Biomedical Balance

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) shouldn't encourage universities to churn out any more biomedical scientists--but it should strive for greater balance in how they are trained, a new National Academy of Sciences report recommends. Currently, the agency's National Research Service Award (NRSA) training program gives grants to universities to help roughly 7000 graduate students a year pursue multidisciplinary studies. Twice that number get NIH funds through grants to individual researchers, who then hire students to work on specific projects.

In the future, however, the proportion of students drawing money from each funding pot should be about equal, concludes Addressing the Nation's Changing Needs for Biomedical and Behavioral Scientists, the 11th report in a series that began in 1975. By gradually shifting funds from more focused assistantships to broader NRSAs, NIH can better train researchers able to bridge the gaps separating disciplines, says the report committee, led by medical professor Howard Hiatt of Harvard Medical School in Boston.

NIH officials generally agree with the goal and are considering guidelines that would "encourage" universities and investigators to fund more generalized training, says agency training officer Walter Schaffer. But in an unusual addendum to the report, psychologist John Kihlstrom of the University of California, Berkeley, warns that the behavioral sciences may get short shrift without further reforms. The panel, he says, did not fully consider "the actual and potential contributions that the behavioral and social sciences can make to health and health care."

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