Two new papers delve into the dynamics of the biomedical research workforce

Information and data on the trends in the biomedical workforce are not always easy to come by. The National Science Foundation conducts several annual and biannual surveys to assess the numbers of graduate students and postdoctoral scholars, the Ph.D. graduation rate, the demographics of trainee populations and many others. Two new papers present data on different aspects of the enterprise that address some gaps in the data.

In “Labor and skills gap analysis of the biomedical research workforce,” Mason and colleagues use some novel methods to determine the supply of people with biomedical degrees and the workplace’s demand for these people. By comparing the number of people graduating with biomedical degrees with the number of job listings requiring such degrees, the authors conclude that the supply of people with biomedical degrees is far greater than the demand for such people. The authors also compared the skills gained during a person’s advanced education with the desired skill set described in job listings, thereby illuminating the skills gaps created by current training methods. These data are not necessarily surprising, but understanding the magnitude of the imbalance is crucial for any possible policy interventions.

In “Training the scientific workforce: Does funding mechanism matter?” Blume-Kohout and Adikhari examined a variety of economic factors and how they influence the research enterprise, including the career outcomes of graduate students funded by training grants, fellowships or research assistantships. The authors determined that students funded by research assistantships are 11 percent more likely to progress to a research-focused R&D job after graduation than students funded by training grants or fellowships. They then suggest this may be due to students funded by research assistantships receiving more attention and better training from their advisors relative to those funded by training grants or fellowships. It is important to note that these research-focused R&D jobs include postdoc positions.

Several members of the research community, including Rescuing Biomedical Research member Jeremy Berg, have expressed skepticism regarding this assertion. An alternative explanation is that students funded by training grants or fellowships receive increased exposure to a variety of potential careers and accumulate skills that enable them to move into non-R&D positions. As the authors point out, future studies will need to control for mentoring to better understand these data.

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