AAI President's Message


Leslie J. Berg, Ph.D. (AAI President, 2011-12)

For decades, the basic biomedical research enterprise in the U.S. has flourished as a result of increased federal funding, expanding university and medical school biology and biomedical science departments, and a proliferation of graduate level training programs. Since 1974, this expansion of research has been evidenced in a substantial increase in original research published (PubMed lists over 248,000 articles published in 1975, and more than 918,000 articles published in 2010), and a more than two-fold increase in the number of Ph.D.s trained in the life sciences (fewer than 5,000 doctorates were conferred in the life sciences in1974 versus more than 11,000 in 2009). (See www.nsf.gov/statistics/doctorates/pdf/sed1994.pdf and www.nsf.gov/statistics/nsf11306/appendix/pdf/tab38.pdf.) While 40 years may represent just 1–2 generations, it amounts to somewhere between 4–6 generations of new scientists trained; thus, one often hears colleagues refer to their scientific "children," "grandchildren," and even "great-grandchildren."

The underlying business model that has fostered this phenomenal growth in biomedical research (and, one might add, the amazing strides in health care that have resulted from this effort) is supported mostly by just two major sources: the federal government (NIH) and the institutions (universities, medical schools, veterinary schools, and private research institutes) that house this research. Together with relatively "cheap labor" in the form of graduate students and postdoctoral fellows, this model has led to a situation in which graduate programs are continually expanding, new faculty are being hired, and, as is obvious to most of us looking out of our office and laboratory windows, new buildings are being erected for research—buildings which then must be filled.

The issue that faces us now is whether this business model is sustainable in the long term. Perhaps we are merely disheartened by the current funding crunch, which is causing many of us—myself included—to spend far too much time writing, revising, and resubmitting grant applications. And if one has a sunny outlook on life, one might choose to believe that these dark days will pass and science will go on as before. However, it may be that we now must face some tough decisions on how to keep the scientific enterprise moving forward with a new and different model based on the likelihood of a static (or even decreasing) NIH budget.

How do we solve this problem? I admit to having no answer. What I do believe is that it is really time to get serious about these issues and to consider some radical changes to the current structure.

One point of view has been voiced by Dr. Bruce Alberts, Editor-in-Chief of Science, who has proposed that universities and medical schools shoulder a much larger portion of the cost of hosting a robust research faculty, rather than relying on federal dollars to support the lion's share of faculty salaries and building construction/maintenance costs. Alberts warns that this "reliance" on NIH to fund these costs "has become a way of life at many U.S. research institutions, with potential painful consequences. The current trajectory is unsustainable, threatening to produce a glut of laboratory facilities reminiscent of the real estate bust of 2008 and, worse, a host of exhausted scientists with no means of support." (Science329:1257, 2010) Certainly, Alberts's warning and proposal should be carefully and thoughtfully considered.

The NIH itself has begun to take action on this critically important issue. In April, NIH established a working group on the future of the U.S. biomedical research workforce.

The Advisory Committee to the Director (ACD) Working Group on Biomedical Workforce is charged with recommending to the ACD actions that NIH should take "to ensure a diverse and sustainable biomedical and behavioral research workforce." Among the questions the Working Group is to consider are the following:

  • "What is the right size of the workforce?
  • What are the appropriate types of positions that should be supported to allow people to have successful careers and to continue to advance biomedical and behavioral sciences?
  • What is the best way to support these various positions?
  • What types of training should be provided?"

The Group will "gather input from the extramural community, including students, postdoctoral fellows, investigators, scientific societies, and grantee institutions…[and] develop a model for a sustainable and diverse U.S. biomedical research workforce using appropriate expertise from NIH and external sources. The model can help inform decisions about how to train the optimal number of people for the appropriate types of positions that will advance science and promote health."

Led by Shirley Tilghman, Ph.D., the president of Princeton University, and Sally Rockey, Ph.D., the NIH deputy director for extramural research, the Group has begun its work, and NIH is expected to release a Request for Information soliciting public comment very soon. AAI plans to follow this issue carefully and submit comments for consideration.

