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Research Program Management: Helping Scientists and Facilitating Research as an NIH Scientist-Administrator


Sue Shafer began her 25-year career at the National Institutes of Health as a scientific program director. Having served as deputy director of the National Institute of General Medical Sciences, she has now moved to science administration in a university setting. This article is based on a column she wrote for the April 1999 newsletter of the American Society for Cell Biology.

There has never a more exciting time to become a federal scientist-administrator. Science is thriving, and scientist-administrators are needed to shape research's future.

In fiscal year 2000, Congress gave the National Institutes of Health (NIH) a $2.2 billion dollar increase (14%), bringing its budget to $17.8 billion. The American people want their tax dollars invested in research that will better their future. Increasingly, basic research results lead to prevention strategies, treatments, medical devices, drugs, and vaccines.

These administrators help scientific advisors and patient advocacy groups define today's spending opportunities and determine tomorrow's priorities. They help answer questions and challenges facing the NIH today, such as:

  • How can we use the human genome sequence to fight disease?

  • How can we predict the different rates at which individuals metabolize drugs, and how can we optimize their treatments using this information?

  • What new scientific strategies are needed to develop effective vaccines?

  • How many new investigators should we train, and how can we train more clinicians to do research?

  • How can we bring more underrepresented minorities into science and into the patient populations in our clinical trials?

If you're interested in using your scientific training to help address these kinds of challenges, consider one of two career tracks within the National Institutes of Health. Scientist-administrators at NIH usually act as either Scientific Program Directors (SPDs) who manage institute grant portfolios, or Scientific Review Administrators (SRAs) who manage committees responsible for the scientific merit review of grant applications. Below, I draw on my 25 years of experience at NIH and the experiences of my friends and colleagues to describe what people in these positions do.

Scientific Program Directors act as liaisons between applicants and the NIH officials making funding decisions. They steer scientists to appropriate institutes and advise them as they prepare their applications. They hear the applications discussed at study sections. SPDs then read the critiques, advise applicants regarding chances of funding, and prepare for the advisory councils' meetings. Councils assure the reviews' fairness. SPDs discuss problematic and exceptional cases with councils. Finally, SPDs and their colleagues determine which applications are paid and at what level.

SPDs attend scientific meetings, read journals, and analyze progress reports to identify promising new scientific areas. SPDs also propose new programs and ideas to overcome research barriers or provide research infrastructure. After awards are made, SPDs monitor scientific progress and write lay language summaries or "highlights." For example, a "highlight" might describe the research that determined taxol's position within the detailed structure of tubulin, linking basic research to cancer treatment. Institute directors use stories like this to show the public and Congress the effectiveness of research.

One of the benefits of being an SPD is being able to take a big picture view of science. "Two things I like most about my job are the broad overview of science that I get, and the opportunity to learn new areas of science and see how they connect, says immunologist-turned-SPD Marion Zatz. She now oversees predoctoral research training grants and a cell biology grant program at the National Institute for General Medical Sciences. New SPD Laurie Tompkins came to NIH after working for18 years as a faculty member at a large university. "I wanted a broader view of the science I had neglected while focusing on my own narrow specialty and to do some good for the scientific community that I couldn't accomplish simply by running my own laboratory," she says. Now, Tompkins has more balls in the air on a typical day than she ever had in academia.

Another draw is the chance to make a difference in people's lives. "I like most working with people. Every day, grant holders and would-be grant holders call or e-mail me about interesting results or funding opportunities. They call to clarify rules and regulations, to express anxiety about the fate of their applications, or (on occasion) to vent. To my surprise, I find I use the same 'people skills' that I used in academia," says Tompkins. Zatz agrees: "I often tell people that I'm a social worker for scientists. I really enjoy the people part of the job and feeling that I'm helping applicants and grantees," she says.

Scientific Review Administrators (SRAs) manage initial scientific peer review, the heart of NIH's two-tiered review system. SRAs assemble review committees, assign reviewers to the specific applications, and educate them about review policies. SRAs ensure that confidentiality is maintained and conflicts of interest are avoided. Working closely with the chairs of the committees, SRAs preside at study section meetings, prepare summary statements reporting the results of each review, and attend council meetings to respond to review-related questions. SRAs also read applications and journals and attend scientific meetings to keep current and to identify future review committee members.

"My SRA position requires understanding science and the review process, maintaining good rapport with the scientific community, and communicating large volumes of scientific information," says new SRA Sally Amero. "Here, I really enjoy interacting with applicants and reviewers in my field and constantly assimilating new scientific ideas and cutting-edge developments. I also enjoy bringing together the right mix of reviewers and watching the group dynamics unfold in study section meetings."

Longtime SRA Ramesh Nayak, a molecular and cell biologist, views his 22-year career at NIH with gratification. "I like best interacting with the applicant and consultant communities and the NIH staff. I really enjoy attending scientific meetings where I can see how the science is progressing. Over the years I have organized five exciting scientific workshops--always great fun and rewarding to all participants."

Both SPDs and SRAs help develop and implement NIH policies. In partnership, they participate in "road shows" and mock study sections at universities and scientific meetings to inform investigators about NIH operations and scientific priorities and to give first-hand advice on preparing successful applications.

When I was hired some 26 years ago at NIH as an SPD, I had a Ph.D. in biology but little research or administrative experience. My former boss took a chance on me. NIH usually selects doctoral-level scientists who have had independent grant support looking to make a mid-career move. Applicants who want to be competitive usually need postdoctoral experience and progressive experience in managing a lab.

If you want to get in at an entry-level position, consider taking on as much administrative experience as you can in your current lab. NIH has a variety of other administrative positions, including program analyst, science policy analyst, or Medline indexer, in which you can combine your scientific background with other skills. Use the NIH home page to find people who do these jobs and talk to them about similar opportunities.

As the former deputy director of NIGMS, I listened to people all across the field who wanted to tell us what NIH should do if the president and Congress doubled the NIH budget by 2004. We wanted to leverage our funding to make sure science takes leaps and bounds forward. I was involved in supporting the development of new scientific techniques, such as the atomic resolution cryomicroscopy--which has now become a state-of-the-art tool. Scientists can make a difference at the bench, and they can also make a difference to a field of science as administrators. It's a wonderful thing to do.

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