Washington Update

NIH Advisory Committee Considers Next Generation Researchers Recommendations; Initiates Sexual Harassment Working Group

By: Yvette Seger
Thursday, December 20, 2018

Last week, the Advisory Committee to the Director (ACD) of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) convened to discuss topics of broad interest to the biological and biomedical research community. The wide-ranging agenda included consideration of the draft report and recommendations of the Next Generation Researchers Initiative (NGRI) Working Group, and updates on NIH’s efforts to address sexual harassment in both intramural and extramural communities.

Fostering the Next Generation of Researchers

The NGRI Working Group was established in June 2017 to assist the ACD in developing a trans-NIH policy to fulfill a 21st Century Cures Act mandate for promoting and providing opportunities for new researchers and earlier attainment of independent research careers. It supplements the portfolio of existing efforts to maintain a well-trained biomedical research workforce. The working group specifically focused on strategies to foster career progression through critical transitions; namely, earlier establishment of independent careers and grant renewals.

Organized into five themes, the draft recommendations examined all aspects of the research enterprise to identify opportunities for change. Many recommendations echoed those presented in prior reports issued by the ACD, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, and FASEB. One significant departure was the addition of “at risk” investigators to the NGRI policy – applicants with meritoriously scored applications who would not have major NIH research funding support if the application under review was not awarded.

Recommendations emphasized flexibility: expansion of funding mechanisms that do not require preliminary data; funding awarded applications from Early Stage Investigators (or ESIs, within 10 years of terminal degree) for at least five years; preserving ESI status after the first multi-Principal Investigator award; and continuing to work with NIH Institutes and Centers to prioritize funding of meritorious applications from ESIs and at-risk investigators.

Establishing a feasible plan for reducing reliance on grants to provide salary support – a recurring theme in workforce sustainability discussions – generated much discussion among working group members and the ACD. After receiving support from the ACD at the meeting, the report and recommendations will be shared with NIH leadership for development of an implementation plan.

Actions to Address Sexual Harassment

ACD members were updated on the status of intramural efforts to address sexual harassment across the NIH-supported community. Lawrence Tabak, DDS, PhD, NIH Principal Deputy Director, provided an overview of the agency’s recently launched anti-sexual harassment website, which includes internal tools and resources for NIH employees and awardee organizations. Hannah Valantine, MD, NIH Chief Officer for Scientific Workforce Diversity, outlined plans for an NIH workplace climate survey.

Due to launch in January, the survey will be administered to all 44,000 NIH employees, including fellows and contractors. It seeks to identify elements of NIH organizational climate associated with sexual harassment; determine impact of sexual harassment on career choices; and measure outcomes of sexual harassment on employees. NIH plans to pinpoint key areas for changes to policies and procedures while continuing to enhance employee resources.

Carrie Wolinetz, PhD, NIH Associate Director for Science Policy, closed the session by introducing a new ACD Working Group on Sexual Harassment. The group is charged with assessing NIH’s effectiveness in addressing sexual harassment allegations and disciplinary actions, and with recommending system-wide changes to prevent harassment and gender discrimination. This group will present preliminary findings and recommendations to the ACD by June 2019. The challenge is balancing short-term urgency with a framework that fosters long-term cultural change.