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New medical research bill aims to help early-career scientists

Among the nearly 1000 pages of the 21st Century Cures Act—approved by the House of Representatives last Wednesday and being considered in the Senate today (Update, Dec. 8: The Senate approved the bill)—is a section focused on what the National Institutes of Health (NIH) should do to encourage earlier independence and improve opportunities for junior biomedical researchers. Although various programs to address the problems plaguing early-career biomedical researchers are already underway, including some through NIH, the legislation tells junior scientists that lawmakers have heard their concerns and want to take part in the effort to bring about change.

“Our best and brightest minds deserve to know that our country stands with them,” Senator Tammy Baldwin (D-WI), who originated the portion of the bill dedicated to research training, wrote in an email to Science Careers. The legislation “gives more national attention and focus to working on this issue,” says Jodi Yellen, director of science policy at the Association of American Medical Colleges, and reinforces the direction that NIH and the research community have been going in supporting the next generation of researchers. “I think it can only help with the NIH moving forward.” 

The legislation authorizes NIH to establish a “Next Generation of Researchers Initiative” within the NIH Office of the Director to develop and coordinate policies and programs related to new researchers and earlier independence, such as funding opportunities, training and mentorship programs, and policies to enhance workforce diversity. The bill directs NIH to help collect data on the biomedical research workforce to inform training, recruitment, and retention programs. The legislation also calls for NIH to consider the forthcoming results of a National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine study into career barriers for junior biomedical researchers, though this study is not set to begin until January 2017 and is planned to take 18 months to complete. These provisions come from an act that Baldwin, whose grandfather was an NIH-funded scientist at the University of Wisconsin (UW) in Madison, first introduced to the Senate in September 2013. Versions of the act were also later championed by Representative Mark Pocan (D-WI)—who represents the district that includes UW Madison—and Senator Susan Collins (R-ME). (Baldwin and Collins worked to get funding for the National Academies study as well.)

NIH, though, is already doing much of what is described in the bill, notes Howard Garrison, a policy expert at the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology. In 2011, NIH awarded its first early independence grants to support graduate students transitioning directly to principal investigator positions; it established the Division of Biomedical Research Workforce Programs in 2015; and it has co-sponsored census surveys of graduate students, postdoctoral fellows, and Ph.D.-level nonfaculty researchers to investigate trends in biomedical training. Garrison says that NIH is already doing a good job and describes the bill as “benign.” Pocan agrees that NIH has taken steps to address biomedical training and career issues, and he says that the intent of the legislation is to encourage the development of additional new policies and opportunities.

The exact language in the bill appears to give NIH a lot of discretion over how it will coordinate these programs, which is good, notes Chris Pickett, director of Rescuing Biomedical Research. But, he adds, in terms of the legislation’s impact on emerging scientists, “it’s how the NIH would use the discretion that will be more telling than the passage of the bill.”