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US scientists are leaving academia. That’s bad news for drug companies

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Originally Published: 01 APR 24 09:29 ET

By Eva Rothenberg, CNN

New York (CNN) — Scientists in the United States, especially those in the biomedical fields, are increasingly leaving the world of academia for better-paying industry jobs amid stagnant federal funding and low wages.

It’s a troubling sign for the future of US-based medical research and development at pharmaceutical and biotech companies, which rely on the experimental science housed at universities to develop cutting-edge commercial products.

According to the National Institutes of Health, the number of postdoctoral fellows supported by NIH grants has been steadily falling for more than 20 years, with a significant dip after 2020. The number of postdocs in the biological and biomedical fields has declined 9% between 2018 and 2022, and those in health-related fields have fallen by 8%, according to a survey published on March 20 by the National Science Foundation.

Why are postdoctoral researchers important?

The problem is that postdocs are a critical component of the research and development workforce.

“Science postdocs perform the science,” Donna Ginther, an economist who studies the science labor market at the University of Kansas, told CNN. “They’re actually in the lab doing the work, so they make very important contributions to new scientific discovery.”

Those contributions are part of a long game. Biomedical companies take scientific contributions and, over time, aggregate them into a commercial product. Building on the discovery of mRNA in the 1960’s, the technology behind an mRNA vaccine for humans was in development for decadesbefore the Covid-19 vaccine was first administered in 2020.

“It takes a long time from that first discovery to turn it into a product,” said Ginther.

In 2005, researchers learned that RNA could have immense therapeutic potential, but “found there was no interest” in this discovery, Nobel Prize-winning biochemist Dr. Katalin Kariko told Wired Magazine in 2020.

By using that technology to develop their mRNA vaccines for Covid-19, pharmaceutical companies like Pfizer and Moderna made a windfall in profits. Between 2020 and 2021, Pfizer saw its revenue nearly double. In the same period, Moderna’s total revenue skyrocketed from $803 million to $18.5 billion, astounding growth the company said was “primarily due to commercial sales of (the) COVID-19 vaccine.”

Ginther said most biotech and biomedical companies aren’t concerned with funding basic science like universities.

“Most corporations are publicly traded, and they’re always looking at the bottom line,” she said. “That’s how they make money is through commercialization: they have a product, which they then patent and sell.”

Why are scientists leaving academic labs?

Interestingly, the number of graduate students — those pursuing master’s degrees and PhDs — in biomedical fields has grown by 22% between 2018 and 2022, according to the NSF survey. And the number of predoctoral students funded by NIH fellowships has increased steadily since 1998.

Experts say these students are increasingly seeking out better paying industry jobs. Unlike academic positions, these roles don’t require postdoctoral research experience.

“There’s no economic benefit (to doing a postdoctoral fellowship),” said Ginther. “If you spend four to six years in a postdoc and then jump into the industry, your starting salary is the same as if we would have just entered into industry automatically.”

The pay gap between academia and industry is also astronomical, which has the added effect of making corporate jobs much more financially attractive to students.

The NIH determines stipend amounts for US citizens in postdoctoral programs. The stipend for a first-year postdoc is roughly $56,000 per year, with marginal yearly wage increases. But in biotech, postdocs and PhD graduates can easily crack six figures.

Ginther served on an advisory committee to the NIH in December, where she and colleagues recommended the NIH increase their stipend amounts by 34% to $70,000 per year.

“The NIH was waiting for its budget and that budget was passed a week ago, so I’m sure they’re having discussions about it right now,” she said. Ginther noted that the federal budget granted to the NIH was flat for fiscal year 2024, which “in a time with rising prices is actually a cut.”

The NIH has not responded to CNN’s request for comment.

Experts warn that the building blocks of life-saving scientific innovation may slowly erode. A new study from the World Health Organization found that Covid-19 vaccines saved the lives on 1.4 million people in Europe alone, reducing deaths by 57%. Healthcare experts estimate that in the 103 years insulin has been available to treat diabetes, the medication has saved tens of millions of lives. A lack of funding and meaningful wage increases for a critical part of the science workforce can hinder these medical discoveries across a range of public health battlefronts, from cancer to Alzheimer’s to the next pandemic.

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**This image is for use with this specific article only** The number of postdoctoral fellows in the biological, biomedical and health-related fields has declined significantly in recent years, according to the National Science Foundation.

Sean Anthony Eddy/E+/Getty Images via CNN Newsource

01 Apr 24


**This image is for use with this specific article only** Pharmacy technicians prepare doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine at a mass COVID-19 vaccination event on January 30, 2021 in Denver, Colorado. By using mRNA vaccine tech developed over decades, pharmaceutical companies like Pfizer and Moderna made a windfall in profits.

Michael Ciaglo/Getty Images via CNN Newsource

01 Apr 24

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