Sunday, July 20, 2014

The disappointing Physician-Scientist Workforce Working Group Report

Did the authors of the recommended actions in the Physician-Scientist Workforce Working Group Report read the rest of the report?

The report: was released last month. First, some excerpts:

This set of facts about physician-scientists was interesting:
  • Over the last 25 years, 37 percent of Nobel Laureates in Physiology or Medicine had an MD degree. 
  • Over the Lasker Awards’ last 30 years, 41 percent of the Basic Awards and 65 percent of the Clinical Awards have gone to MDs. 
  • 69 percent of NIH Institute Directors have an MD degree. 
  • 60 percent of the National Academy of Sciences Class IV (Biomedical Sciences) members have an MD degree. 
  • 70 percent of the chief scientific officers at the top 10 pharmaceutical companies have an MD degree.
A key focus of the Working Group was determining why the supply of physician-scientists is falling. The uncertainty of grant funding was, not surprisingly, a top concern cited by the students, junior faculty and medical school deans interviewed.  Here is a sample of excerpts from the body of the report:
  • Qualitative research undertaken by and on behalf of the PSW-WG indicated that the uncertainty of funding is by far the biggest concern of young physician-scientist faculty; its importance cannot be overestimated. (page 40; emphasis mine here and below)
  • The uncertainty of research funding was the major challenge to a career in research articulated by both dual degree students and single degree students interested in pursuing a research career. By far, the largest concern from students interested in research is the issue of funding and the uncertainty of the funding. Job stability is very concerning to those who wish to pursue careers with research components. (page 80) 
  • The [MP/Ph.D.] students admired successful physician-scientists, who are able to continue getting funded for research. . . . On the other hand, these students described the older physician-scientists who are running a lab, being a mentor, and an academic teacher/advisor, as looking tired. Each student in the focus group verbalized that the uncertainty of research funding was the major challenge to a career in research. Financing a career in research and the perceived politics of government funding makes each one nervous about being able to sustain a career as a physician-scientist. (page 91) 
  • Most [MD] students respected and admired those who are physician-scientists, but they were not particularly interested in navigating the grant funding process. . . . “And it is almost like being, to me, how artists have to go out and get gigs and do that whole thing. I feel like researchers have to like go out and find grants, find funding, find people who believe in them, and it just seems really, really tedious.” From a student who has aspirations to do research: “I think the funding environment now is something that is pretty scary."  
  • [Medical school deans] identified the most important factors that they believe influence students’ career decisions. The stability of research funding and ability to sustain a career as a physician-scientist was frequently mentioned as an important factor, since students are observing their professors losing research funding and complaining bitterly about it. (page 111) 
  • Most [young faculty] expressed fear and frustration about the possibility of not being able to continue their research  careers if they are not able to secure an R award. They expressed the fear that they have invested so much of their adult life preparing to do scientific research and it could all be ended by not being successful with an R award. They have sacrificed both a lucrative clinical salary, as well as precious time in the hopes of being able to continue to build a research career. (page 117)
Within the body of the report can be found all the key concerns that deter qualified individuals from embarking on a career as a physician-scientist and that threaten the morale of those already engaged in such a career. This leads one to wonder, then, whether whoever devised the list of recommended actions actually read the report.

Trainees contemplating embarking on a career as a physician-scientist and those (like myself) who have already committed to such a career are worried about the overall stability--short-, medium- and long-term--of careers in biomedical science. Incredibly, the recommendations listed at the conclusion of the report are entirely comprised of the standard fare of training programs, fellowships, new investigator privileges etc that we have seen discussed, tested and/or implemented ad nauseum up to now. As before, these all would serve to continue to front-load the pipeline and do not concern what was clearly the chief concern identified: the highly uncertain stability and desirability of physician-scientist positions downstream.

Trainees are not dumb: the report shows that they are not only thinking a year or two or three ahead. They are looking ahead to what happens after that first K award or after they get their first R01: when they are no longer young investigators; perhaps when they have kids, a mortgage, college tuition to pay. The fact that the authors of the recommendations, ignoring the findings presented in the report, think that they can alleviate the shortage of physician-scientists by luring young investigators with goodies up front and hoping that they will forget about increasing pressures, stress and instability downstream is astonishing.