Will There Be Fewer Scientists In the Coming Years?

Over the past two decades, academic and industrial researchers noted a series of changes concerning research practices in the U.S. Despite an increasing interest in the integrative sciences, there are no reports that thoroughly evaluate the current status of integrative sciences research and those parameters influencing the integrative sciences in the U.S. Briefly, the Life Sciences Research Office (LSRO) defines Integrative and Organ Systems Sciences (IOSS) as those scientific approaches aimed at understanding how intact biological systems function at the level of organs, organ systems, or whole animals (excluding clinical research). "Broadly" defined, IOSS use animal models to provide specific tissues, individual organs, or entire organ systems; "narrowly" defined, IOSS use intact organ, organ system, or animal models to understand function in the context of the organ, organ system, or entire animal. LSRO defines Reductionist Sciences as scientific approaches aimed at identifying molecular and cellular events, studied in purified form or in isolated systems and include genomics, proteomics, biochemistry, and cell and molecular biology.

The future of IOSS is of interest to researchers comprising several scientific fields, as the integrative sciences span the biomedical research continuum ranging from initial scientific discovery to medical application. Academic and industrial integrative scientists are concerned that there are insufficient numbers of doctoral-level trained scientists to meet current needs and projected demand.

The American Physiological Society (APS) and American Society for Pharmacology and Experimental Therapeutics (ASPET) commissioned the LSRO to investigate the current status of and future demand for scientists in IOSS by collecting and critically analyzing data and documenting scientific trends over the past decade. To accomplish this goal, LSRO first established a Project Steering Committee composed of scientific experts from academia, industry, and government to review the data on in vivo physiology and pharmacology trends, and secondly, convened a Conference and Workshop to encourage further discussions and suggest possible sources of remediation if needed.

LSRO collected data from physiology and pharmacology department chairs and industry scientists to assess IOSS changes over the past decade (1991-2001) relative to the widespread scientific emphasis of cellular and molecular sciences. Information provided by respondents to the LSRO survey suggests a decline in academic IOSS over the past two decades as evidenced by the decline of IOSS faculty within academic departments, the decline of IOSS competent graduate students, and fewer IOSS-trained scientists available to fill vacant industry positions. Although 96.8% of physiology and pharmacology departments reported either no change or an increase in the number of total faculty members, 36.3% reported a decrease in IOSS faculty, while only 11.5% reported an increase. Therefore, departments reporting a decline in IOSS faculty led those reporting an increase by about 3:1. It appears that this trend may continue, since 55.8% of departments anticipate hiring either none or no more than one IOSS scientist in the next five years. With respect to students, 95.4% of programs reported either no change or an increase in the number of graduate students enrolled in their departments. However, 30.5% of programs reported a decrease in IOSS students, while only 14.3% reported an increase. Thus, departments reporting a decline in IOSS students led departments reporting an increase by almost 2:1. The number of industry scientific staff positions for both IOSS and "Reductionist Scientists" increased from 1991 to 2001. However, 43.3% of industry respondents reported an increase in the length of time required to fill IOSS positions with qualified candidates and 65.5% reported that their departments offer greater salary adjustments to IOSS applicants relative to their "Reductionist Sciences" counterparts. Such financial incentives may encourage a shift of qualified IOSS scientists from academia to corporate environments to satisfy industry IOSS demands and further diminish representation of IOSS scientists in training the next generation of scientists.

Public data on research publications, employment opportunities, NIH funding, and the number of IOSS dissertations written in the U.S. were also evaluated. Despite a constant number of peer-reviewed journals publishing IOSS research, the number of IOSS publications in the premier IOSS journals declined between 1990 and 2000. A survey of IOSS employment announcements advertised in Science show a decline in IOSS job postings between 1990 and 2000. This trend follows the pattern observed for IOSS in the LSRO industrial survey, which noted decreased advertising efforts and increased referrals from agencies and web sites. This may reflect the industry response to a reported increase in the number of unqualified applicants, especially to IOSS positions. According to data compiled by the National Science Foundation, fewer Ph.D.s were awarded in Physiology (266 vs. 214) and Pharmacology (279 vs. 258) between 1992 and 2001, while at the same time an increased number of Cell (188 vs. 312) and Molecular (527 vs. 707) Biology Ph.D.s were awarded. In addition, although the Dissertation Abstracts Database shows an increase in the total number of IOSS dissertations published between 1980 and 1991 (1430 and 2002), there was a sharp decline by the year 2000 (1567). In contrast to these data, NIH records suggest significant in vivo research funding increases since 1980. This result, however, reflects using the search term "animal models" as a surrogate for IOSS research, since there is no good available data for NIH funding of IOSS research.

In part an overall decline in the availability of IOSS professionals may stem from declines in student exposure to IOSS during graduate school and shifts in U.S. biomedical graduate training programs away from IOSS programs in support of cellular and molecular biology training. Possible causes may also include limited opportunities in educational training programs for undergraduate and graduate students, limited federal training grant funding, few academic role models, fewer peer-reviewed publications, and fewer available tenure track academic positions. As a result, shifting scientific trends may have already contributed to a decline in the total number of IOSS training programs and consequently to a decline in the number of well-trained integrative scientists in future decades.

Although cellular and molecular approaches have become popular for problem solving, they do not negate the importance or need for IOSS procedures in scientific and medical research efforts. Of concern is the possibility that a continuing decrease in the number of integrative scientists in the United States could result in a shift of fundamental research priorities and the loss of future integrative research capacities. This is particularly alarming, since the loss of IOSS capabilities would adversely affect the expedient translation of basic science research findings into clinically useful therapeutics used to treat human disease. Although efforts have been made to correct IOSS trends in the U.S., current measures are insufficient to assure that integrative scientists will be available to meet future needs. Therefore, LSRO recommends that additional efforts be implemented to mitigate these adverse trends and ensure the availability of adequate numbers of integrative scientists to meet current and future academic and industrial IOSS needs.

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