Academies seek better prospects for postdocs

US report advises reforms to improve the lot of young scientists.


Rocky road: many US postdocs find that their chosen career path can be tough going. Credit: G. DISARIO/CORBIS

The US National Institutes of Health (NIH) is being urged to introduce a set of reforms to improve the lot of postdocs and increase their chances of establishing independent scientific careers.

A report from a National Academies panel chaired by Thomas Cech, president of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute in Chevy Chase, Maryland, says that postdoctoral training should be limited to five years.

The 18 March report also says that postdoc training grants should be made available to non-US citizens, and that money should be transferred from the NIH's main funding mechanism to support independent research awards that would enable postdocs to pursue their own projects.

Cech says that, if implemented, the recommendations will “encourage young investigators to take on top-rate, important projects, to deviate from the research of their previous mentors, and to strike out in new directions, tackle new systems and develop new methods”.

The study also suggests that the NIH should introduce a class of investigator grant specifically tailored to help young scientists moving into their first posts as independent investigators. It recommends awarding 200 of them annually, worth $500,000 each over five years.

“The current NIH grant system really honours safe research in well-established pathways,” Cech claims. “We want to break away from that and find mechanisms that will free up researchers in the early stages of their career to make the big discoveries that are really going to have an impact on medicine and on human health.”

Last June, NIH director Elias Zerhouni asked the National Academies to look into mechanisms that would enhance postdoctoral training and foster young researchers' independence.

Zerhouni says that some of the committee's recommendations — such as that requiring senior researchers to describe in their grant applications what they would do to nurture their postdocs' careers — could be implemented relatively quickly. He notes that a steering committee to deal with the other recommendations has already been set up.

The report was requested after it emerged that the NIH budget is increasingly going to fund older, established researchers. Between 1980 and 2003, for example, the percentage of grants going to researchers aged under 40 fell from more than a half to less than one-fifth.

“We've come up with recommendations that are evolutionary, not revolutionary,” says Cech, who hopes this will make it easier for the NIH to implement them. “The vitality of the biomedical sciences in the United States depends on taking some action soon,” he adds.


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Ebert, J. Academies seek better prospects for postdocs. Nature 434, 426 (2005).

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