Last week, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) announced how it plans to strengthen the biomedical research workforce in the United States during a meeting of its advisory committee.
Last year, NIH director Francis Collins charged the Advisory Committee to the Director (ACD) to recommend changes that would improve the country’s biomedical research training. The request came in response to falling success rates for NIH grants applications and increased competition for independent research positions at universities. In June 2012, the committee reported back to Collins, recommending that graduate programs should be shorter and that they should prepare students for a variety of research positions, not just those in academia.
To deal with increasingly lengthy training periods, the NIH believes that institutions should establish expected durations to complete biomedical PhDs. Full-time NIH support for this training period will be limited to five years, according to the new plans.
In addition, postdoc stipends and benefits will be increased to compete better with those offered in other scientific research disciplines. Also, the NIH plans to increase awards that encourage research independence early in the career, such as NIH Pathway to Independence Awards (K99/R00) and Early Independence Awards.
To better assess the state of the biomedical research workforce and to plan future training activities, the NIH will develop new systems to track all students and postdocs supported by NIH. The goal is to continue to follow the careers of graduate students and postdocs after they complete their training.
But one recommendation that the NIH is not implementing is a suggestion to put more students and postdocs on training grants. "It's very complicated to do that. We felt that, if we implemented the other pieces of the plan, we would accomplish the same goals," said Sally J. Rockey, NIH deputy director for extramural research and co-chair of the ACD working group.
While some parts of the initiatives can be implemented immediately—such as increased postdoc stipends and early career awards—others still need more investigation. For example, the development of a comprehensive tracking system for trainees requires coordinating with individual institutions, which will take time to arrange. "Part of our implementation is putting out requests for more information," said Rockey.