There is growing interdisciplinarity in biomedical research with physical scientists, computer scientists, and engineers working with biologists in research areas traditionally the exclusive domains of biology. As suggested by Dr. Zerhouni in his remarks at the committee’s June 2004 workshop, pathways are needed to move physical scientists into biomedical research and to provide opportunities for building interdisciplinary research teams. Moreover, opportunities for moving between and among increasingly overlapping disciplines need to be available to early-career scientists as well as those who have already established their independent disciplinary research program.
Biomedical career pathways have traditionally been viewed as linear progressions with individuals moving directly from graduate school to postdoctoral positions to assistant professorships, then obtaining funding and tenure. Regardless of how accurate this view was in the past, clearly this linear pathway is far less common today. The system by which established scientists “clone themselves” through their postdocs and graduate students is increasingly challenged by new, different directions and objectives. Many people who receive PhDs in biomedical sciences opt to pursue careers outside of academic research: in industry, biotechnology, investment, policy, teaching, writing, or any number of other sectors. And there is significantly more movement in and out of the research career track; individual scientists move between disciplines; they take time out for family or to work outside scientific research. Figure 2-1 shows the complexity of the current network of career trajectories in biomedical research. The figure illustrates the many pathways to achieve independence; focusing on only a single pathway puts artificial limits on who may become an independent investigator. Therefore, research funding and training opportunities now need to fit the needs of a variety of careers and allow for transitions among different areas of research.
The availability of research funding drives not only the specific research questions investigated, but also the scientific workforce available to carry out that research. NIH grant programs can stimulate the creation of new research positions by providing partial or full salary support. While non-tenure-track “soft-money” positions especially depend on external sources for salary support, a significant number of tenure-track faculty also depend upon grant funding. For instance, a study of the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) indicated that tenure does not carry any financial guarantee for basic science appointments at 30.8 percent of medical schools in 2002, up from 24.4 percent just 3 years earlier. And the percentage of medical schools indicating that tenure guarantees total institutional salary for basic sciences faculty dropped from 38.6 percent in 1999 to 21.7 percent in 2002 (Liu and Mallon, 2004).