National Cancer Institute NCI Cancer Bulletin: A Trusted Source for Cancer Research News
December 1, 2009 • Volume 6 / Number 23

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Special Issue: Cancer Research Training

Academia and Beyond: Supporting the Biomedical Workforce of the Future

A recent report on the state of the higher education workforce in the United States underlines a trend that began decades ago: staffing at colleges and universities has shifted somewhat from the employment of full-time, tenure-track faculty toward the creation of more full-time and part-time positions that are not on a tenure track. A cost-saving measure, the new strategy allows universities to lower their overhead while mitigating hikes in tuition.

Employment of biomedical-sector Ph.D.s is greatest in academia, followed by industry and government, but the trends show that industry jobs are increasing at the fastest rate. Source: Education and Employment of Biological and Medical Scientists 2009: Data from National Surveys, FASEB Office of Public Affairs. Employment of biomedical-sector Ph.D.s is greatest in academia, followed by industry and government, but the trends show that industry jobs are increasing at the fastest rate. Source: Education and Employment of Biological and Medical Scientists 2009: Data from National Surveys, Howard H. Garrison and Kimberly McGuire, FASEB Office of Public Affairs. Click to Enlarge.

The effect on those who aspire to enter the field of cancer research—a path that invariably goes through academia and, in most cases, remains there—may be discouraging. But, said Dr. Jonathan Wiest, director of NCI’s Center for Cancer Training, the trend may not be a permanent shift, and there are plenty of opportunities on the horizon that point to a positive outlook for those who are in or considering entering the field. The key, he says, is a change in culture.

“Historically, the typical career track has been graduate student to postdoc to tenure-track investigator, with around 15 percent or so of trainees going on to tenure-track positions,” he said. “Tenured and tenure-track professors at universities are role models. If they’re telling the people who work for them that ‘success’ lies in tenure-track positions, and the culture of the institution supports that—which makes sense, since the research enterprise is supported by and large by highly skilled graduate students and postdocs—then people will be missing out on other avenues that help move science forward.”

There are advantages to an academic research career, Dr. Wiest pointed out, including the ability to pursue whatever project or interest a scientist can gain funding to pursue. But creativity and curiosity are also rewarded in the private sector, he added.

“There’s a stigma with industrial science. People believe that it’s driven by product with little intellectual freedom. That may be true in some cases, but in some settings it is quite different, and the change is spreading toward one that encourages more creativity and collaboration,” including publishing research results in academic journals, he said.

There’s also a growing need for people who have a scientific background to work in non-experimentalist roles. “To be a good science administrator, you have to tackle some of the same issues and questions that you would in a laboratory setting,” he said. Other related fields include technology transfer, science writing and editing, and policy.

The direction of cancer research itself is changing, explained Dr. Wiest. It is becoming a team-focused enterprise including researchers from a variety of backgrounds, from chemistry and physics to computer science, mathematics, epidemiology, and the allied health fields, such as psychology and social work.

Extramural grant mechanisms provided by NCI to encourage team-based science include the Cancer Education and Career Development Program and the Cancer Education Grants Program (the and awards). These grants are awarded directly to educational institutions to allow them to develop curricula and training programs for predoctoral and postdoctoral researchers interested in highly interdisciplinary and collaborative cancer research. The K12 grant is another mechanism. And NCI’s Integrative Cancer Biology Program, as well as the newly funded Physical Science-Oncology Centers, offer additional options for training.

According to data from the National Science Foundation, which were highlighted in a recent report from the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology, the bulk of biomedical jobs are still in academia, followed by industry and government. Jobs in industry appear to be increasing, while jobs in academia have decreased slightly.

“It’s hard to predict what is going to happen in the next 3 to 5 years,” said Dr. Wiest. “The job outlook will undoubtedly be affected by what happens with our country’s overall economic recovery.” However, he said, several other funding mechanisms at NCI can help those who want to stay in academic research to prepare for the future.

One such mechanism is the , the Transition Career Development Award, which helps researchers who are still in the mentored stage of their career take “protected” time to develop and receive support for independent projects in cancer prevention, control, and population sciences.

Another mechanism, the Howard Temin Pathway to Independence Award in Cancer Research (), allows non-tenured research faculty to compete more effectively for funding. The grants begin with 1 to 2 years of support while a trainee is still in a mentored postdoctoral position, followed by up to 3 years of independent support once the new researcher has obtained a faculty position at an extramural research institution. Though the transition from mentored to independent support is dependent on a review of an individual’s research training and career development accomplishments, this grant provides a hiring institution with some assurance that a new researcher’s work will be funded. 

On the institutional side of the hiring equation, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 has allowed NCI to expand the P30 program, which provided funding for the creation of new physician-scientist career positions at universities and NCI-designated cancer centers. “We had numerous applications for those grants,” noted Dr. Wiest, “which tells us that universities are interested in hiring new faculty, if they can just find the resources to make it happen.”

Even with expanded access to grants, resources, and new career positions, the number of available academic positions cannot come close to matching the number of newly minted research scientists, explained Dr. Roger Chalkley, senior associate dean of the Office of Biomedical Research Education and Training at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine. “If nobody is coming out of the hiring pipeline, no one is going in. So you have this workforce of trainees, waiting.”

Dr. Wiest believes it is only a matter of time before vacancies arise to be filled by new tenure-track investigators. But he also suggests that a broader perspective on opportunities in cancer research is a big-picture solution to this problem.

“People need to keep in mind there are lots of professions and career tracks for trainees to pursue,” he said, “all of which are important for the scientific enterprise and moving the science forward.”