Graduate students and post-docs in the biomedical field compete for limited research money from the US National Institutes of Health (NIH) and, after spending years in training, face uncertain career paths. A working group charged with studying these problems presented a report to NIH Director Francis Collins and his advisory committee yesterday—and offered some new solutions.
Back in March, the group said it was considering suggestions to reduce post-doc training grants and shifting the focus to programs that support work outside tenure-track academic research, where jobs are scarce. But it has shifted its tune about the means to achieving this goal. In their final report, they recommend increasing training grants, which require principal investigators to submit detailed research and mentoring plans as part of the application for funding. The NIH’s ‘R01’ research grants, however, make no such requirements.
At yesterday’s meeting, Shirley Tilghman, who co-chaired the working group and is also president of Princeton University in New Jersey, pointed to the current NIH budget crunch as forcing the rethink about its granting schemes. Ultimately, they hope that institutions will use more training and research grant money to support staff scientists, who are experienced researchers with graduate or doctoral degrees. “These trained scientists are sometimes treated like second-class citizens and they are the glue of our labs,” Tilghman told Collins and his advisors.
One way to shorten training time and free up individuals to kick-start their careers is for the NIH to cap funded projects at five years for institutions and six years for individuals, according to the report. It says that a faster track to the workplace would help the 45% of US-trained PhDs who pursue careers outside of academia. The committee also had ideas for helping graduate students get a head start on career development should they want to later leave the ivory tower. They recommended the creation of a program allowing academic institutions to apply for NIH money to develop programs that provide project management, business and entrepreneurial skills for graduate students only. The most successful programs could then be used as models at universities around the country. “What we’ve heard from industry is, ‘We get your graduates [from NIH] and we have to retrain them,’” says Tilghman.
But more than training, the best ideas come from a diverse group and a separate working group on diversity reported yesterday that the biomedical field still measured up short. With all other factors controlled for, African-Americans are still 10% less likely to be awarded NIH grants, said Reed Tuckson, co-chair of the working group and vice president of UnitedHealth Group headquartered in Minneapolis. Among other recommendations, the group suggested adding a chief diversity position to the NIH’s advisory committee to the director and encouraged Collins to use his “social capital” to encourage minorities to join the biomedical workforce. For his part, Collins promised both groups that today’s recommendations, unlike others in the past, would not be relegated to a shelf to collect dust. “A career in biomedicine is one of the most exciting things possible,” Collins told the group. “We want to make the field as attractive as possible for our young people.”