it off, which is great, but the stipend is still not considered "employment"--it's "training." This means lots of foregone benefits because I lose my employee status and a few years of earned income (in terms of Social Security and other programs). This is on top of a similar fellowship I earned in grad school. For me, this is >5 years of significantly reduced total comp in a very unstable profession.

    Training grants effectively increase the cost of staying in academia. Ostensibly, this increased risk (cost) should be offset by increased employability--but when the permanent academic jobs are so hard to get, this seems like a stupid gamble sometimes. I think the financial impact of these grants might disproportionately affect women who are thinking about starting families and who are more apt to be paired with similarly unstable academics.

    I didn't mean that the F grant increases my time in academia--it doesn't. What I meant is that the protracted postdoc phase makes these grants even tougher to stomach.

  • postdoctoral researcher says:

    @whimple: I've given one example (myself) of how the trainees who are, in theory, the "best at brightest" can be discouraged rather than aided by NIH policy. Again in theory, the result is bad for science.

  • Dynein says:

    We are in the same boat pr. I am also on an F award and live in the Bay Area. My wife is also a postdoc and we have put off having kids because of uncertainty in our future and low pay. The inability to even contribute to a Roth IRA due to my "unemployed" status is a real kick in the juevos for me!

  • Beaker says:

    I agree with Whimple. While I agree that Rockey's statement indicates general cluelessness, many of the other criticisms in this thread are mis-directed. For example, any problems with study section behavior are not part of Rockey's purview. That's a CSR issue. I guess she might be hearing from Experienced PIs, who lobby for continuing the pipeline of cheap labor (trainees) and complain about increasing postdoc salaries (which affect their abilities to support their big labs). But influencing what happens to those trainees afterwards is not in her job description. At its core, the problem is insufficient funds to support the current medical science infrastructure. Hello, Congress.

    Rockey may not yet be privy to this thread, since she tweeted that this week she participating in something called a vacation. What is this thing "vacation?" Can I get that too?

  • postdoctoral researcher says:

    Dynein, I took on additional work last year on the side so that I could contribute to my Roth. There's no question it took some time away from research. Best wishes to you and your wife.

  • drugmonkey says:

    how someone can be expected to be an effective administrator of a career path that they know nothing about!

    as pointed out above, she does not administer "career path". OTOH, I believe that what she does administer, the extramural research budget, has a primary focus on research output which is connected in a not-insignificant way to careerism.

    How can she know the *current* state of things in the scientific career path if she never participated in it to begin with?

    by listening, really listening, to those who are in it. by looking over relevant data. by commissioning her underling data grinds to present her with analyses and charts and whatnot. this is what an administrator should be doing...solicit and synthesize information relevant to your job goals. Program staff, should they choose to do so, are actually better positioned than many of us in the career are to see the broad picture of the career arc.

    the "best possible scientists" are the ones leaving academic science? Most trainees will leave so why all the hand-wringing over those that do?

    we don't know if the selection process is working to retain the best, is random with respect to the best or is pushing out the best. but I would expect the OER of the NIH to make a stab at trying to understand this. Otherwise they are most certainly at risk for suboptimal outcome.

    I am fairly confident in my proposal that a single generation does not have a lock on the best scientists. thus, I think we have some reason to look at historical trends raise some degree of alarm.

    For example, any problems with study section behavior are not part of Rockey's purview. That's a CSR issue.

    This is nonsense bullshit responsibility dodging. She's bloody high up enough that if the CSR is a problem, she can make things happen to find out and fix it.

  • Beaker says:

    This is nonsense bullshit responsibility dodging. She's bloody high up enough that if the CSR is a problem, she can make things happen to find out and fix it.

    Disagree. From its conception, the NIH review process has maintained a wall between scientific review (CSR) and programmatic review (the whole rest of the NIH). In theory, it is a very good thing that other practicing scientists are reviewing our grants, not people like Rockey. If that system is not working in practice, then the problem lies in the operation of the CSR. These problems are largely due to predictable human group behavior when faced with diminishing resources.

    I have a problem with camel crickets in my basement. When food is plentiful, those suckers just proliferate. But when food is scarce, they just eat each other. Same with NIH-funded scientists.

  • JKaiser says:

    For those who are interested-- Science magazine is hosting an online chat with Princeton University president Shirley Tilghman, coauthor of the NIH workforce report, this Thursday, June 28 from 3-4 pm EDT . Details here:

    Live Chat: Are We Training Too Many Scientists?
    http://news.sciencemag.org/sciencenow/2012/06/live-chat-are-we-training-too-ma.html

  • [...] leaving aside the possibility that some funding agency honchos are clueless, and leaving aside Hayekian questions about whether the Authorities can really predict labor needs, [...]

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