The NIH's Action Plan

The National Institutes of Health has proposed new programs with implications for graduate students and postdoctoral researchers in the sciences.

December 10, 2012

WASHINGTON — A set of new initiatives put forward in further detail Friday by the National Institutes of Health could have far-reaching implications for faculty members, graduate students and postdoctoral researchers conducting biomedical research.

The plans, first proposed in June by three working groups, are intended to strengthen and shape the biomedical research work force in the coming decades, focusing especially on diversity issues and on training for rising postdoctoral researchers and graduate students.

Many details of how the goals would be pursued are still unclear, although the NIH on Friday approved a rough implementation plan. The plans, likely to be enforced through grant guidelines, will encourage institutions to adopt individual development plans for all research trainees, and require them to track outcomes for all research trainees, from undergraduates through postdoctoral researchers. They would also create a new grant program for innovative approaches to research training, increase stipends for postdoctoral students, and provide more funding for grants to encourage research independence sooner.

The NIH also called for the creation of a “bold, yet necessary” competitive grant program to give additional resources and infrastructure to colleges educating underrepresented minorities in the sciences.

The guidelines could have a major impact on how graduate students in the sciences are trained and mentored, because most of those students are supported at least in part by grants from the NIH. The working group on the future of the biomedical research work force called on institutions to better prepare students for careers outside the academy, noting that while employment over all is good for Ph.D. recipients in the biomedical sciences, most of those graduates are employed in nonacademic positions. The NIH plan also called for a slow reduction over time of salary support for faculty members in NIH grants, shifting that money to other priorities.

The working group on diversity was formed in the wake of a NIH report  that found black applicants were significantly less likely than white researchers to have grants funded by the NIH, and that the proportion of black researchers applying for grants was “dramatically” lower than might be expected based on national demographics alone. Many of the diversity recommendations are aimed at creating a stronger pipeline of minority students, from elementary and secondary education through undergraduate and graduate studies, including additional mentoring.

The working group also recommended that the NIH form a committee to look into implicit or explicit bias in the institutes’ peer review process, and that it conduct a pilot program in completely anonymizing grant applications, removing both the researchers’ names and that of their institution.

A third working group, on data and informatics, called for a better framework for data-sharing and for more money for fellowships and training for quantitative experts.

In its report, the working group noted that many of these ideas are not new — they had been proposed in the past but failed for lack of funding from the NIH. Whether this time will be different is still unclear. Many of the proposals call for significant new spending, and while the NIH has been shielded more than some other domestic discretionary programs from the budget cuts of recent years, any new funding could be an uphill battle. If Congress does not reach a deal on long-term deficit reduction by the end of the year, the NIH will face a budget cut of 8.2 percent.

The implementation plan approved Friday is the second step in a long process, said Carrie Wolinetz, associate vice president for federal relations at the Association for American Universities.

“It’s very much the framework of an implementation plan without the details, and the devil will be in the details,” Wolinetz said. The tracking and mentoring requirements, such as requiring an individual development plan for all researchers, could be either helpful or burdensome, depending on how they are implemented, she said.

More specific ideas are likely to emerge as the NIH begins its next step, issuing requests for information from the biomedical research community, expected early next year.


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