growth, which has outstripped the small increases in the number of permanent positions available, has been a major contributor to the swelling of the postdoctoral pool of life scientists. The pool numbers about 20,000, many of whom are marking time until they can move into permanent positions.
Recommendation 1: The committee recommends that the life-science community constrain the rate of growth in the number of graduate students, that is, that there be no further expansion in the size of existing graduate-education programs in the life sciences and no development of new programs, except under rare and special circumstances, such as a program to serve an emerging field or to encourage the education of members of underrepresented minority groups.
The current annual rate of increase in awards of life-science PhDs—5.1% from 1995 to 1996—if allowed to continue, would result in a doubling of the number of such PhDs in just 14 years. Our analysis suggests that that would be deleterious to individuals and the research enterprise. The committee recognizes that the number of PhDs awarded each year might already be too high. Although a return to pre-1988 levels of training might be beneficial, we believe that a concentrated effort to reduce the size of graduate-student populations rapidly would be disruptive to the highly successful research enterprise. The professional structure of life-science research requires the services of graduate students and postdoctoral fellows to conduct the research that is now being funded. A serious reduction in this labor force would impair, delay, or forestall the accomplishment of current and future research.
We caution that it will be necessary to distinguish among fields when making decisions about optimal numbers of graduate students. As shown in chapter 2, almost all the increase in life-science PhD production has been in biomedical fields. Actions taken in one field of the life sciences might be unnecessary in others. It is worth noting, however, that the data shown in figure 3.10 suggest that biomedical and nonbiomedical life-science fields are experiencing similar changes in employment trends, for example, smaller fractions of PhDs finding permanent employment in academe.
The committee acknowledges that its recommendation to constrain further growth will not be easy to implement. Life-science faculties need teaching assistants and research assistants, and limiting the number of entering graduate students will be resisted. But the current rate of growth can no longer be justified, and the premises that have produced it must be reexamined. The committee urges life-science faculties to seek alternatives to these workforce needs (see below in this chapter).
The committee examined several approaches to stabilizing the total number of PhDs produced by life-science departments beyond the first and obvious approach of individual action on the part of graduate programs to constrain growth in the number of graduate students enrolled. As the increases over the last decade, as shown in chapter 2, have been fueled primarily by the increased availability of federal support for research assistants, federal agencies might restrict the numbers of graduate students that they support through the research grant mechanism. If further restrictions were placed by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) on the total amount of salary and tuition support provided for students on research grants well below the current $23,000 cap, it could reduce the attractiveness of research grants as a means of supporting graduate students, although it might also penalize many outstanding programs in private institutions that have high tuitions. Before any action of this sort is adopted, the federal agencies must carefully consider what impact it is likely to have on the university departments and the research efforts being supported.