April 12, 2018


Report Recommends Reforms to Support Careers of Young Biomedical and Behavioral Scientists, Proposes Solutions to Barriers That Have Slowed Change So Far

WASHINGTON -- A new report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine calls for a series of substantial reforms to strengthen the U.S. biomedical research system for the next generation of scientists.  The congressionally requested report includes recommendations to open career paths inside and outside of academia for early career scientists, broaden responsibility among public and private stakeholders for the future of the research ecosystem, and increase policy experimentation and investment in that research ecosystem, so that scientists are empowered to imagine new and innovative treatments for diseases and improvements to health and well-being. The report also identifies barriers that have impeded past efforts at reform of the biomedical research ecosystem, and proposes means to overcome those obstacles. 

The report recommends making available better data on career paths inside and outside of universities. It urges Congress to establish a public-private partnership to promote collective and sustained stewardship of the biomedical research enterprise, and to consider increasing the budget of the National Institutes of Health to enable it to more robustly support early career researchers. The report recommends the creation of more research scientist jobs at universities and research institutes – jobs that would be permanent but non-faculty positions, would provide reasonable salaries and benefits, and would offer an additional career pathway and off-ramp from today’s temporary and low-paid postdoctoral fellowships. In addition, after conducting pilot studies to assess the impacts of the policy, NIH should phase in a cap on the number of years of support that postdoctoral researchers can receive from NIH research project grants. 

The report responds to many years of warning signs that the U.S. biomedical enterprise may be calcifying in ways that create barriers for the incoming generation of researchers. One of the biggest challenges is the gulf between the growing number of young scientists who are qualified for and interested in becoming academic researchers and the limited number of tenure-track research positions available. Many new Ph.D.s spend long periods in postdoctoral positions with low salaries, inadequate training, and little opportunity for independent research. Many postdocs pursue training experiences expecting that they will later secure an academic position, rather than pursuing a training experience that helps them compete for the range of independent careers available outside of academia, where the majority will be employed. As of 2016, for those researchers who do transition into independent research positions, the average age for securing their first major NIH independent grant is 43 years old, compared to 36 years old in 1980.

The reports notes that multiple national reports have already considered these problems and proposed countless reforms, many of which have gone unaddressed. Leaving these problems unresolved could affect the nation’s ability to recruit the best minds to pursue careers in biomedical research.

“As we surveyed the biomedical research landscape, we saw remarkable achievement and promise, but also areas of stress and vulnerability,” said Ron Daniels, chair of the committee that wrote the report and president of the Johns Hopkins University.  “Our recommendations seek to respond to those vulnerabilities, and put in place the structures and conditions for sustained change – so that the need for episodic reports starts to fall away, replaced instead by ongoing, enduring policy change across the enterprise.”

Barriers that have impeded prior reform efforts so far include a lack of shared guardianship between the federal government and research institutions, constrained funding for NIH, and a lack of data on the career outcomes of young researchers, which has prevented students and trainees from making informed decisions about their career options. The report offers a series of recommendations to Congress, the National Institutes of Health, and research institutions to overcome these barriers and create the conditions for sustained change.

The report recommends that Congress:

Among the report’s recommendations to NIH:

The report’s recommendations for research institutions include:

The Academies’ study was sponsored by the U.S. National Institutes of Health and the Bloomberg Philanthropies. The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine are private, nonprofit institutions that provide independent, objective analysis and advice to the nation to solve complex problems and inform public policy decisions related to science, technology, and medicine. They operate under an 1863 congressional charter to the National Academy of Sciences, signed by President Lincoln. For more information, visit http://national-academies.org.  A committee roster follows.

Sara Frueh, Media Relations Officer
Andrew Robinson, Media Relations Assistant
Office of News and Public Information
202-334-2138; e-mail news@nas.edu
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Copies of The Next Generation of Biomedical and Behavioral Sciences Researchers: Breaking Through are available at www.nap.edu or by calling 202-334-3313  or 1-800-624-6242. Reporters may obtain a copy from the Office of News and Public Information (contacts listed above).


Policy and Global Affairs Division
Board on Higher Education and the Workforce

Committee on the Next Generation Initiative

Ronald J. Daniels (chair)
Johns Hopkins University

Nancy C. Andrews1, 2
Nanaline H. Duke Professor of Pediatrics, and
Professor of Pharmacology and Cancer Biology
Duke University School of Medicine
Durham, N.C.

W. Travis Berggren
Founding Director
Stem Cell Research Core Facility
Salk Institute for Biological Studies
La Jolla, Calif.

Sue Biggins1
Howard Hughes Medical Institute, and
Associate Director, Basic Sciences Division
Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center

John C. Boothroyd1
Associate Vice Provost for Graduate Education, and
Burt and Marion Avery Professor of Immunology
Department of Microbiology and Immunology
Stanford University School of Medicine
Stanford, Calif.

David R. Burgess
Department of Biology
Boston College

Kafui Dzirasa
Assistant Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences
Duke Institute for Brain Sciences
Duke University
Durham, N.C.

Giovanna Guerrero-Medina
Executive Director
Ciencia Puerto Rico, and
Yale Ciencia Initiative
Yale University
New Haven, Conn.

Judith Kimble1
Howard Hughes Medical Institute, and
Vilas Professor
Department of Biochemistry
University of Wisconsin

Story C. Landis2
Scientist Emeritus and Former Director
National Institute for Neurological Disorders and Stroke
Bethesda, Md.

Kenneth Maynard
Global Patient Safety Evaluation Compliance, Standards and Training, and Business Partners Relations
Takeda Pharmaceuticals Inc.
Deerfield, Ill.

Gary S. McDowell
Executive Director
The Future of Research Inc., and
San Francisco

Jessica Polka
Visiting Postdoctoral Research Fellow
Department of Systems Biology
Harvard Medical School, and
Visiting Scholar
Whitehead Institute

Joan Y. Reede2
Dean for Diversity and Community Partnership, and
Professor of Medicine
Harvard Medical School

Lana R. Skirboll
Vice President of Science Policy
Washington, D.C.

Paula E. Stephan
Professor of Economics
Georgia State University, and
Research Associate
National Bureau of Economic Research

Maria Elena Zavala
Department of Biology
California State University


Lida Beninson
Staff Officer

1Member, National Academy of Sciences
2Member, National Academy of Medicine