Big Hopes, Small Changes for Biomedical Training

CREDIT: Wikimedia Commons/UC Davis College of Engineering

In 1998, Shirley Tilghman—then a molecular biology professor at Princeton University and now Princeton's outgoing president—chaired a National Research Council committee that was charged with examining trends in the early careers of life scientists. That committee made several bold policy recommendations to the National Institutes of Health (NIH) that, if implemented, would have dramatically reshaped life-science training in the United States. Few of them were implemented.

Over the past year, Tilghman has pushed many of the same recommendations as chair of NIH's Biomedical Research Workforce Working Group; the committee's recommendations were conveyed to NIH's Advisory Committee to the Director (ACD) in June. Last week, NIH responded, outlining the steps the agency intends to take to implement the working group's recommendations. While the NIH administration expressed its agreement with the working group's goals—a big change from 14 years ago—most of the proposals were implemented as only recommendations. Furthermore, the most radical proposal, to support a larger proportion of NIH trainees on training grants, was set aside. The "response of the implementation team to these recommendations was more than I was expecting," Tilghman said, but she also noted that NIH's implementation may lack the force needed to bring about real change.

"Without the financial pressure to get people through in an expeditious length of time, we will be looking at data that looks just like this [current report's] 10 and 20 years from now." —Shirley Tilghman

CREDIT: Denise Applewhite, Princeton University
Shirley Tilghman

The working group's report highlighted several dispiriting trends, most of them echoing the 1998 report. First, the number of graduate students and postdocs supported by fellowships has remained essentially constant over the past 30 years as the number supported on research grants increased rapidly. The result: Graduate students and postdocs are increasingly viewed by their principal investigators as "worker bees" rather than trainees, Tilghman said at the June meeting.

Second, biomedical scientists are considerably older than their peers in similar fields by the time they acquire a permanent academic position—in the increasingly rare event that they acquire one at all. The average chemist, for example, finishes postdoctoral work and takes a permanent job at about age 33, said NIH Deputy Director for Extramural Research Sally Rockey, who was on the working group and headed the NIH task force charged with implementing the recommendations, at last week's meeting; biomedical scientists, on average, are about 6 years older than chemists when they attain a tenure-track faculty post.

Finally, the report noted that most biomedical graduate programs and postdocs in the United States do little to prepare biomedical scientists for careers outside of academia even though considerably fewer than half (43%) wind up in academic research or teaching and fewer than a quarter (23%) wind up tenured.

Tilghman, Rockey, and the others in the working group laid out several recommendations aimed at shortening and diversifying doctoral programs and postdoc positions, increasing the proportion of trainees supported by training grants and fellowships instead of research grants, collecting more data on career outcomes, improving postdoc salaries, and promoting the staff scientist career path. After the June meeting, ACD formed an implementation team, headed by Rockey, to decide which recommendations to implement, and how to do it.

Courtesy of NIH
Sally Rockey

During last week's meeting, Rockey said that, in response to the working group's recommendations, NIH will be:

  • Establishing a new grant program to fund innovative approaches to training graduate students and postdocs that would provide more exposure to nonacademic careers
  • Requiring institutions to ensure that all graduate students and postdocs supported by NIH funding—including those on research grants—have an individual development plan, such as the one offered by Science Careers
  • Encouraging—but not requiring—institutions to establish and publish "anticipated durations of graduate study for doctoral programs"
  • Encouraging—but not requiring—NIH institutes and programs to support doctoral study for a maximum duration of 5 years, with extra time permitted in special circumstances
  • Boosting postdoc salaries from $39,000 to $42,000 and encouraging—but not requiring—institutions to assemble a standard, minimum benefits package
  • Increasing the number and success rate of awards designed to promote earlier career independence, e.g., by gradually raising the success rate of K99/R00 "kangaroo" awards to 30% (it was 22% in 2011) and increasing the number of Early Independence Awards from 10 to 15
  • Developing a comprehensive system to track career outcomes for students and postdocs who receive NIH funding using persistent researcher IDs, such as ORCID
  • Tweaking the directive to study sections to eliminate bias against proposals that fund staff scientists

After Rockey's presentation, Tilghman remarked that although she was pleased that ACD seriously considered her report's recommendations, she "can't help but go back to [her] cynicism" about some of the language used in the implementation plans—specifically, the occurrence of words like "encourage" and "recommend." For example, she pointed to the implementation team's plan to encourage institutions to track and report the career outcomes for their students and postdocs. "This is a recommendation that's been made by every single committee, and always using the word 'encourage,' " she said. "It has been made for about 20 years and we know what the consequences of that [are]. … Unless you have a stick, this won't happen."

Courtesy of NIH
Francis Collins

Similarly, Tilghman said that a mere recommendation to limit graduate student funding to 5 years is unlikely to have much effect. "Without the financial pressure to get people through in an expeditious length of time, we will be looking at data that looks just like this [current report's] 10 and 20 years from now," she said.

Judith Bond, president of the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology, believes that NIH's "softer" approach is appropriate. "Anything that requires new money is problematic if we come up against a difficult budget," she says.

Rockey and NIH Director Francis Collins questioned whether NIH even has the legal standing to require institutions to track their students' careers, or to publish anticipated durations for doctoral students. But, Tilghman told Science Careers, "Without having it be required, I don't think it will happen."

The recommendation that NIH chose not to implement was the most dramatic. "To ensure that all graduate students supported by the NIH receive excellent training," the working group wrote, echoing language from Tilghman's 1998 report, "NIH should increase the proportion of graduate students supported by training grants and fellowships compared with those supported by research project grants, without increasing the overall number of graduate student positions." A similar recommendation was made for postdocs. The main rationale for such a change would be to place more trainees in an environment where the quality of training—and not research productivity—is paramount.

Courtesy of Georgia State University
Paula Stephan

But there's another rationale, suggested by the recommendation's final phrase: giving NIH more control over the number of scientists it trains. Paula Stephan, an economist at Georgia State University in Atlanta and a member of the current report's modeling subcommittee (Stephan was also a member of that 1998 NRC committee), writes to Science Careers in an e-mail that it's "disappointing to see that NIH did not figure out a way to shift more funds into training grants and fellowships and away from research assistantship stipends" or "implement any requirement for limiting the amount of salary that can be written off of grants—something that could dampen the demand for graduate students."

At last week's meeting, Rockey told Science Careers that implementation of this idea was doomed by opposition to the idea by some members of ACD and by worries over the complexity of implementation. She expressed hope that many of the goals of that proposal could be accomplished in other ways. "The reason we proposed putting them on training grants is because they have a really rich experience when they're on training grants," she said. "So we're enriching the entire experience even for those on research grants, so it's accomplishing the same goal without having to mechanically do it."

Tilghman, though, told Science Careers that she believes this change is necessary if NIH is to improve training conditions for postdocs. "Sally is right that it would take a sea change in policy at the NIH" to gradually shift money "from R01s to training grants," Tilghman writes in an e-mail that emphasizes the importance of making the shift gradual. "But I continue to think it is the right policy for the NIH, and the sooner you get started, the better."

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