Career Transitions - Panel Throws Lifeline to Struggling Postdocs

Reposted with permission from Science News, 25 March 2005

For years, postdoctoral scholars have complained that they receive too little help in making the crucial transition from trainee to independent investigator. Last week a new report by the National Academies suggested shoring up that support in ways that might benefit the entire biomedical community.

The report, from a panel chaired by Howard Hughes Medical Institute president Thomas Cech, asks the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to create individual awards and training grants for postdocs that would make them less dependent on their principal investigators. It recommends allowing foreign postdocs to apply for training awards that are currently open only to U.S. citizens and permanent residents. And it suggests limiting the length of postdoctoral training to 5 years, regardless of a postdoc's source of funding.

The cost of implementing these recommendations could strain an NIH budget that is no longer growing rapidly. But NIH Director Elias Zerhouni seems willing to give them a try. "There's no wrong time to do the right thing," he says.

Melting pot. A new report says that foreign-born postdocs, a rising share of the pool, should also be eligible for the NRSA program.

One recommendation that's already under consideration by NIH is to create starter grants for investigators who have a research idea but no preliminary findings to include in their proposal ( Science , 25 June 2004, p. 1891). Such applications would be reviewed separately from the typical proposals, called R01s, submitted by established investigators. Another recommendation, also without a price tag, would require senior grant applicants to provide a detailed plan for mentoring their postdocs. That change would force "investigators to think about the careers of young researchers in their laboratory instead of just using them as scientific labor," says Cech.

Two of the panel's recommendations--waiving the citizenship requirement for the National Research Service Awards (NRSA) and other postdoctoral training awards, and shifting money from R01s into career development awards--could face significant opposition. "Making federal support available to those who are not U.S. citizens or permanent residents can be controversial," the report says about the NRSA program. "But ... those who would receive such training awards are likely already supported on research grants and are critical to advances in U.S. biomedical research." One panelist who requested anonymity noted that a 1998 academies report also called for tapping the R01 pot to fund early-career grants. "It didn't go anywhere," she says.

Zerhouni praised other recommendations in the report as being consistent with his belief that NIH should be doing more to nurture the creativity of young scientists. One would expand a small program at several institutes by setting up 200 agencywide career transition awards each worth $500,000. Another would award renewable R01-like grants, with a cap of $100,000 in indirect costs, to university researchers not on the tenure track.

Offering independent awards to investigators early in their careers, he says, sends the message that NIH wants them to "show us what you can do." The goal, he adds, is to avoid a situation in which a young scientist regrets not having the chance to demonstrate that "I coulda been a contender."

Next Wave Editor Jim Austin's gives his take on the National Academies report in the Careers in Science Web log.

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