Sally Rockey, Deputy Director of Extramural Research at NIH, has a new blog, “Rock Talk“. I’m pleased about this development, because any massive bureaucratic government institution like NIH needs as much transparency as it can muster, and because she is not your typical blogger.
Her Jan 25 post, “Looking to the Future of the Biomedical Workforce” describes the new subcommittee which will answer, among other things, “What is the right size of the workforce?” This is a critical question for the future of science and research in the US, and for postdocs. When the NIH budget doubled between 1998 and 2003, this turned into a disaster. The money wasn’t spent wisely but was thrown around a bit too freely, and the end result was an influx of newly minted PhDs, because graduate students were a cheap source of labor. Researchers never have enough money, so even with a surplus of money they were cutting corners, trying to get as much as possible out of it. Hiring cheap grad students instead of paying their postdocs and technicians more.
Coincidentally (not really), I started graduate school in 1998 and received my PhD in 2003. I had no idea that the NIH budget was doubling when this was occurring. No one talked about it. No one talked about what my career prospects might look like when the doubling was complete, and whether the next administrations might try to maintain the doubling. They couldn’t have, even if they wanted to, and the next administration was Republican so they didn’t want to.
I digressed a bit. My point is, PLANNING IS A GOOD THING. Whether you are planning an experiment, your career, or the future of biomedical research in the US. Why shouldn’t we just let supply and demand work itself out? While it is probably true we’ll reach a balance, it’s not a nice way to do it. There was some community, I think in Colorado or some state out that direction, that had a troubled deer population. Deer hunting was banned, but the hunting the predators was encouraged. The predators quickly declined and the deer population bounded back. The community didn’t like the idea of deer hunters killing Bambi, so deer hunting was still banned. And the deer increased. They got diseases. They starved. They looked horribly sick and miserable. Finally hunting was reinstated and balance restored.
I’m not saying that there should be hunting season on graduate students and postdocs. I’m saying it’s kinder to look ahead, see how many PhDs we actually need and target that number, rather than let them die of disease & starvation because there are too many for the market.