NIH should take decisive steps to promote independence, originality

03/18/05

WASHINGTON -- The National Institutes of Health can foster independence among postdoctoral scholars, entry-level faculty, staff scientists, and other new investigators in biomedical research by improving their training and giving them more resources to pursue their own projects, says a new report from the National Academies' National Research Council. For example, NIH should provide postdocs and early-career investigators with more financial support for their own studies, and limit the maximum length of time they can spend in training under senior NIH-funded scientists to a total of five years. Cultivating the independence of all new investigators should be an agencywide goal, said the committee that wrote the report.

Concerns have been raised for decades about scientists spending longer periods of time as postdoctoral appointees, unable to set their own research directions. In 2002, for example, the median age at which researchers with Ph.D.s received their first independent grant from NIH was 42. In 2003 investigators under the age of 40 received less than 17 percent of the agency's competitive research awards -- down from more than 50 percent in 1980. New NIH policies and practices are needed to reverse the trend of ever-longer training periods, the report says. NIH officials and other stakeholders -- including university administrators, professional societies, funding agencies, and the scientific community at large -- have a shared responsibility to transform the status quo. "Science would benefit from a system that actively encourages new investigators to try out novel ideas and approaches," said committee chair Thomas R. Cech, president, Howard Hughes Medical Institute, Chevy Chase, Md., and distinguished professor of chemistry and biochemistry, University of Colorado, Boulder. "Now is the time for action. Our report offers a plan to help ensure the continued vitality of the biomedical research enterprise and its work force."

OPTIMIZE POSTDOCTORAL TRAINING

Postdoctoral training provides aspiring researchers with critical skills and experiences that aid their transition to jobs as independent investigators, but this training period should be temporary, the report emphasizes. NIH and many academic institutions and scientific organizations have agreed in principle to a five-year limit on postdoctoral appointments. However, few mechanisms are in place to enforce this limit. To tackle the issue, NIH and other institutions should implement and enforce a policy that prohibits individuals from working as postdoctoral researchers for more than five years total -- regardless of the type of award or grant they work under. If postdocs continue to work in the same laboratory after reaching the five-year limit, the continuation should be treated as a change in career track -- accompanied by promotion to a "staff scientist" position with employee benefits and appropriate levels of responsibility, the report says.

In most cases, biomedical postdocs are paid through "R01" research grants that are made to principal investigators (PIs). Consequently, postdocs are often required to spend their time focused on the research of these senior investigators, a pattern that may stifle their creativity. The report says NIH should move some of the resources for postdoctoral support from R01 grants to training grants and individual awards that aid postdoctoral work, such as the Ruth L. Kirschstein National Research Service Awards (NRSAs) currently offered by NIH. Doing so would increase the number of awards made to individual postdocs, enhance oversight of training, facilitate collaborative research, and encourage young researchers to play bigger roles in the design and direction of their work.

To complement existing NRSAs, NIH should create a new independent-research award that enables postdocs to identify, explore, and control their own projects under the mentorship of senior investigators. The new awards should be portable -- allowing selected postdocs to use them anywhere -- and large enough to cover their salaries and job benefits.

Scientists from outside the United States play a critical role in the nation's biomedical research enterprise, the report notes. Either U.S. citizenship requirements for NRSAs and related postdoctoral training grants should be dropped, permitting researchers who are not U.S. citizens or permanent residents to compete for the funds, or equivalent avenues of support should be made available to these scholars.

Scientific research is enhanced by effective training and mentoring, the report adds. NIH should revise the R01 grant application and review process so that PIs seeking funds for postdoctoral research positions would have to describe not only how postdocs would contribute to proposed projects, but also how they would be prepared for independent careers. Furthermore, applicants for R01 grants seeking postdoc assistance should be required to provide lists of current postdocs as well as the names, laboratory tenure, and present job status of all postdocs supported in the past decade -- information similar to that requested on training grant applications. Universities, academic departments, and research institutions should provide postdocs with more opportunities to learn professional skills such as grant writing and laboratory management.

To better track and analyze the effectiveness of relevant grant programs and funding practices, NIH should improve data collection on the progress of all postdocs. And it should evaluate different models of supporting their work, including the proposed new award for independent research, the committee said.

FROM POSTDOC TO INDEPENDENT INVESTIGATOR

The agency now offers a collection of "K22" career-transition awards to facilitate the move from postdoc to independent researcher. This program's confusing array of requirements limits its ability to foster independence more broadly, the report says. NIH should replace K22 awards with a new agencywide grant program that backs innovative research by scientists who are moving into their first jobs as independent investigators.

Each year the proposed career-development grant program should provide 200 grants worth $500,000 apiece, payable over five years. These new awards should offer postdocs up to two years of financial support to develop independent research projects, under the guidance of a mentor. After obtaining a fully independent research position, awardees could use the remaining funds for the next three to four years to grow their projects and develop professionally, the report says. The award would have uniform requirements and conditions across all NIH institutes, and it would not be limited to in-house candidates or previous fellowship recipients. On the whole, it would help new investigators jump-start their careers and encourage them to propose novel ideas.

The report also recommends the removal of a major barrier to new investigators' access to research funds. Currently, R01 grant applications require candidates to submit preliminary data predicting the success of proposed projects. But early-career researchers who want to conduct research unrelated to their postdoctoral work for senior investigators often have not had the time or resources to obtain such data. NIH should create a "New Investigator R01" award that would require a discussion of previous experience instead of preliminary data. The awards should have the same requirements across the agency, as well as budgets similar to other R01 grants. In addition, they should have a five-year term -- giving researchers time to establish laboratories, train personnel, and collect data without having to worry about immediately finding more research dollars.

The number of staff scientist positions that are not on the tenure track continues to grow, the report notes. NIH should start a grant program to support small science projects by these "soft-money" investigators, whose job security typically depends on external funding. Moreover, the agency should reserve funds to provide competitive, merit-based awards for the most talented staff scientists who run out of other research support. This money would serve as a bridge or safety net while they apply for other grants. The institutions where such scientists work should offer them multiyear, renewable contracts that guarantee office space, a salary, and minimal research assistance -- even in the absence of external funding.

Source: Eurekalert & others

Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 21 Feb 2009
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