Washington Update

FASEB’s Comments to New NIH Division Director Support Trainees

By: Jacqueline Robinson-Hamm
Wednesday, August 10, 2022
On August 4, FASEB sent comments to the new National Institutes of Health (NIH) Director of the Division of Biomedical Research Workforce, Ericka Boone, PhD. In its comments, FASEB congratulated Boone on the appointment and identified priority areas to promote safe and inclusive environments and attract and retain a diverse biomedical research workforce. Many recommendations FASEB stated repeat and expand on prior NIH Working Group priorities—notably recommendations from the 2018 Next Generation Researchers Initiative Working Group Report, 2012 Biomedical Research Workforce Working Group Report, and 2014 Physician-Scientist Workforce Working Group Report that have yet to be implemented.

First, FASEB recommended NIH issue several workforce-related requests for information to better understand problems underlying quantitative data that show disparities for women, racial and ethnic minorities, and persons with one or more disabilities with a doctorate. One noteworthy concern is disparities in graduate debt accumulated by gender, race, and ethnicity. Women accumulate more graduate debt than men, and Black or African American doctorate recipients graduate with three times the amount of graduate debt as their white counterparts.

In addition to collecting qualitative information on barriers faced by trainees, FASEB recommended NIH create a hub of accessibility resources useful in research environments. Like the U.S. Department of Defense’s Computer/Electronic Accommodations Program, NIH can act in a similar capacity for biomedical researchers who would benefit from improved accessibility in their work environments. While research advisors are generally supportive and willing to help, many do not know where to start. As the primary funding agency for biomedical research, NIH is optimally suited to act as a conduit for successfully supporting scientists with one or more disabilities by collecting and distributing information about useful tools and resources.

Debt is inextricably linked to salary and stipend level, and other financial considerations, such as availability of benefits, are also key factors. Currently, there is a lack of data available on doctoral students, postdoctoral associates, and clinician-scientists in training supported by research grants. FASEB recommended that NIH RePORTER be updated to increase usability to evaluate these populations. Additionally, FASEB urged NIH to reevaluate the current Ruth L. Kirschstein National Research Service Award (NRSA) predoctoral stipend level, and adjust policies to enable all NIH-supported postdoctoral scientists to have access to benefits that are comparable to other employees at their institution regardless of funding source. Also, to help protect against any scientist being vastly underpaid, FASEB encouraged NIH to explore the possibility of setting a minimum stipend level for trainees being paid from research grants.

Finally, FASEB made several recommendations pertaining to research mentors and grant review. Much attention has been paid to research mentors on training grants and fellowships, yet there is little focus on research advisors with trainees being paid from research project grant dollars. FASEB suggested NIH expand mentor and bias training requirements to all research advisors with NIH funding that has any percent efforts from trainees in the laboratory, rather than only those with training grant and fellowship support. As supportive environments continue to grow, it is also pertinent that NIH clearly values all career paths for trainees. Therefore, FASEB repeated a prior recommendation from the Biomedical Research Workforce Working Group to change the definition of “success” in the evaluation of training grants to not only consider typical academic research career outcomes.

Overall, FASEB is excited to see Boone and NIH usher in a new era of implementing trainee-focused recommendations. These efforts will help foster safe and inclusive environments and support the next generation of diverse and highly skilled biomedical researchers.