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A Plan To Improve Biomedical R&D

Research: NIH aims to boost diversity, enhance training for nonacademic careers

by Britt E. Erickson
December 17, 2012 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 90, Issue 51

An ambitious new plan to tackle two controversial challenges facing the biomedical workforce—the lack of diversity and a paucity of academic jobs for new Ph.D.s—has been put forth by the National Institutes of Health.

Under the plan, announced at the December meeting of the NIH Advisory Committee to the Director, NIH will spend an average of $50 million per year for the next 10 years to support undergraduates at institutions that have a diverse student population and receive less than $7.5 million annually in research grants from NIH. The agency will also award 25 grants this fiscal year and 25 in 2014—with each grant worth about $250,000—for innovative training programs that prepare young scientists for nonacademic careers, such as in industry or science policy.

Credit: NIH
NIH director of extramural research Sally Rockey
Credit: NIH

After the doubling of the NIH budget from 1998 to 2003, the U.S. saw an explosion in the number of biomedical Ph.D.s, said Sally Rockey, NIH deputy director for extramural research. “Our current training programs do little to prepare students for anything besides an academic research career,” she said. “For graduate students, we want to diversify the training experience and get them more prepared for the variety of jobs they may have.”

As part of the effort to strengthen the biomedical workforce, NIH also plans to increase the pay for postdoctoral researchers from $39,000 to $42,000 per year and help shorten postdocs’ time to independence, Rockey said. In addition, the agency intends to track the careers of all grantees by giving every graduate student and investigator a unique identifier number.

Credit: NIH
NIH Director Francis S. Collins
Credit: NIH

Calling the plan a “bold response to a very important issue,” NIH Director Francis S. Collins said NIH is committed to “recruiting and retaining the best and brightest into our workforce from all possible groups, including those that are traditionally underrepresented.”

Some researchers are criticizing NIH for stopping short of requiring institutions to publish data on the career outcomes of graduate students and postdocs supported by NIH funds. Instead, NIH is only asking institutions to do so. Likewise, the health agency is encouraging, but not requiring, institutions to stop using NIH funds to support doctoral students after five years.

Without requirements, said Princeton University President Shirley Tilghman, institutions will fail to publish career outcome data, and they will not limit NIH support to five years.

Many stakeholders agree with NIH that something must be done to strengthen and diversify the biomedical workforce, but there is resistance to spending money on new initiatives. Concerns over the federal budget and the looming sequestration are paramount, explained Judith Bond, president of the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology and a biochemist at Penn State College of Medicine. “To start new things that cost money in this financial climate is a concern.”



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