Committee on the Biomedical Scientific Workforce

The United States’ system of biomedical research has been a leading driver of discovery and innovation for over half of a century. 

Its use, in particular, of competitive, peer reviewed grants to independent scientists across the nation has fueled the development of an unparalleled biomedical workforce both inside and outside the academy, one that has charted a path to the very horizons of scientific knowledge. Our model of scientific research is now the envy of the world. 

There are, however, challenges emerging in that system, ones that are drawing considerable attention.  As our community well knows, these challenges take a number of forms.  To start, there has been a persistent decline in the purchasing power of NIH funding, affecting the entire scientific workforce.  For early career biomedical investigators, the period between the conferral of doctoral degree and the receipt of independent research grants has widened.  Observers also point to tightening opportunities for careers in academia, and a lack of well-developed pipelines for alternative careers in industry and other non-academic settings.  For those who do obtain a faculty position, burdensome grant application and regulatory demands divert time and energy from their research.  They must navigate mounting tension among research, teaching, and clinical responsibilities, and some observers cite a creeping conservatism in the science that receives grants in an age of budget austerity.

While there have been a number of different reports from government and the nonprofit sectors that have sought to address this issue, most of the recommendations to date have been focused on the role of NIH and less on the role that research universities – the institutions where the vast majority of our biomedical scientists either train or work – must play in the solution.

Johns Hopkins, in keeping with its role as the nation’s first research university and the single largest recipient of federal research funding for several decades, has an indispensable role to play in not only engaging but leading the search for answers.  The university’s efforts in establishing start-up research funding and investing in programs focused on early career scientists—such as the Catalyst Awards, BCI and BME Edge, and reforms recommended by a recent working group on PhD and postdoctoral fellow career development—attest to our awareness of the need to address this issue.  But these initiatives are not sufficient.  

To this end, the university is launching a Committee on the Biomedical Scientific Workforce.

The Committee will be chaired by Dr. Pierre Coulombe and Dr. Wendy Post, and include representatives from the School of Medicine, the Whiting School of Engineering, the Bloomberg School of Public Health, the School of Nursing, the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences, and the Applied Physics Laboratory.  The Committee will be charged with canvassing best practices at our university and beyond, identifying areas of need in our own approach, and setting out a blueprint for reform. 

Although it will explore solutions to problems that are clearly national in scope, the Committee is expected to focus on the particular challenges and needs of the Johns Hopkins research community. 

In particular, the Committee is invited to consider and draw on the innovative practices and initiatives already underway in our schools and divisions.  For example, the School of Medicine has created a standardized method by which a core facility can be successfully launched and maintained (“core-in-a-box” concept), is undertaking an assessment of the time to degree completion, and developing new models for graduate biomedical education that involve partnerships with outside stakeholders in order to cultivate diverse and pragmatic career skills.  The Whiting School of Engineering has crafted rules regarding the duration of graduate education and postdoctoral fellowships.  A number of divisions are advancing new career development and mentoring initiatives for doctoral students, postdoctoral fellows, and junior faculty. 

This is a potentially sweeping topic, and it is understood that the Committee will not be able to give every issue the same attention.  It may be prudent for the Committee to recommend topics for later consideration.  And although it is charged with exploring reforms for the biomedical scientific workforce in the first instance, in light of the particular issues now facing that field, a number of the questions the Committee is likely to consider are not unique to that workforce.  The Committee is invited to identify areas or ideas for reform that other fields across the university might want to consider in later study.

The work of the Committee may, in its discretion, include some or all of the following areas and topics:

Faculty (Early Career, Diversity Initiatives, Pressures and Incentives)

The age at which investigators receive their first R01 has risen steadily over the last couple of decades, and the next generation of scientists is increasingly finding it difficult to secure a foothold in the academic biomedical workforce.  The university recently launched new funding programs, such as the Catalyst and Frontier Awards, to support early career faculty.  Are there additional programs that could be helpful to these faculty, for instance in areas such as grant writing or preliminary data?  Can initiatives underway in our divisions serve as models for the rest of the university, such as the SOM Clinical Scientists Career Development Awards, or BSPH boot camps that help junior faculty with grant and manuscript writing?

The demographics of the nation’s biomedical workforce still are not reflective of the nation’s diversity.  It is paramount that we create an environment that ensures the full participation of all students, faculty, and staff, and the recruitment and retention of women and underrepresented minorities, including into positions of leadership.  A number of initiatives are actively underway in this area across the university.  Are there any additional practices or services that should be adopted that are tailored specifically to the biomedical workforce?

Finally, multiple reports are shining a light on the ways in which our biomedical scientists are finding themselves under new and demanding pressures.  The PhD workforce is grappling with lower funding levels, heightened competition for funding, and increasing regulatory burdens, all of which is inevitably influencing their careers and their science in potentially significant ways. And the physician-scientist workforce faces its own, in many respects unique, set of challenges, including a growing tension between research and clinical responsibilities, longer training and increased debt, the expanding demands of board certification.  What steps can and should Johns Hopkins take to reshape these incentives and ease their pressures? 

