research jobs with career-ladder prospects in academe, industry, or government where they can apply their lengthy training and experience. The search is perhaps most difficult for those who aspire to the university positions toward which their mentors and the academic culture guided them. Although the academic sector is the largest employer of life scientists, the number of openings there and the growth in new positions were being outstripped by the growth in the applicant pool.

Is there any need to intervene, to attempt to redress the imbalance in the system? Some say No—the system is Darwinian, and the competition for occupational survival will bring the fittest to the top. Indeed, the system is designed to winnow out the less competent; not everyone has the talents to become an independent investigator, and it is assumed that some fraction of the graduates will eventually decide to pursue other careers. The system is functioning as it should, and market forces should be allowed to prevail.

This committee takes a different position. We believe that the current rate of production is too high and certainly should not grow higher. The system of training and research that worked so well in times of overall expansion of the enterprise is increasingly deleterious in an era of little growth. The aging of the "young" scientist is disquieting. The system is delaying independence and muffling creativity at perhaps the most productive phase of the individual scientist's life. Finally—and most important—the committee is concerned that an unduly crowded labor market with small chances for success could in the long run drive out the most talented and ambitious aspirants, who will opt for more promising career opportunities in other fields and professions. When the system produces an imbalance like the contemporary one, it is inefficient, wasteful, and dispiriting to its recruits.

For those reasons, the committee believes that there is justification for intervention to adjust the imbalance in the education and training system. At the same time, we recognize the complexity of the system and the diffuse interdependence of its components. In the sections that follow, we report a variety of strategies that the committee has considered for making adjustments, asking of each strategy not only what good purposes it might serve but also what ramifications, especially unwanted consequences, it might have. We have grouped the strategies according to what we believe are desirable goals for making a start on alleviating current difficulties. Overall, our aim is to ensure the continued health of the research enterprise while confronting the disequilibrium that has created a crisis of expectations in the young cohorts who represent the future of life science. We hope that our analysis will focus on the systemic factors that led to the present dilemma and will stimulate widespread discussion in the scientific community about desirable changes.

Restraint of the Rate of Growth of the Number of Graduate Students in the Life Sciences

Over the last 2 decades, there has been a substantial growth in the number of life scientists in all categories of impermanent employment1 owing in no small measure to a sharply increasing number of PhDs being awarded by US universities to both US citizens and foreign nationals, especially in the last decade. This

1  

We define the goal of graduate education and postdoctoral training in the life sciences as the preparation of young scientists for careers in independent research in academe, industry, government, or private research environments. We call these "permanent", although it is understood that no employment is guaranteed, to distinguish these positions from the "impermanent" positions, such as postdoctoral fellow and research associate positions held by persons whose career objective is to obtain permanent positions.



The National Academies | 500 Fifth St. N.W. | Washington, D.C. 20001
Copyright © National Academy of Sciences. All rights reserved.
Terms of Use and Privacy Statement