Downsizing of basic science departments in U. S. medical schools: perceptions of their chairs. The National Caucus of Basic Biomedical Science Chairs.Acad Med. 1997 Oct; 72(10):894-900.AM
To assess the status of basic science departments in academic health centers through a survey of department chairs.
In November 1995 the National Caucus of Basic Biomedical Science Chairs developed a 35-item questionnaire that was sent to the presidents of the Caucus's six member associations, who distributed it to their medical school chairs. The questionnaire was sent to 90% of the basic science chairs; a total of 683 questionnaires were distributed. By April 1996, 59% (400/683) of the chairs responded. Preliminary tabulations were made by each association, and then all the questionnaires were sent to the Caucus chair for compilation and analysis.
The chairs in all six basic science disciplines reported four basic trends. Reduction in staffing: Eleven percent of the chairs were in "acting" positions, temporarily filling vacancies that sometimes had not been filled for five years or more. There were 583 reported faculty vacancies, but active searches were under way for only 339 of these. The chairs reported the abolition of, on average, one faculty position per department between 1985 and 1995, but these losses were clustered in only a third of the schools; thus several departments had experienced extensive faculty depletion. Overall, there was a 10% attrition of basic science faculty. Restructuring of the basic sciences: In all, 22 disciplinary departments had merged between 1985 and 1995, and merger discussions were under way at another 9% of the departments. Seven percent of the chairs reported that their schools were considering a single, combined basic science department, but only one such unit exists so far. Graduate student recruitment had become solely interdisciplinary at 26% of the schools, had remained strictly departmental at another 44%, and was joint at the remaining 30%. The development of a non-research-based teaching track was being considered at a fourth of the reporting departments. New fiscal policies/professional stability: A salary incentive beyond the university contribution, to reward research funding, was in effect at 28% of the departments and under consideration by another 29%. For a junior faculty member who, at the time of tenure decision, lacked research grant support, termination was reported by almost a third of the chairs as being extremely likely; however, half of the chairs did not respond to this question. Changes in tenure: A fourth of the chairs reported that modifications of their school's tenure policies were under serious consideration; and almost three fourths felt that tenure had become more difficult to achieve.
This survey reveals certain profound and disconcerting changes in the basic science departments of U.S. medical school. More studies are needed to see whether these trends continue. Further downsizing and merging of the basic sciences should be avoided in order to preserve the quality of medical education for future physicians as well as the quality of health care in the United States.