Bioethics Blogs

What are we going to do with the overflow of PhDs?

There have been dozens of papers in the past few years
about our current biomedical science enterprise being unsustainable, starting
with a prominent paper by Bruce Alberts, Marc Kirschner, Shirley Tilghman and
Harold Varmus in 2014. They and others argue that the
biomedical science environment is unstainable given its current growth and has
led to a hypercompetitive environment where innovation has declined while possibly
other factors have worsened such as authorship ethics, cutting corners, and the
irreproducibility of results. There is tons of data from the NIH, NSF and
academic researchers demonstrating the low rate of success in obtaining grants,
longer post-docs, and less faculty level job opportunities, yet we continue to
increase the number of students accepted into PhD programs. What are we going
to do with the overflow of PhDs?

A recent article by Julie Gould in Nature writes about this topic. To summarize, she and
others come up with several solutions of which I will discuss a few.

The first, and perhaps the most difficult for researchers
and institutions to swallow, is simply reduce the number of PhDs (the entry
rate). I and others have indicated that we need to decouple the labor from the
training function of PhDs. Currently, PhDs and post-doctoral fellows are the
labor backbone for the biomedical research workforce. Principal investigators
(PIs) use PhDs as cheap labor to undertake research within their grants. The
problem I think can be easily resolved if NIH was to set limits on the number
of students which can be recruited for different types of NIH grants, or if
academic institutions and graduate departments limit the number of PhDs they enroll.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.