November 18, 2015

U.S. biomedical postdoctoral fellow numbers decline, UAB researcher finds

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biological postdocsThe number of U.S. biomedical postdoctoral fellows has fallen for three years in a row, an unprecedented decline thatUniversity of Alabama at Birmingham researcher Louis Justement, Ph.D., and colleagues at the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology (FASEB) and Brown University call “an end to the era of expansion.”

For 31 years since 1979, the number of biomedical postdocs had increased nearly every year, except for single-year dips in 1982, 1995 and 1999, according to analysis of data from the National Science Foundation Survey of Graduate Students and Postdoctorates in Science and Engineering. But in 2011, 2012 and 2013 — the most recent data available — that trend reversed. The number of biomedical postdocs fell each of those three years, with consecutively larger drops each year and an overall three-year decline of 5.5 percent, to a total of 38,719.

“… unless we find some way to improve career prospects for early-career scientists, we risk losing the talent that will be essential for our future progress in the biologic and medical sciences,” Justement, first author Howard Garrison, Ph.D., and Susan Gerbi, Ph.D., wrote in a recent FASEB Journal paper. They conclude that a continued decline in the number of postdocs could diminish the quality and quantity of research because postdocs, along with graduate students, are the majority of the biomedical research workforce. Garrison is director of public affairs at FASEB, Justement is a UAB professor of microbiology, and Gerbi is a professor of biochemistry at Brown.

“This is a major issue facing biomedical research,” commented Frances Lund, Ph.D., chair of the UAB Department of Microbiology. “It’s good to see that we have faculty at UAB who are working to influence science policy by providing data to support what is entirely obvious to those working in science but may not be evident to those responsible for setting the science budgets.”

postdoc researcherThe authors say possible causes of the drop could include a decrease in qualified applicants, though data do not seem to support that; technical changes in employment titles from postdoc to something else; diminished demands for postdocs; or shifting patterns in the number of doctorate-holders willing to take postdoc positions. They note that the inflation-adjusted NIH budget lost 19 percent of its purchasing power from 2003 to 2012, and the number of RO1-like NIH grants fell by 11 percent in that same period.

“… it may be that the declining purchasing power of grants and the rising cost of postdoctoral stipends and benefits reached critical threshold after 2010,” they wrote. “Postdocs are the most vulnerable part of the workforce, hired for short-duration, temporary positions. Therefore, as research budgets come under increased pressure, it would be expected that this group would be affected most.”

Also, they say, Ph.D. recipients may be deciding to forgo a postdoctoral position for different career options, in the face of a tight academic labor market and uncertain prospects for success. The loss of talented research personnel threatens biomedical research.

“A continued loss of postdocs without an alternative source of talented research personnel will slow our rate of progress,” they concluded. “We need to develop a steady-state model for the biomedical research workforce while maintaining the vitality and excellence of the enterprise.”

postdoc numbersUAB has also seen a decline in postdocs.

“Looking at numbers from over the past nine years, we have seen a decline of approximately 20 percent in the total number of Ph.D. postdocs here at UAB,” said Lisa Schwiebert, the UAB associate dean for Graduate and Postdoctoral Affairs, and a professor in the Department of Cell, Developmental and Integrative Biology. “As discussed in Dr. Justement’s paper, this is likely the result of several concurrent forces, including but not limited to a decrease in NIH funding, coupled with increased awareness of career options that don’t require a postdoc. Despite this trend, we continue to actively recruit postdocs, as they represent a critical part of the research program here at UAB. We work diligently to provide them with opportunities to broaden their professional skills and development, so that they are able to pursue the career of their choice.”