Washington Update

NIH Advisory Committee Discusses Draft Recommendations for Next Generation Researchers and Diversity

By: Yvette Seger
Thursday, June 28, 2018

Earlier this month, the Advisory Committee to the Director (ACD) of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) met to discuss a range of topics, including draft recommendations from the Next Generation Researchers Initiative (NGRI) Working Group, updates on the agency’s efforts to bolster harassment policies and procedures, and proposed recommendations from the Working Group on Diversity.

Jose Florez, MD, PhD, ACD member, and NGRI Working Group chair reviewed a series of draft recommendations to fulfill 21st Century Cures Act provisions charging the NIH Director to “develop, modify, or prioritize policies within NIH to promote opportunities for new researchers and earlier research independence.”

Established during the June 2017 ACD meeting, this working group has grappled with balancing a desire to provide early career researcher opportunities against sustaining existing research investments. Dr. Florez’s recommendations spanned five major themes, the most defined being the proposal to modify the definition of Early Stage Investigator (ESI).

In current NGRI policy, ESIs are defined as individuals within 10 years of completing their terminal degrees. Following input from stakeholders and various NIH Institutes and Centers (I/Cs), the working group proposed extending the timeframe to 12 to 15 years to better accommodate investigators who pursue clinical studies or experience training lapses.

The working group also proposed a means for identifying and supporting investigators “at risk” of having their research suspended due to lack of research support. In addition to clarifying the target population, the working group is trying to determine the optimal workforce and strategies for evaluating individual research contributions. Some of these efforts will build upon the findings of the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine report, “The Next Generation of Biomedical and Behavioral Sciences Researchers: Breaking Through.” A final report and recommendations will be developed for the ACD meeting in December.

Hannah Valantine, MD, NIH’s Chief Officer for Scientific Workforce Diversity, led a review of recommendations from the ACD Working Group on Diversity. They centered on the need for institutional change to foster a diverse and inclusive workforce and emphasized three areas:  funding opportunities, transparency and accountability, and outreach and engagement. Specific actionable steps include expanding existing diversity supplements, implementing a new faculty development institutional funding model to support underrepresented researchers in transitioning to independent research careers, and trans-NIH implementation of the successful Institutional Research and Academic Career Development Award (IRACDA) program.

Other recommendations focused on more representative leadership within NIH’s 27 I/Cs and enhanced tracking of diversity and inclusion outcomes, including a template for metrics and IC funding outcomes by race/ethnicity and gender. The working group also identified a need for a national conference focused on diversity and inclusion. This effort would actively engage both NIH leadership and academic leaders to ensure comprehensive programming.

ACD members and NIH leadership, including NIH Director Francis Collins, MD, PhD, lauded these recommendations and the working group’s efforts in this crucial area. Dr. Collins noted that he would work with NIH staff and I/C leaders to develop implementation strategies for ACD consideration.

Earlier this year, the National Science Foundation (NSF) announced plans to update grant award terms and conditions, requiring awardee organizations to report findings and/or determinations of harassment or assault involving NSF funded Principal Investigators (PIs) or Co-PIs. This sparked a broader discussion of harassment within the scientific community, culminating in the June 12 release of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) report, “Sexual Harassment of Women: Climate, Culture, and Consequences in Academic Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.”

Given these recent events, Larry Tabak, DDS, PhD, NIH Principal Deputy Director, gave an update on NIH’s perspective regarding sexual harassment in the extramural research community and steps being taken within the intramural community to prevent and address harassment in the NIH workplace.

Regarding the extramural community, Dr. Tabak noted that NIH grants are made to institutions rather than individuals; therefore the agency is dependent upon institutions for information regarding changes to a PI’s status that could affect grant performance, regardless of the reasons. A recent NIH Guide notice reiterated this policy.

Dr. Tabak also reviewed updates to agency programs, tools, and policies to prevent and address harassment at NIH. Spearheaded by a trans-NIH Anti-Harassment Steering Committee, these efforts include enhanced user-friendly resources that strengthen and centralize anti-harassment activities. In addition to streamlining reporting tools, the agency is updating existing policies and developing new ones as the steering committee deems necessary.

The next in-person ACD meeting is scheduled for December 13-14, 2018.