Earlier this year the National Institutes of Health (NIH) established a task force in order to help inform future decisions about training the U.S. biomedical research workforce. In an October 6th letter
to Dr. Shirley Tilghman, Chair of the NIH working group
leading the project, FASEB provided its perspective as to how the agency could mitigate the training and workforce challenges facing the research enterprise as well as on the potential benefits and drawbacks of some of the policy changes under consideration.
The Federation’s letter noted that declining success rates for NIH grants have increased the time investigators spend seeking funding, reducing the amount of time available for research and decreasing the attractiveness of a career in biomedical research. In addition, limited financial support for grants has stalled growth in research positions, and there are concerns that it will become increasingly difficult for the U.S. to recruit and retain scientific talent. NIH could facilitate the recruitment of a sufficient number of graduate students and postdoctoral scholars to fulfill workforce needs by encouraging institutions to provide training applicable to a broader range of scientific careers. To this end, FASEB recommended the following changes to NIH training policies:
1) In evaluating the success of its training programs, NIH should consider how well trainees have been prepared for a broad range of scientific and science-related careers, not just a position as an NIH-funded investigator;
2) NIH should encourage grantee institutions to establish or expand career and professional development programs. These programs should be available to a large number of trainees and focus on the development of critical skills, including problem solving, teamwork, leadership, management, communication, professional conduct, and responsible conduct of research;
3) NIH should develop, or fund the development of materials that institutions could use in training programs, courses, and workshops aimed at cultivating these core competencies;
4) NIH should encourage its investigators to develop a plan for training and mentoring graduate students and postdoctoral scholars supported on their research grants. Ideally, these plans would address how trainees would acquire the scientific knowledge and technical skills relevant to their disciplines, as well as training in the competencies listed above;
5) NIH should encourage trainees to develop, in coordination with their research mentors, individual development plans in which they identify short- and long-term career goals and articulate a plan for meeting them;
6) NIH should continue to emphasize that postdoctoral scholars are trainees and should be provided with career and professional development training as well as instruction in research; and
7) NIH should issue guidance clarifying that trainees supported on research grants can devote effort to career and professional development activities that are not directly related to the stated goals of the grant on which they are supported.
In addition to the recommendations listed above, FASEB provided comments on the pros and cons of some of the policy changes under consideration including reducing the supply of trainees, creating more professional/staff scientists positions, and shifting trainees from research grants to training grants. FASEB strongly encouraged NIH to conduct a thorough study of the potential ramifications of these and any other major changes to the size and structure of the research workforce before deciding if they should be implemented.