Comments by Michael Lenardo

Topic: Graduate Education
by Michael Lenardo
Division of Intramural Research, National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases

Proposed Actions

1. Shorten Ph.D. time to completion
2. Emphasize a more idea-driven rather than data generation mentality.
3, Leverage resources across institutions.
4. Carry out translational work in a manner that illustrates basic mechanisms and discoveries.
5. Make biomedical research more compelling as a career choice to the very best students.

One really troubling effect of the current perception of inadequate funds is that the young people I encounter are dispirited about the future. This seems to disproportionately affect women who may also harbor fears about family obligations and the taxing responsibilities of being a principal investigator. I think it is important to focus on the most promising students and make special efforts as senior scientists to encourage optimism in pursuing careers as creative independent scientists, I.e running a lab. And mentorship should include preparing the trainees for how to effectively manage the economic, social, and organizational requirements of directing a lab. Right now there is a huge migration of the best and brightest to silicon valley. They are rewarded with lavish salaries, cool work environments, and a lot of prestige working for Google, Facebook, Apple, etc. Biomedicine is simply not viewed as attractively because of the perception of a dim future. I think we will need to reverse this tide if we want to the future of biomedical research to be as bright as its first few decades after the publication of Bush’s essay.

Optional Comments on the Problem

1. For graduate programs, shorter training periods and faster launch of independence is the most important goal. Risk-taking in research projects is lost as the swagger of youth diminishes. The structure of most biomedical research graduate programs has been unchanged in the past few decades. This necessity of 1-2 years of coursework and 3 lab rotations is still widely accepted but its value is unproven. At the NIH, we have a 16-year-old partnership program with Oxford and Cambridge universities which dispenses with both coursework and rotations and the students find their own didactic experiences and choose labs carefully. This, along with careful mentoring during the program, has led to an average time of completion for the first roughly 200 graduates of 4 years. More information here:
2. Related to #1 – fewer grad students staying a shorter time means less of this cheap work force for institutions. However, this brings to mind an interesting contrast between British and American labs we’ve observed. American labs are intense data collection enterprises often with more action than thought. By contrast, British lab environments tend to involve more talking and thinking with less experimentation since they have fewer resources. Maybe fewer students will lead to less experiments getting done, but a more contemplative approach to science.
3. How do we deal with the effects of hypercompetition in obtaining research support? Perhaps young researchers will have to be trained in entrepreneurial skills for obtaining funds from non-NIH sources or finding cheaper means of investigation. A new possibility is leveraging expertise and resources. The internet and rapid air shipping and travel make it possible to collaborate with high efficiency across institutional and even national boundaries. I think this will decrease the cost of research and decrease duplication of expensive resources and allow intensive sharing of expertise. For example, a grad student doesn’t have to spend 6 months of trial and error learning how to do a complex assay when they can communicate in real time (at the bench) with an expert. Crowdsourcing will break down silos and research deliver results faster, cheaper and more efficiently. Again, we have had a positive experience with these trends in our partnership between NIH and Oxford and Cambridge universities. However, dissemination of these practices, using things such as JOVE, technical blogs, etc., is still in its infancy.
4. The emphasis on translational work is a tricky issue. I personally enjoy human research because: A. the molecular technologies have finally caught up so that you can do as rigorous biochemical and molecular work using human specimens as in model organisms. B. it is highly motivating to the research team to “solve” a disease and, in some circumstances, you can actually meet the patient beneficiaries of the research; C. as we are chipping away at the large burden of human disease, esp. genetic disease, we are learning a lot about basic mechanisms. So the highest aspirations of science are fulfilled. However, it might go wrong is when the NIH or other basic science funding agencies are spending megabucks to run clinical trials that should be funded by industry or promoting the idea that basic labs should all be screening for new drugs. Also, the basic philosophy behind public funding seems tilted towards translational investigation. My reading of V. Bush is that “scientific progress” meaning the development of new knowledge distinct from, but upon which, applications to disease can be made, is a proper function of government.