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The cancer research industry is suffering on both ends of the employment spectrum.

There’s a ‘Brain Drain’ in the Cancer Research Industry

Clinical lab leaders will recognize the plight of cancer investigators leaving the field

Photo portrait of Scott Wallask
Scott Wallask, BA
Photo portrait of Scott Wallask

Scott Wallask, BA, is senior editorial manager for Today’s Clinical Lab and G2 Intelligence. He has spent more than 25 years covering the healthcare and high-tech industries. A former newspaper reporter, he graduated from Northeastern University with a degree in journalism.

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Published:Apr 25, 2024
|2 min read
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Portrait of Kimryn Rathmell, MD, PhD, MMHC

Kimryn Rathmell, MD, PhD, MMHC, director of the National Cancer Institute, says there is a brain drain of talent in the cancer research industry.

National Cancer Institute

The term “brain drain” has stuck with me since I attended the American Association of Cancer Research’s annual meeting earlier this month in San Diego.

Kimryn Rathmell, MD, PhD, MMHC, director of the National Cancer Institute, mentioned in an opening session that the cancer research industry has experienced a brain drain of investigators who went elsewhere—similar to clinical laboratories facing recruitment challenges for medical laboratory scientists.

Rathmell later told me that cancer research was suffering on both ends of the employment spectrum. Established investigators are leaving the field for alternative careers, and there is also a decline in new people entering the industry.

“I’m most worried about research scientists … and [research] nurses,” she said. “They’re a critical part of our workforce for clinical studies.”

Money problems likely fuel the brain drain in cancer research

I decided to ask around about this situation during a press briefing at the San Diego Zoo hosted by Agilent. 

Before the briefing began, a colleague and I briefly wandered the zoo looking for animals. But in the end, we could (unbelievably) only find the flamingos. That unlikely scenario seemed symbolic: Had the hippos and polar bears decided they had better career options elsewhere? 

At the press briefing, three issues came up—two of them money related—that support the idea of a workforce brain drain:

  • Post-graduate students are finding lower-than-expected pay scales in cancer research labs. (This is also not uncommon in some clinical labs, depending on the state and community.)
  • The cost to young investigators of establishing their own research labs is often out of reach. A rough monthly cost might be more than USD$10,000, according to the Samuel Waxman Cancer Research Foundation.
  • Tenured positions at academic research institutions are not easy to get.

So, what’s plan B if the above options flame out? Head into the more lucrative private sector with all the research skills acquired during college.

Engagement with young scientists is crucial

Rathmell wondered aloud about steps to curb the brain drain. For example, would virtual clinical trials—perhaps boosted by artificial intelligence—lower costs to researchers?

“I want to encourage young people to stay in this field,” she said.

There are lessons here for leaders, regardless of whether they are in cancer research, clinical diagnostics, or any other industry for that matter. 

Perhaps most importantly, if it isn’t easy and accessible for graduates to grow in their areas of interest, they’re going become demotivated quickly and take their knowledge elsewhere.

Leaders who spot these young scientists on the cusp of career-changing decisions need to find ways to advocate for and mentor up-and-coming generations. 

Rathmell offered an assignment for decision-makers in cancer research institutions: Ask young scientists questions about their research—and support their theories—as an important first step toward better engagement.

“I urge [leaders] to connect with young scientists,” she advised.

Clinical laboratory directors may have useful information to pass onto peers in cancer research, not only in terms of coping with fewer scientists to recruit, but also in convincing grads that their chosen field still wants them.

None of us want to imagine the future of the cancer research industry as a landscape barren of talent that has headed elsewhere—we don’t want to “only see the flamingos.”