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Graduate students and postdoctoral researchers play a vital role in advancing our nation’s research enterprise and economic competitiveness. In the wake of a few notable recent developments focused on the future of science, now is an opportune time to emphasize systemic changes that need to occur to nurture the next generation of scientists.

A few of those areas are: 1) reforming institutional structures to foster scientific training and research innovations, 2) building a robust STEM workforce to be competitive in today’s labor market, and 3) training scientists to leverage their knowledge for societal impact. This is a call to action for a number of stakeholders invested in the research enterprise to come together to support the current and future STEM pipeline.

In late September, the National Academies, in collaboration with the Kavli Foundation, the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation and Issues in Science and Technology, hosted the Endless Frontier Symposium 2022: Research and Higher Education Institutions for the Next 75 Years. It covered the following four overview topics:

  1. Re-evaluating the structure of institutions and the scientific enterprise
  2. Addressing the translational gaps between discovery and innovation
  3. Producing the right technical and professional science workforce: ensuring inclusivity, increasing diversity and improving training
  4. Optimizing the science and technology enterprise to benefit society

With an impressive lineup of experts in research and higher education, the event built a strong foundation for critical conversations that can move the needle on systemic changes in the research enterprise. Many of those ideas have also been compiled into a special edition of Issues, “The Next 75 Years of Science Policy.”

As Marcia McNutt, the president of the National Academies of Sciences, stated in a recent tweet related to the event, “The future will be all about human capital, and we cannot lose sight of that.” In this context, addressing the importance of the human capital driving research and innovation forward in the United States includes a strong focus on graduate students and postdoctoral researchers performing research in our universities and national laboratories.

It has been encouraging to witness a stronger emphasis on the STEM workforce not only during the symposium, but also from stakeholders who play an equally important part in advancing the research enterprise. They are not always the usual suspects. This past July, the U.S. Congress established a new bipartisan Graduate Research and Development Caucus (GRAD Caucus), which is specifically dedicated to the needs of graduate students, acknowledging their “unique and critical role in innovation, education, and bolstering our economy.”

While Congress has previously emphasized the future of science as a priority, the GRAD Caucus is a significant and relatively new development on Capitol Hill for supporting the next generation of the STEM workforce. It is focusing on the following three areas:

  • Engaging the full talent pool
  • Supporting and developing graduate researchers
  • Providing pathways for future impact

On the legislative front, this past August, the CHIPS and Science Act of 2022, which has been called a “once-in-a-generation” investment in science and technology, was signed into law. The legislation additionally brings into focus the importance of the STEM workforce for our nation’s research enterprise and economic competitiveness. Emphasizing the administration’s commitment to supporting the future of science, a notable section of the legislation centers on graduate STEM education, which includes mentoring, career training and professional development funding for graduate students and postdoctoral researchers.

While I’ve only outlined in this piece a few of the players invested in the research enterprise, other organizations are also working to ensure the United States remains competitive in science and technology. They include federal agencies that can support programs outlined in the CHIPS and Science legislation, as well as universities that train the next generation of scientists in research and prepare them for future jobs. Likewise, industry (and other) employers that hire Ph.D. graduates and postdoctoral researchers play an important role in the ecosystem by leveraging valuable talent into the future STEM pipeline.

For its part, academe should focus on providing a more holistic education to prepare STEM Ph.D.s and postdocs for addressing timely societal challenges. That education should encompass training in research and the necessary practices and skills needed to be successful in science-related careers—experimental rigor, honesty in reporting results, reproducibility in experiments and so on. These apply both for future faculty and for other careers closely related to science where graduates can put their scientific knowledge and critical thinking skills to good use, such as in industry or science policy. In addition to coursework, faculty advisers can encourage a well-rounded education beyond the bench, where graduate students and postdoctoral researchers need to consider broader implications of their research in society.

One such idea for graduate students would be making it mandatory to include a science policy (or science-to-society) chapter in their Ph.D. dissertations. Along those lines, university administrators should also consider offering professional development programs that provide trainees with practical skills beyond the bench and incorporate them into required curricula for all trainees. Such skills include but are not limited to: working with peers in a team, managing up, writing publications, prioritizing tasks, optimizing time, building and executing on budgets, and learning to think about bigger-picture implications of their research for grant applications or other purposes. Given the centrality of universities to the research ecosystem, these types of initiatives are critical to preparing those in the future STEM pipeline to be productive members of society.

Providing credible background evidence and creating forums for fruitful discussion, developing federal programs to enable research progress, encouraging legislative changes that include the efforts of the GRAD Caucus, and enabling funding for research innovations are some of the most important ways to advance our research enterprise. The system itself will only progress if all of the key stakeholders come together to support the STEM pipeline in the United States. And as part of that, we must continue to focus on the human capital driving our nation forward.

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