From Howard Temin’s Nobel Prize-winning discovery of reverse transcriptase to James Thomson’s isolation of viable human stem cells, the University of Wisconsin-Madison has long enjoyed distinction as a biomedical research powerhouse.
Yet, years of diminishing federal funds and an increasing number of scientists seeking those funds have created a hypercompetitive atmosphere within the U.S. biomedical sciences, according to the authors of a 2014 article in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. They assert it is stifling the creativity and risk-taking ventures that lead to breakthroughs like Temin’s and Thomson’s.
On Saturday, April 11, authors of that article — former National Academy of Sciences President Bruce Alberts, former president of Princeton University Shirley Tilghman, and Harvard Medical School Department of Systems Biology Chair Marc Kirschner — will be on campus for an all-day workshop aimed at giving the university community a chance to present its best ideas and suggestions for rescuing the biomedical research enterprise, both at UW-Madison and nationally.
Additionally, UW-Madison alumna and former faculty member Jo Handelsman, now associate director for science at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, will return to Madison to participate in the workshop, which runs from 8 a.m. until 6:30 p.m. at the Discovery Building (Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery).
Chancellor Rebecca Blank, Vice Chancellor for Research and Graduate Education Marsha Mailick, and Vilas Professor of Biochemistry and HHMI Investigator Judith Kimble have organized the event in collaboration with the PNAS paper authors and Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation Managing Director Carl Gulbrandsen.
“This UW-Madison workshop is not being done in isolation,” says Kimble. “It is one piece of an integrated, nationwide effort to confront the growing crisis in the biomedical research enterprise.”
At the event, leaders will discuss how the hypercompetitive atmosphere — in addition to limiting innovative ideas in the biomedical sciences — has reduced scientific productivity, is impacting the next generation of scientists-in-training, and has created perverse incentives for academic institutions, which are providing less support for grant-funded scientists while benefiting from the monies they bring in.
These are just some of the ideas to be explored at the workshop, which will devote time to address four major themes impacting biomedical research in the U.S.: numbers in the biomedical research workforce; shape of the biomedical research workforce; NIH grant mechanisms; and NIH evaluation mechanisms.
For four weeks in March, UW-Madison students, faculty, staff and postdoctoral researchers convened to achieve meaningful dialogue and generate ideas and suggestions around these themes. Among the feedback received during these sessions were suggestions to improve nonacademic science career development for young Ph.D.s, to consider a cap in the amount of NIH funding individual researchers can receive, to reduce the number of years certain grants are funded, and to change the methods by which NIH provides review feedback.
Numerous other ideas and perspectives were heard, and final recommendations will be made at the April 11 workshop. Registration for the event is capped at 200 and will remain open until the event is full. The $20 registration fee includes light refreshments beginning at 7:30 a.m., lunch, and a reception from 5:15 until 6:30 p.m.
“There is no shortage of important unanswered research questions and the challenge we face is the need for adequate funding for research as well as for the faculty, staff and students who carry it out,” Mailick says.
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