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Meeting the Nation’s Needs for Biomedical and Behavioral Scientists: Summary of the 1993 Public Hearing
“with” rather than “for” physician scientists should be encouraged.
At a time when basic science offers unparalleled opportunities to understand disease, it is remarkable that the goals of most graduate students are unfulfilled, and their talents are not directed to biomedical science.
Arias, Irwin M. 1989 Training basic scientists to bridge the gap between basic science and its application to human disease . New England Journal of Medicine321:972-974.
DAVID L. BRAUTIGAN
Good morning. Ladies and gentlemen, I am here representing the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology (ASBMB), a non-profit, scientific, and educational organization with over 9,000 members. Currently I serve as the Chairman of the Human Resources Committee, the largest committee for ASBMB, which deals with education issues in general as well as particular problems faced by women and under-represented minorities. We are organized into three subcommittees focused on each of these areas.
A majority of our members teach and conduct research at colleges and universities. Sustaining the quality of biomedical and behavioral research is a critical issue of great concern to us. I was a recipient of both predoctoral training grant support at Northwestern University and a post-doctoral NRSA award with Edmond Fischer, the 1992 Nobel Laureate, at the University of Washington, Seattle. I believe these mechanisms of support for those in training goes hand-in-hand with the government’s role in financing fundamental research in the life sciences. This combination of research and training support has considerable and continuing benefits to the health and welfare of the citizens of our country.
Now I will respond, in turn, to the four questions posed by the committee.
First, what is the most significant challenge we face today? It is the lack of funding available to support the scientists currently in the field who are capable of excellent research. A telling statistic is the declining success rate for research applications submitted to the National Institutes of Health. In 1991, the average NIH success rate was 29.3 percent. It is likely that less than 1 in five applicants for an NIH research grant will actually be funded this year.
The impact on NRSA programs is obvious. The best and the brightest students see little incentive for them to take up life sciences research as a career. They suspect that after years of rigorous training, funding for research may be as scarce as it is today. Sadly, this decision is often made even before they gain enough exposure to research to become committed to it, as happened to most of us here today. Rather, many opt to enter some other career, such as the practice of medicine, where the likelihood of reward and recognition is greater. The number of quality students interested in research is small; we have to encourage them and provide them with opportunities.
We need to sustain our training programs. As the large cadre of older life scientists in universities retire and life sciences-based industries continue to expand, the current surplus pool of life science researchers will evaporate. We have to remain aware that quality training programs take years to assemble and mature. These programs do not need to continue to grow in size, but they cannot survive if their support goes up-and-down in cycles.
That brings me to question 2, about improvements in the National Research Service Awards program. Let me make 4 recommendations:
First, do not expand, but do maintain most programs at their present levels. The Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology (FASEB) has conducted a consensus conference on biomedical research funding, and recommends that the NRSA program support 14,020 training positions. As Professor Gerbi has pointed out, this number of students actually is a small fraction of total Ph.D. production, but represents our best programs, chosen by merit.
Second, support measured and prudent growth in the Medical Scientist Training Program (MSTP) which awards both M.D. and Ph.D. degrees after a rigorous course of study. This is recognized as the most successful NIH training program. The MSTP should be provided with funds to add 250 trainees over the next six years to bring the total number to 1,000 trainees.
Third, increase stipends for all pre- and postdoctoral trainees. Current stipends are inadequate; awardees are supported below the poverty line and