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NIH Committee Proposes Training Changes

The recommendations of a U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) Working Group on the biomedical research workforce include changes in the programs offered by academic institutions, limits on NIH support for graduate students, and changes in the way graduate students and postdocs are supported. The Working Group, a subcommittee of the Advisory Committee to the NIH Director, was formed in January, 2011, by NIH Director Francis Collins to examine the state of the biomedical research workforce and make recommendations to ensure the future competitiveness of the U.S. biomedical research enterprise.

The Biomedical Research Workforce Working Group was co-chaired by Shirley Tilghman and Sally Rockey, NIH Deputy Director for Extramural Research, and included ASCB members Leemor Joshua-Tor and Keith Yamamoto. In June 2012, the Working Group sent its report, with a series of recommendations, to Collins for his review and consideration.

Despite low unemployment for biomedical PhDs, the percentage of PhDs who move into tenured or tenure-track positions has declined by 8% since 1993. In contrast, science-related occupations that do not involve the conduct of research or do not require graduate training are seeing increases in employment. According to the Working Group’s report, "Despite these changes, graduate training continues to be aimed almost exclusively at preparing people for academic research positions."

With these facts in mind, the Working Group made several recommendations for changes to graduate training programs. These recommendations include:
  • Institutions should develop training programs for nonacademic positions
  • Institutions should be encouraged to develop other degree programs for those who are interested in science but not in life at the bench.
  • The NIH should cap the number of years a graduate student can be supported by NIH funds. The report recommends an institutional average of five years and an individual limit of six years of NIH support.
  • Training grant support for graduate students should be increased compared to those supported by Research Project Grants (RPGs).

Despite a lack of data on the number and length of training of postdoctoral researchers in the U.S., the Working Group felt that the postdoc experience should be considered an extension of the training period. For that and other reason the Working Group’s proposals for postdoctoral researchers include:

  • The NIH should increase the proportion of postdocs supported by training grants and fellowships and reduce the number supported by RPGs.
  • Stipends for the Ruth L. Kirschstein National Research Service Awards (NRSA) should start at $42,000 and then be indexed for inflation.
  • NRSA stipend levels should increase with each year of the postdoctoral experience by 4% for the second and third years and 6% for years four through seven.
  • The NIH should adjust its policies and require that institutional policies be adjusted to require that postdocs receive employment-related benefits that are comparable to other institution employees.
  • NIH should double the number of Pathways to Independence awards, which provide up to five years of support for postdocs.

The Working Group Report also addresses other areas, including possible use of staff scientists and a reduction in “soft money” positions. In the report, the Working Group 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, and has had the additional consequence of encouraging institutions to expand their physical space without making additional long term commitments to faculty.”

To read the complete Biomedical Research Workforce Working Group report or review additional data go to http://acd.od.nih.gov/bwf.htm.
— Kevin M. Wilson

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