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Science Policy Around the Web – August 22, 2017

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By: Leopold Kong, PhD

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Image: By Tkarcher [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Zika

The case of the disappearing Zika

Early last year, there were over 35,000 suspected and confirmed cases of Zika virus infection per week in South America. This year, the number has plummeted below 1,000 per week. In the United States, only a single case of local Zika transmission has been reported this year in contrast to 224 in 2016.  Neither improved mosquito control nor climate change can explain the good news.  Experts attribute the drop in Zika cases to the development of immunity against the virus, which has spread rapidly.  Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease (NIAID), says he is not “entirely surprised” by this trend, but is “impressed by how steep it has been”.  A vaccine is still needed to curb potential future epidemics, but its development is now complicated by lack of populations susceptible to infection.  Increased Zika cases have been reported in Mexico this year, which could lead to outbreaks in Texas. Currently, a vaccine developed by NIAID is entering a placebo-controlled study of 2400 people in Zika-affected areas.

(Jon Cohen, Science)

The Scientific Workforce

Graduate Student immigration in the US and the UK shifting to Canada and Australia

In 2015-16, the United States and United Kingdom hosted nearly 384,000 and 200,000 international graduate students respectively. The two countries have been the world’s top two hosts for graduate students since the 1970s.  However, since the travel ban in the United States and the Brexit referendum in the United Kingdom, the numbers have been dropping.  In contrast, universities in Canada and Australia are reporting spikes in their application numbers.  Joint surveys conducted in February and July found that about a third of US universities have decreased international graduate student applications, particularly from India, the Middle East and China.  Sayed Mashaheet, a native of Egypt who earned his PhD in crops science at North Carolina State University, says that many international students see the United States as a riskier investment since the election.  With its friendly citizenship pathways, Canada maybe benefiting from these changes. The University of Toronto received 27% more international-student applications this year for a total of 15,000 compared to 11,951 in 2016.  Sofia Solar Cafaggi chose to pay her way through medical school at the University of Toronto instead of attending the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio for free because she will be eligible for Canadian citizenship after three years.  “In the US, I would have stayed an alien for at least the next decade, and that made me nervous about career prospects given the current political drama,” she says.  If the shift continues for the US and the UK, “some programmes will simply collapse,” says Anita Gopal, international officer for the US national Postdoctoral Association in Rockville, Maryland.

(Virginia Gewin, Nature News)

Science Funding

Trump’s list of Science Priorities aims to steer federal agencies’ focus

On August 17, the White House issued a memo to federal agencies outlining how their research money should be used.  Written jointly by the White House Office of Management and Budget and Office of Science and Technology Policy, the document sets the White House’s priorities for the next budget request.  This year, the memo lists five priorities in this order: military superiority, security, prosperity, energy dominance, and health.  The list greatly contrasts with Obama’s research priorities that included global climate change, clean energy, Earth observations, advanced manufacturing, and innovations in the life sciences, biology and neuroscience.  The list also appears to contradict President Trump’s own 2018 budget requests.  For example, the memo focuses on support for breakthroughs in military technologies and for helping older Americans remain healthy despite large cuts for those same areas in previous proposals.  Notably, the memo supports research in precommercial technology in energy, which would presumably include the Department of Energy’s Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy.  However, President Trump has previously called for this agency to be shut down.  The budget for the 2019 fiscal year are due next  month.

(Jeffrey Mervis, Science)

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Written by sciencepolicyforall

August 22, 2017 at 5:36 pm

How to Make a Valuable Postdoctoral Experience: Updating the Model

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By: Aparna Kishor, MD, PhD

       To an outside observer, the scientific enterprise in the US appears to be thriving. The 2016 budget of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) was $31.3 billion. Of this, about 80% was distributed to research projects performed extramurally, pointing to the fact that hundreds of thousands of researchers nationwide, established scientists as well as trainees, benefit from the funding. Although the numbers are somewhat murky, it is likely that over 50% of graduate students and postdoctoral researchers (postdocs) receive some federal funds.

A more granular view of the reality of modern scientific training reveals its true complexity. In The Postdoctoral Experience Revisited, a report on postdoctoral training in the US, the National Academies argue that there are serious issues in the way we train our young scientists today, including those having to do with recognition and compensation, mentorship, and career advising. Fundamentally, although the US has more postdocs than ever before, does this serve the individuals involved?

First some context. For those committed to a career in the biological sciences, the first stage of training is graduate study to acquire technical and field-specific skills, culminating in a PhD. Traditionally, the second is the postdoctoral stage, which provides additional technical experience and preparation for a future career, ideally culminating in a research position. In the US, approximately 65% of those with graduate degrees in the life sciences continue on to a postdoc which is the field with the highest rate of entry. The second highest is in the physical sciences, with only 50%. Although the quotidian experiences of the two may be similar, the graduate and postdoctoral stages are actually quite different, particularly since graduate training tends to have formal requirements and expectations while postdoctoral training, does not. This framework also has distinct benefits for the principle investigators (PIs). A major one is economic: junior scientists are a willing, and in the case of postdocs, highly trained, source of cheap labor (more on this below). On occasion, the work may be done at no cost to the PI if the trainee has funding from another source, although this is becoming proportionally less common.

