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NIH tackles workforce and diversity challenges

The US National Institutes of Health (NIH) will boost postdoctoral stipends and launch two new grant programmes as part of its response to two sobering reports on structural problems in the US biomedical workforce.

The US$31-billion biomedical agency on 6 December laid out its plans for reacting to the data-rich reports, one describing and dissecting the problems resulting from a glut of young researchers in the biomedical workforce and a second documenting that workforce’s lack of diversity and the uphill struggle of non-white applicants to win grants.  The latter was spurred by a paper by Ginther et al., published in Science in 2011.

Both reports were presented last June to a committee of external advisers to NIH director Francis Collins (see ‘A workforce out of balance‘).

Today, Collins and his senior lieutenants responded with their plans for implementing the reports’ recommendations. An outline of the agency’s plans to boost its grantees’ diversity is here; the gist of its workforce initiative is here.

The workforce recommendations say that the NIH will “encourage” institutions to expect only five years of NIH support for graduate students and that the agency may consider putting teeth in that “encouragement” in the future, says Sally Rockey, its deputy director for extramural research. The NIH will also move promptly to boost stipends for postdocs to $42,000, from the current $39,000. And it will spend at least $5 million on a minimum of 25 competitive awards enlisting institutions to develop innovative PhD programmes delivering broader experience, ranging from science-policy exposure to opportunities to work in industry.

The NIH will also be looking into how its institutions handle benefits for postdocs, with an eye towards eventually describing a standard set of benefits that NIH-supported trainees should receive.

With these plans, “the message from the NIH is very strong in that we need more support for our early career scientists,” says Cathee Johnson Phillips, the executive director of the National Postdoctoral Association in Washington DC.

The diversity recommendations run the gamut — from attempts to train unconscious bias out of peer reviewers, to the NIH hiring its first chief diversity officer, to the launch of a national research-mentoring network. But perhaps the flagship initiative is a new grant programme called BUILD, for Building Infrastructure Leading to Diversity. Funded at roughly $50 million annually from the NIH Common Fund, it will support some 150 new students per year, up to 600 students, with scholarships for up to two years of undergraduate tuition, mentored research experience and possible loan repayment in graduate school. It is explicitly targeted at smaller institutions: recipient universities must receive less than $7.5 million per year in research project grant funding from the NIH.

Although lip service has been paid to similar ideas in the past, Collins’ efforts on the diversity issue shows distinct leadership and commitment on the issue, says Rahn Bailey, the president of the National Medical Association, which represents African American physicians and biomedical scientists. Adds Bailey, the chairman of the department of psychiatry at Meharry Medical College in Nashville, Tennessee: “We are going to be very vigilant as an organization and as a community” as the NIH moves to implement its plans.

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    Lisa Lit said:

    “The growth in “soft money” positions in academic medical schools, in which investigators are required to raise 100% of their salaries and research funds, has contributed to the negative views of a career in biomedical science…” Truer words were never spoken.

    Also: “For PhDs graduating in 2001, the median age for biomedical scientists was 32 and the median age for starting a tenure track position was 37…” Not mentioned: The frequent requirement of geographic relocation for successive postdoctoral and permanent positions is often at odds with family needs such as spousal employment, continuity of school/social environment for growing children, and home ownership.

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