’Doubling boomers’ and the problem of scale

by reestheskin on 16/01/2017

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From an article in Nature describing how the US biomedical workforce has changed over recent times.

Our analysis of IPUMS-USA data reveals a cohort that entered the laboratory workforce as NIH funding grew from US$13.7 billion in 1998 to $28.1 billion in 2004. These ‘doubling boomers’ arguably suffered most as funds subsequently decreased (when adjusted for inflation). In 2004, there were nearly 26,000 individuals under 40 with PhDs working as biomedical scientists. By 2011, there were nearly 36,000. Over this period, the number of faculty jobs did not increase. Indeed, the number of openings expected as a result of academics retiring has declined since 1995, when federal law made it illegal for universities to mandate retirement at age 65 (ref. 3).


The work environment that this cohort faces is unlike anything seen before, despite previous booms and busts4. Today in the United States, four out of five PhD biomedical researchers work outside academia — a record high (see ‘Lab labour’). They earn, on average, almost $30,000 more a year than their academic counterparts, and feel less pressure to produce scientific publications.

There are some obvious points. The doubling was crazy at the time (some of us said that, then), and even more so in hindsight. Universities rushed for the gold, with little wider thought. Second, careers are the ‘long now’ and getting longer. Personal investment relies on a certain degree of continuity and stability, and there will be a hangover, that the universities will now have to deal with. Finally, the obsession with growth by universities is dangerous. Haldane’s essay, ‘On being the right size’ comes to mind. Scaling matters, as does thinking about long term rather than short term success.