An Alternative Perspective on Recommendation 3

Publication Details

Henry W. Riecken

Let me begin by stressing that I dissent from the unqualified endorsement and recommended expansion of training grants in chapters 5 and 6 and not from the overall study findings, which I strongly support. The compelling evidence presented in chapters 2 and 3 and appendixes, together with the confirming testimony at the public meeting and experiences of individual committee members, led us to the unanimous conclusion that the current level of PhD production now exceeds the current availability of jobs in academia, government, and industry where new life-science PhDs can independently use their training. We also unanimously agreed that further growth in graduate training in the life sciences must be curtailed and that there should be no further expansion of graduate educational programs except "under rare and special circumstances".

The committee had a much more difficult time, however, in deciding how best to achieve the recommended goal of stabilizing graduate enrollments. The difficulty derives chiefly from the complex interdependence of research and training, as described in chapter 6. While some of the committee's recommended actions—in particular, the broad dissemination of information pertinent to career prospects—will be useful in addressing this goal, I strongly disagree with the recommendation to increase training-grant support. In my view, this recommendation is unsupported, outside the study charge, and inconsistent with the committee's overall study findings. My specific objections to this recommendation are as follows:

  1. Recommending that federal agencies expand training-grant programs conflicts with the committee's desire to stabilize graduate enrollments. While the report states that "the expansion of training grants should come at the expense of the numbers of trainees supported on research grants", the committee offers no guidance to the federal agencies on how to reduce the number of federally supported research assistants. At the second meeting of the committee, an NIH official told us that the agency had no control over the total number of students supported on research grants since they are essentially employees hired by the universities and principal investigators. Absent effective control on the number of students supported on federal research grants, the recommended expansion of training grants would increase the availability of federal support for graduate education and likely lead to an increase in graduate enrollments—precisely what the committee wishes to halt.
  2. The recommendation to reduce support for research assistantships (while increasing training grants) also conflicts with the committee's expressed opinion that it would be unwise to impose limitations on the admission of foreign nationals to graduate study in US universities. Since foreign students are not eligible for training-grant support, the total amount of support available to them would be diminished by the proposed substitution of traineeships for research assistantships—thereby limiting their access to training in the United States.
  3. The committee was not asked to evaluate the quality of predoctoral education or the relative merits of alternative mechanisms for support of graduate training. In fact, at the outset NIH officials made it clear that this study should not duplicate the efforts of the National Research Council Committee on National Needs for Biomedical and Behavioral Research Personnel, which was established at the request of Congress and explicitly charged with recommending the level of training-grant support provided by NIH. The recommendation to expand training-grant support clearly intrudes on this other Research Council committee's work.
  4. The committee did not investigate systematically and carefully the advantages and disadvantages of alternative mechanisms of predoctoral support. The only factual evidence pertinent to this issue (presented in chapter 5) comes from a 1984 Research Council study, The Career Achievements of NIH Predoctoral Trainees and Fellows. This study explicitly stated that "it cannot be determined whether [trainees'] superior records of achievement may be attributed to the selection process, the training they received, or a combination of these and other factors." Thus, any conclusion drawn from this study that training grants are a more effective training mechanism than research grants is unfounded.
  5. The report's stated preference for training grants over research grants is not based on hard evidence of superiority, but rather on the opinions of individual committee members "with direct experience with training grants". Since the study charge does not encompass an evaluation of alternative mechanisms for graduate student support, it is not surprising that a majority of the committee do not have such "direct experience". They are therefore not in a position to make independent judgments about the relative merits of these two training mechanisms and were not appointed with this task in mind.
  6. The advantages and disadvantages of alternative support mechanisms were never fully discussed by the committee. Had the study called for a comparison of alternative mechanisms for predoctoral support, a much more detailed analysis would have been required, including an examination of the cost implications for different institutions and federal sponsors. (NIH training grants do not pay full indirect costs, while research grants do; and training grants also limit trainees' tuition reimbursement to the university.)
  7. The proposal to substitute traineeships for research assistantships presents a particular problem for institutions that do not have training grants, yet have faculty members who are successful in obtaining NIH research awards. These investigators would be unable to make the recommended substitution, yet the quality of their research can be assumed to be as good as the research funded at universities that do have training grants.
  8. From the perspective of federal policy-makers, the recommendation to increase training grant support may appear nonsensical—especially in light of the overwhelming evidence that universities are already training too many PhDs for the research positions available. Why should Congress appropriate more funds for training grants when there is already an overabundance of trained life scientists?

I want to emphasize that I have these reservations about the training-grant recommendation because of the totally inadequate evidential basis for the recommendation and because of the consequences it would have— not because I hold strong views on the intrinsic merits of either training grants or research assistantships. For several years, I chaired the aforementioned Committee on National Needs for Biomedical and Behavioral Research Personnel, which recommended annually to Congress the number of training-grant positions to be supported under the National Research Service Awards Act. Earlier, I served as associate director of the National Science Foundation with particular responsibility for the education and training of scientists (in all scientific disciplines). These experiences have made me keenly aware of the difficulty of making a valid comparison between alternative support mechanisms, as well as the multiple difficulties of implementing the changes recommended in this report. Without considerably more evidence on the relative merits of alternative mechanisms for supporting graduate students, a recommendation to increase training grants and substitute these positions for research assistantships is unwarranted—and detracts from what I consider to be an otherwise scholarly and objective analysis.