Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Who will train tomorrow's scientists?

 In 2009, when I was graduating and about to embark on my postdoc, I was concerned about the research funding lottery and worried how I could continue on the academic track with such prospects. My co-adviser Jasper Rine confirmed that we were in a crisis, but he said, “NIH only acts in times of crisis.” It was a good time to do a postdoc, and by the time I would embark on my faculty career, things would have improved.

Of course, in retrospect, 2009 feels like a pre-problem era. The funding situation today is best summed up by yesterday's: "Congress: NIH Funding To Be Distributed Via Cage Fighting" with this brilliant nugget:

"My fellow Americans, today marks an important milestone in our collective history," President Obama began, "with the enacting of this bill, federal funding for health-related research will be distributed in the fairest way possible -- by physical combat."

For as long as I remember from the start of graduate school in 2003, depressing reports on the prospects for PhDs kept surfacing (good examples: TheScientist 2006Science 2008Economist 2010, an entire special issue in Nature 2011, and a famous blogger in 2013 saying that it's immoral to hire PhDs). In February, my post “Goodbye Academia”, warning of a crisis in academic biomedical research, drew over 100,000 readers. Countless scientists commented, confirming the concerns, and I learned of a whole genre called QuitLit of researchers publicly leaving academia (ever-growing list of the stories here). A few days after my post, Keith Yamamoto, Vice Chancellor of Research at UCSF published a video, arguing that we should not be sending graduates to postdoc positions. Then in April, the titans of the US bioscience world published “Rescuing US biomedical research from its systemic flaws”.

I was somewhat encouraged, hoping that NIH would finally recognize the extent of the crisis and avert disaster. Alas, it is clear to me today that despite all the warnings, the vast majority of academics, and certainly the head of NIH, are going to pretend as though there is no problem, for as long as they can. Francis Collins, the director of NIH, just stated that he does not believe we are training too many PhDs.

Figure 1: New faculty positions versus new PhDs.

 Schillebeeckx M., et al. Nature Biotech. 31:938 (2013)

In my conversations with scientists, the waving away of the problem is consistently justified with the following two answers:

1. Everything is uncertain. No employment guarantees in industry either.

2. There are plenty of non-academic jobs, and training PhDs is not vocational training for professorship.

Everything is uncertain. You can lose your job in industry too.

This is not a valid comparison. Of course no employment is guaranteed. However, if I lose my job at Novartis, I can probably find another one at Merck. That’s not the same as losing funding for your lab – you lose funding at MIT, you don’t just move to Stanford. You lose your funding, and you lose your lab. It’s not a job; it’s your entire career that is at risk.

There are plenty of non-academic jobs, and training PhDs is not vocational training for professorship.

I applaud efforts to expose graduate students to non-academic careers. I personally tell students and postdocs all the time that they are valuable to the society because of their science training, across a wide spectrum of research and non-research positions. Yet, I don’t sense that there are enough fulfilling positions for the scientists we train (will write a separate post on this). And I certainly don’t believe that the programs to facilitate non-academic career exploration are in any way addressing the central problem of academia. (By the way, telling students that there are lots of non-academic jobs is also the solution to the crisis that Francis Collins advocates.)

The problem – academia is no longer competitive for the best and most talented researchers.

This is the part that worries me the most. We have too many PhDs competing for postdocs. We have too many postdocs competing for fellowships and faculty positions. And we have too many professors, competing for grants. Combined, the low pay, hyper-competition, and the guaranteed uncertainty at every step make the academic track a bad career choice today.

So what? As many have replied to my Goodbye Academia post, “There is nothing wrong with getting out of academia. We, taxpayers, fund your training so you can join the industry, start biotechs, and not just sit in the ivory tower.”

I love my role at ZappyLab. I do not regret getting a PhD or doing my postdoc – no way I could have founded ZappyLab otherwise. But my question to the taxpayer is, “Who do you want as professors, training the next generation of scientists for the biotech/industry jobs?”

The NIH alone spends $30b each year of taxpayer money, supporting 50,000 grants across laboratories at 2,500 institutes. Who do we want heading the laboratories under these grants? Who do we want training the future researchers? If the best scientists aren’t the ones training, what does it mean for the quality of scientists and science that will be in the industry? 

We have a bubble in academia. Like all bubbles, if ignored, it will pop. There will be a natural adjustment. We are beginning to see it already. As I was inviting mentors to participate in our Career Forum, several warned me that they regretted getting a PhD. They said that they would not be able to give rosy encouragement to students and postdocs. These are folks from the very top research universities. Folks who graduated 5-10 years ago when the situation was far better than it is now. This is phase 1 of the bubble-bursting. The next and most painful phase will be a decrease in the number of talented students going into biomedical PhDs.

The system will naturally self-adjust if we take no action. Eventually, the number of PhDs we train will decrease simply because few will want these degrees. But what will be the cost to science, progress, and society if this happens? The quality of academic research is already suffering with pervasive irreproducible results and outright fraud, as a consequence of the hyper-competition. We are already starting to lose the scientists with the stronger moral compass and ethical standards. If we don’t fix academia and make it an attractive career choice again, we will all pay a devastating price.


Some statistics on percent of biomedical PhDs getting faculty positions:
1963: 61%
1983: 38%
1993: 25%
2003: 15%
2014: <10%
(numbers for 1963-2003 from the Scientist and 2014 from ASCB.org)

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Do Retractions Actually Hurt Journals?

I am not sure. In fact, I can’t help but wonder if STAP-like fiascos aren’t actually beneficial to a journal like Nature. Sure, the journal has been “soul-searching” and is now suddenly aware that fraud happens and will try harder to prevent it. But seriously, does this in any way damage the NPG brand? Are scientists going to be less likely to submit? Does it really hurt their reputation? Or is this much-coveted domination of the news cycle that is the kind of free advertising that corporations can only dream of?

I am not a whacko. I know that editors typically do everything within their power to avoid publishing bad science. In 99% of the cases, avoiding retractions is indeed the goal. I have written extensively about the problems of pre-publication peer review, and no journal is truly capable of ensuring that what is published is right. That’s a function of time. I also believe that the true problem with the glam journals is not so much the bad science they publish but the amazing science they reject.

Still, it bothers me to the core to see Nature play a victim here. Reading this NYT artice, it seems that Obokata is the convenient scapegoat that everyone is happy to destroy. I don’t know anything about Obokata. I have no inside information on this scandal. But I do know that many top scientists have a particular distaste for Nature. Over a decade, I have heard again and again the meme:

Nature sets up its authors to fail. They publish work they know they shouldn’t, then call for an investigation, and then publish the refutation.

Are Cell and Science any different? I doubt. When Science published the Arsenic paper, it sent it to reviewers that were likely to accept. And after enjoying the extravagant claims and press, Science published two papers refuting the original claim. Sweet. Here's what Bruce Alberts, editor-in-chief of Science, had to say about this:
We hope that the study and the subsequent exchange being published today will stimulate further experiments — whether they support or overturn this conclusion. In either case, the overall result will advance our knowledge about conditions that support life, an important outcome for science and education

Science, Nature, and Cell have the highest retraction rates of life sciences journals. And yet there is no indication that it hurts them the least bit. While publishing bad science doesn’t seem to hurt them, it does hurt the scientists. It hurts science. Crucifying Obokata is easy. But that does nothing to help the science enterprise. What would help is if we scientists stopped sending our work to the glam journals.