Wednesday, May 16, 2012

In Person: Dr. Sally Rockey

“There is no political will to address structural problems like exempt H1B visas; we can only work at the margins.”

Today the NIH Science Policy Discussion Group had the great pleasure of hosting Dr. Sally Rockey, the Deputy Director of NIH Extramural Research [1]. She is a driving force behind the extramural grant policies of the NIH, the nations largest funding agency for biomedical research. Her office administers over $25 billion to the nations research sector [2].

Dr. Rockey is also co-chair of an NIH working group on the future of biomedical research workforce [3,4]. I am eagerly anticipating the groups recommendations, due in June.

I thank her for agreeing to speak with the group and hope she doesn't take too much offense. All views are my own, and in no way represent the group. This is not a critique of Dr. Rockey, she is in an unenviable position.

Let us begin...

Three things strike me about Dr. Rockey.
  1. She gets 'it'.
  2. She is adroit at coping with the doublethink her job requires.
  3. She's more or less as helpless as I am when it comes to changing the rules of the game, the underlying structural factors that are screwing an entire generation of American biomedical scientist.
She gets 'it'
First and foremost, for those that decry government administrators as incompetent blowhards who must be eliminated in the most brutal and expedient of manors, I'll personally vouch for her grasp (read: far beyond my feeble mind) of the underlying rules of the game, and how they disproportionately impact young scientist.

“We understand the importance of diversity...we're looking at ways to engage Community College students, as they represent an underutilized source of diverse talent.”

She understands the current model, decoupling the actual need for PhDs from training, is unsustainable.

She understands that the in-sourcing of foreign postdocs to staff academic labs on a cheap, disposable, exploitable, basis is driving away future American talent, leaving those already trained with even worse prospects than already created by an oversupply of domestically produced PhDs.

“There is no fat to cut in indirect costs...To cut indirect at this point would shatter some institutions...They are already subsidizing research with tuition dollars.”

She understands that in their quest for self-aggrandizement, universities are driving up tuition cost to subsidize research and administration.

Despite this understanding, her job requires her to simultaneously hold incompatible views. She must "hold to the importance of diversity," must "train the nations best and brightest to become future biomedical leaders," must "keep the funding model 'meritocratic' (hint: it isn't)," must "share the wealth to ensure early-career investigators are supported," must "ensure the US remains the most scientifically productive nation." And the list goes on.

Multiple conflicting mandates are not unique to the NIH. Just look to the Federal Reserve with it's dual mandates of full employement and inflation control. A central bank can do either quite handsomely, but usually not both [5]. (Aside: Volker is a debatable edge case, a hero to some, an insufficient de-regulator to others.)

The NIH cannot be everything to everybody. Attempting to do so is usually ill fated. I believe the euphemism is 'balancing priorities.' For example:
  • If the goal is to train and retain the nations best and brightest, a training model similar to doctors, with intense preselection coupled with tightly controlled supply, would be work. A research pyramid based on the exploitation of young scientist fails however.
  • If the goal is to produce the most research for the lowest cost, a more extreme version of the current R01/P01 system coupled with even more temporary visa give aways would work. Given, in a few decades, outside of a very small elite, PhDs would be reduced to the equivalent of highly educated agricultural workers, sourced from whichever country has prospects sufficiently bleak for its own citizens. Eventually there will be no Americans left in the process.

Ok, a smidgen of exaggeration. She's not really helpless, but in practice she can only work at the margin. She has a voice in shaping the national debate over our broken system, but forces that benefit from the exploitation have a bigger voice, and much more sway over Congress.
  • Create an annual post-doc census to more accurately measure the scope of the problem, which in my humble opinion is dramatically underestimated.
  • Require departments to make available PhD and postdoc placement statistics as a requirement for receiving funds.
  • Make marginal improvements to the lots of some scientist, like creating programs to siphon some excess supply into 'science policy' or other positions. 
  • Fund programs to directly match select PhD students with industry mentors, ensuring they develop the relevant skills to compete therein. 
  • Discourage Americans from entering graduate training by cutting the supply of funding, and transitioning the remaining funding to training grants.
These are all marginal improvements, and I suspect (read: pray at the altar of all mighty Sagan) they'll appear as recommendations in her working group's report. Whether any changes happen, well...well. Any major tampering with the University gravy train would either be outside of her pervue, or result in her hasty dismissal.

For example, a balls-to-the-wall approach would be to allow only permanent research staff to be funded on new longer-term grants, barring both graduate students and foreign temporary workers from being funded on grants, as is the current model. This wouldn't end the flow of exempt H1Bs to Universities, only Congress can do that, but it would be a start to policy that would have much the same affect. Even if it were within her power to do so, I doubt she'd get very far (read: axeman cometh).

The fact remains, that as long as disposable foreign labor is an implicit requirement for staffing grants, that Universities have no incentives to hire permanent research faculty, that irrationally exuberant natives continue to 'train', that the fire-hose of foreign supply is not reigned in, that PhD supply is decoupled from demand, the underlying blight will remain.

In benediction, keep on pushing that margin Dr. Rockey.

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