Laboratories (Core Facilities, Alternate Career Paths)

As universities come to rely increasingly on shared or core resources, some observers have argued that additional investment is needed to ensure effective and efficient operations of the cores.  Some have also suggested that core facilities could over time become a sustainable platform for staff scientists who wish to participate in academic research, or that stronger cores could improve the efficiency of laboratories.  Are there opportunities for improvement of core facilities at our university?  What lessons, if any, should we draw from peer universities that have established formalized job descriptions and promotion policies for core directors and personnel, and dedicated professional leadership for cores? 

The model of staffing a laboratory predominantly with graduate students and postgraduate trainees, with a relatively small number of more senior scientists who maintain employment over longer periods, has its virtues (e.g., the introduction of new ideas and perspectives into the laboratory) and its vices (e.g., near constant workforce onboarding).  Concerns have been raised about its effect on the pipeline for the biomedical workforce.  Are there opportunities for greater reliance on staff scientists, especially for the oversight and operation of laboratory investigation or scientific core services within the organization?  What would be the effect of this model on the work of the laboratories?  On trainees?

Students and Trainees (Graduate Education, Post-Doctoral Fellowships, Career Development)

One of the oft-cited causes of the delay in independent research for early career investigators is the gradual rise in the age at which they complete their education.  At the same time, some voice concern that graduate education for the biomedical workforce is designed to prepare students for an all too narrow band of potential careers. Are there new steps the university should consider to promote desired outcomes in MD, PhD and MD/PhD programs?  Should other models for graduate education be considered – for example, European and Scandinavian models that place more emphasis on research and less on coursework, and that take less time to complete?

The postdoctoral landscape has also changed considerably in recent years.  National reports have expressed concern about the duration and other aspects of the postdoctoral training system in the biomedical sciences At the same time, reliable information even about the number of postdoctoral fellows at most academic institutions, and in the country as a whole, is lacking, and the outcomes of postdoctoral fellows are poorly assessed.  How should we assess postdoctoral fellows and programs?  What are the outcomes that we should strive for with regard to post-doctoral training?  Are there opportunities to improve the way in which we approach issues such as duration, mentoring, support, diversity, or opportunities for independent research?

Finally, the professional and career development function will be at the heart of the university’s efforts to support the next generation of the biomedical workforce.  A core effort is underway to build stronger core support of such services at the university through the implementation of the report of the PhD and Postdoctoral Fellow Career and Professional Development Working Group, in addition to divisional efforts in the schools. As these efforts unfold, are there any additional practices that might be recommended in this regard specifically as to the biomedical workforce?

The Committee will be asked to complete its report no later than the end of the 2016-17 academic year.

Committee Members

  • Pierre Coulombe, E.V. McCollum Professor and Chair, Department of Biochemistry & Molecular Biology, Bloomberg School of Public Health (Co-Chair)

  • Wendy Post, Professor of Medicine, School of Medicine, and Professor of Epidemiology, Bloomberg School of Public Health (Co-Chair)

  • Joel Blankson, Associate Professor, Division of Infectious Diseases, School of Medicine

  • Arturo Casadevall, Bloomberg Distinguished Professor and Chair, W. Harry Feinstone Department of Molecular Microbiology & Immunology, Bloomberg School of Public Health

  • Xin Chen, Associate Professor, Department of Biology, Krieger School of Arts and Sciences

  • Janice Clements, Vice Dean of Faculty and Professor of Molecular and Comparative Pathobiology, School of Medicine

  • Janet DiPietro, Vice Dean for Research and Faculty and Professor, Bloomberg School of Public Health

  • Peter Espenshade, Associate Dean for Graduate Biomedical Education and Professor of Cell Biology, School of Medicine

  • Heather Kristjanson, Senior Graduate Student in the Center for Functional Anatomy and Evolution, School of Medicine

  • Nancy Glass, Associate Dean for Research at the School of Nursing and Associate Director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Global Health, School of Nursing

  • Rachel Green, Investigator at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and Professor of Molecular Biology and Genetics, School of Medicine

  • Patricia Janak, Bloomberg Distinguished Professor, Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences, Krieger School of Arts and Sciences

  • David Mohr, Staff Scientist at the Genetic Resources Core Facility High Throughput Sequencing Lab

  • Larry Akio Nagahara, Associate Dean for Research and Research Professor, Whiting School of Engineering

  • Chiadi Ndumele, Robert E. Meyerhoff Assistant Professor, Department of Medicine, School of Medicine

  • Sezin Palmer, Mission Area Executive for National Health, Applied Physics Laboratory

  • Antony Rosen, Vice Dean for Research, the Mary Betty Stevens Professor of Medicine, Cell Biology, and Pathology, and Chief of the Division of Rheumatology, School of Medicine

  • Dionna Williams, Postdoctoral Research Fellow, Department of Molecular and Comparative Pathobiology, School of Medicine