The Group's recommendations will follow a controversial 1998 National Research Council (NRC) report, coauthored by Dr. Tilghman, which concluded that the U.S. was training too many Ph.D.s in the biomedical sciences (http://aspe.hhs.gov/pic/pdf/6098.pdf), as well as numerous other NRC reports on the current workforce needs in the biomedical, social and behavioral, and clinical sciences. While at the time the Tilghman Report provoked an outcry of disbelief, it now appears that its conclusions may have been shockingly prescient. In spite of this report, the number of Ph.D.s trained in biomedical science continued to increase over the last decade, and it seems that the current generation of Ph.D. students is finding it increasingly difficult to find positions in academic research.

That being said, we must consider the consequences of reducing the size of our graduate training programs, a change that would have far-reaching and complex effects on the way we do science and, possibly, the rate at which we attain discoveries. It would likely lead to a dramatic change in the number of researchers as well as the number and type of personnel in many laboratories.

Even if the number of PIs stabilizes, without trainees to do the work, others would have to be identified to fill the roles currently held by trainees. This might necessitate an increase in Ph.D. level "staff scientists" or Master's degree level researchers who want careers in science but who do not aspire to be independent investigators. Some ideas that have been suggested are upsetting to consider, and others would be exceptionally disruptive if implemented. Yet the alternative—unleashing untold numbers of freshly-minted Ph.D.s into a world that is unable to best utilize their training—is also a far-from-happy scenario.

Along with considering changes in the infrastructure and organization of the biomedical research enterprise, we must continue to invest in educating our legislators about the importance and future impact of biomedical research. As scientists, we have been remarkably remiss in such activities, believing that the significance of our work is patently self-evident, and, therefore, requires little in the way of explanation. Unfortunately, this assumption may have contributed to our recent funding decline, especially in light of the organized and effective lobbying efforts of interest groups competing for the same small pot of federal dollars.

How does all of this relate to AAI? The answer is: "In more ways than you might realize!" One of the most important functions of AAI is to support a successful and highly active public affairs program which keeps open lines of communication among us, the membership, and the general public. Some program activities are focused on our federal legislators and on keeping us informed of issues on Capitol Hill that may impact the field of immunology. The talented AAI staff and scientist members of the AAI Committee on Public Affairs (CPA) also continue to find new ways to raise the visibility of immunology research among groups and individuals with broad public influence. For instance, the CPA hosts several events at the annual AAI meeting; past sessions have featured NIH institute directors and other speakers on topics ranging from biosecurity to changes in NIH peer review, the threat from animal rights activists, and immunology research at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Importantly, the CPA has also organized special programs in conjunction with the annual meeting that are designed to inform members of disease-specific charitable organizations and interest groups about the role of the immune system in their diseases of interest. This latter effort is an important step in raising public awareness of the relevance of immunological research to potential treatments and cures for a wide variety of conditions. Finally, a recent addition to this panoply of activities is the initiation of the AAI Public Policy Fellows Program, a program to train young immunologists about the mechanisms and strategies for promoting immunology and biomedical research on Capitol Hill.

But AAI is about much more than public affairs. Along with the important responsibility of managing and publishing our discipline's prestigious and most-frequently-cited journal, The Journal of Immunology, AAI also sponsors the largest annual immunology meeting in the world, giving hundreds of immunology trainees their first opportunity to present their research findings on a national stage. This dynamic meeting also provides a forum for scientists specializing in myriad areas of immunological research to highlight the most recent accomplishments in the field. Every summer, AAI also organizes courses that provide intensive schooling in introductory and advanced immunology to academic and industry scientists from the U.S. and abroad.

So, what can you do? Well, first and foremost, you can support the activities of AAI by reading the AAI Newsletter and media postings, responding to AAI and FASEB e-alerts, attending the annual meeting, and most importantly, by encouraging all your immunology colleagues to join AAI. History has shown us that the impact of our voice is in direct proportion to the number of individuals represented by our organization. In addition to these concrete actions, I urge you to talk to your trainees, your mentors, your colleagues, and your peers at other institutions about the future of biomedical research. As a profession, we need to find answers to many important questions. And as a professional society, AAI wants to help lead the way, so that we adopt—and ensure that government policies support—the best model for biomedical research into the future.

(Posted July 26, 2011)