Despite being in the midst of a “golden age” in biological and medical science, it’s becoming increasingly apparent that the American biomedical research enterprise is broken. Too little research funding and too many principal investigators create a hypercompetitive environment that hinders scientific progress.
“It has gotten to the point where scientists are really struggling to secure funding for their labs. This includes established highly respected scientists as well as young scientists just starting out. So they are spending most of their time writing and revising grants, and much less time doing research and mentoring their students,” notes biochemistry professor Judith Kimble. “That is where competition becomes very damaging.”
The scientific community has been grappling with this issue in recent years and is looking for solutions. An influential paper on the topic was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) in April 2014, but Kimble found that she disagreed with some of the authors’ recommendations for change.
“They were coming at the situation from the vantage point of small, elite schools —Princeton, for example; Harvard, for example—and they were not thinking about state schools, which do the lion’s share of [graduate student] training in biomedical research. I thought that to bring that [public university] voice into the discussion was very important.”
To that end, Kimble – along with Marsha Mailick, the UW’s interim vice chancellor for research and graduate education – helped lead a campus-wide discussion on the topic this past spring. They hosted a series of four discussions in March that culminated in a workshop on April 11 titled “Rescuing U.S. Biomedical Research from its Systemic Flaws: Strategies and Pathways Ahead.” The workshop brought the authors of the influential PNAS paper to campus to participate, along with Jo Handelsman, associate director for science at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP).
The process has been lauded for its inclusiveness, bringing together students, staff scientists, faculty, administrators and deans.
“The model here should be spread to every campus in the U.S.,” said OSTP science envoy Bruce Alberts, who attended the workshop. “The ‘normal’ way is to appoint a bunch of deans to organize sessions, but it’s inspiring the way sessions here were led by experienced people and by dynamic young people… This needs to happen over and over again.”
Kimble published a description of the process and the group’s main findings in an article in eLife this past summer. The article includes numerous recommendations related to NIH policy and the “culture” of the U.S. biomedical research community, including:
- Providing more financial support for “early stage” investigators to help them get established
- Distributing NIH funds among the top 20% of grants reviewed, using a “sliding scale” to disperse funds based on a grant’s score and other funding available to the investigator
- Revamping peer review to emphasize the importance of untargeted discovery-driven science
- Encouraging young scientists to consider careers in law, policy, communication, business and other areas, and having the community embrace these alternative career options as honorable choices
- Encouraging scientists to collaborate within institutions, sharing space, equipment, etc.
To hear Kimble describe this issue and the workshop in her own words, listen to this 12-minute podcast produced by CALS’ Sevie Kenyon.
Videos and slides from the April 11 workshop are available online here.