When the postdoctoral arrangement was established in the early part of the 20th century, the training periods were typically 1-2 year stints in a lab to learn additional skills and consolidate connections in the field. After this, the young researcher would generally transition into an academic position. In the 1970’s, close to 55% of postdocs held tenure or tenure track faculty positions 6 years after completion of their graduate studies. Now, when a postdoc plans for his or her next career move, the situation is not so simple and this has aroused the concern of the National Academies. Partly, the difficulty is due to the number of available academic positions being outstripped by the number of postdocs in the pipeline. Data from 2006 show that only 33% of postdocs had faculty positions 6 years after graduate school and only half of those were tenured or tenure-track. The rest of the explanation lies in the fact that the landscape of the scientific enterprise has evolved.

Most obviously, the demographics of the postdoc community are markedly different from those in the early 20th century resulting in different needs for trainees. As of 2014, women were receiving close to 50% of all life science doctorates awarded in the US. Gender parity at graduation has not carried through to the faculty level (where only approximately 25% of tenured faculty are women). Among the many potential causes for this decline, one is that many women leave the academic track due to the challenges in balancing a career with raising a family. Nonetheless, there are more women at all levels in the sciences than before, indicating that retention may be increased by supporting women during the time that their children are young. Holders of temporary visas comprise another important population, but there are very few concrete data pertaining to them. They obtain close to 25% of all doctorates in the biological sciences, and 80% of those who have jobs after graduation stay in the US. With this, there is significant flux into the system at the postdoc level. As a result, upwards of a third of all biomedical postdocs in the US are foreign nationals primarily from India and China. Since these people have never been counted, the best way to help them meet their goals and the role they play in the US scientific arena are undefined.

Another important change is that postdoctoral training periods have lengthened from 1-2 years to around 4 years. For those who want the training, this timeline extension is believed to be a necessary sacrifice in order to gain entry into the competitive world of academia. Unsurprisingly, the percentage of PIs under 36 has fallen from 18% from 1980 to 3% in 2010. For established investigators, the longer training times are advantageous. Postdoc salaries at research institutions generally amount to less than the combined tuition-plus-stipend package offered to graduate students. After a few years, a postdoc may conduct research at a level equivalent to that of permanent scientific staff but at a fraction of the cost – postdocs pull in anywhere from $40,000 to $49,000 a year, while staff will have full benefits and a salary closer to $80,000 a year. Given this, the challenge is to make a prolonged training period valuable, feasible, and non-exploitative for all who choose it.

Finally, there is growing evidence that a postdoc may not be the right choice for everyone. Most junior scientists feel limited by the now-classic dichotomy between pursuing research in academia and industry. The reality is that many other career options exist, although some are a step or two removed from pure research. These are in areas like consulting, intellectual property, and science policy. Some jobs will provide entry-level incomes greater than a postdoc, and may even lead to career prospects that are more secure than that in research. Entry level salaries for some careers in industry begin at $70,000 and mean salaries in industry can be $40,000 more than that in academia, and the age at first non-academic job is lower than that for academics. Critically, for those wishing to optimize some of these other aspects of their professional advancement, a postdoc may be unnecessary.

Taken together, these developments indicate a need to change the culture surrounding the postdoc. The essence of the National Academies’ recommendation to improve the postdoctoral experience is that the entire scientific community must treat it as a valuable training opportunity instead of basic employment. To this end, the minimum postdoctoral salary should be increased, even beyond the current $47,484.  The improved economics for trainees will have a number of benefits: it will place more value on these individuals, limit the number of postdocs an investigator may hire, perhaps encourage more women to stay in research, and make positions more competitive, lessening their use as a default employment option. Postdocs should also be encouraged to receive individual funds as proof of independence. There is some evidence that postdocs on their own fellowships are more satisfied than those funded by their lab, although it seems likely that people more committed to a career as a researcher are the ones most likely to apply for fellowships. Additionally, those who receive early career grants are more likely to receive independent investigator grants and faculty appointments. Finally, there is an argument for more staff positions as a measure to keep postdoctoral opportunities as dedicated training experiences.

For now, it is important for each researcher to decide whether it is in his or her best interest to embark on the postdoctoral route. Fortunately, career advising is increasingly available to trainees at all levels and the NIH and other groups have issued mentorship guidelines for postdocs. Overall, the entire scientific community must assist in returning value to a postdoc and in meaningful career development for all trainees.

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Written by sciencepolicyforall

March 10, 2017 at 9:56 am