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Systemic Overhaul Needed

The US biomedical research system has "systemic flaws," write four prominent researchers in an editorial in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences this week. They argue that an erroneous assumption that biomedical science would continue its rapid growth has led to a system plagued by hypercompetition that produces too many trainees contending for resources and encourages investigators to stick to well-worn research paths.

The authors — the University of California, San Francisco's Bruce Alberts, Marc Kirschner from Harvard Medical School, Princeton University's Shirley Tilghman, and Harold Varmus from the National Cancer Institute — say that it is time to "rethink some fundamental features of the US biomedical research ecosystem."

The foursome argues that predictable budgets for US science funding agencies are needed, that the research portfolio needs to be refigured so that more creative proposals are funded, and that science policies that have led to unsustainable growth should change. More specifically, they say that the number of PhD students should slowly be brought into alignment with the number of future opportunities, that originality in grant proposals should be recognized, and that grant review panels should examine a wider range of scientific problems and include researchers from a variety of backgrounds to avoid insularity.

"Some fundamental changes are required because the system cannot expand indefinitely along the current trajectory," the authors add. "The necessary changes are multiple and need to be made in a comprehensive fashion, not piecemeal. Such changes are likely to be difficult and are potentially damaging in the short run; hence, they need to be made with extreme care."