Friday, July 13, 2012

Don't say the "P" word

By now, nearly everyone who is part of the biomedical workforce has read about the Biomedical Research Workforce Working Group's report and its recommendations. The leader of the working group is Shirley Tilghman, President of Princeton University and my fellow alum, molecular biologist, and Canadian. In the past few years, she has done more than perhaps any other person to improve the plight of trainee scientists.

The report's recommendations are covered in the linked article, so I won't rehash them here. They include: increased postdoc pay and benefits, a reduced biomedical workforce, more graduate students supported by training grants, and education of graduate students and postdocs about alternative careers. 

I want to instead focus on the quotes attributed to Bob Horvitz, Nobel laureate and MIT geneticist. He opposes the recommendations of the report and gives his reasons. Here are two of them from the article:
 "One wants to be sure that the principal investigators, who are supposed to be doing the research, continue to have enough flexibility to be able to support the research they want to do," he said. Taking away that flexibility, he argued, could reduce research productivity.
Followed later by:
But ACD member Horvitz was skeptical. The money to raise postdoc salaries "has to come from somewhere,” he said, and given NIH's current budget woes, it might be impractical to raise postdoc pay. If PIs were forced to make do with fewer (but better paid) postdocs, he argued, lab productivity would probably decline.

So, does Dr. Horvitz have the best interests of postdocs, even his own, in mind? Does anyone really doubt where the opposition to these reforms will come from, and what it will be motivated by? It's all well and good to be concerned for productivity, of course, but there in lies the exact problem: "training" is sounding more and more like a lie. How can this be training? Training for what? Staff scientist positions that don't exist?

It's really very simple: if the opposition to reform is motivated by concern for productivity, rather than the fate of the people actually doing the work, then academia really is a pyramid scheme. I have resisted using that language - on this blog or elsewhere - because I don't think there is any giant conspiracy to keep postdocs chained to the bench instead of thinking about their life after they are done "training". But quotes like these make me question that assumption. Perhaps it's not a conspiracy, perhaps it's all right out there in the open. When I see quotes like this, I think: why would anyone join this person's lab? He's very clear about where his priorities are.

And of course, if Dr. Horvitz get's his way and reform is another ten years in coming, I have to think: why would anyone go into science? 

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