such as the NIH NRSA F31 mechanism, is this.

The announcement says the following about the purpose of the program (emphasis added).

The proposed predoctoral research training must offer an opportunity to enhance the fellow’s understanding of the health-related sciences and extend his/her potential for a productive, independent research career. The application should document the need for the proposed research training and the expected value of the proposed fellowship experience as it relates to the individual’s goals for a career as an independent researcher.

ok. And just how might we expect to find such an “opportunity”?

The sponsoring institution must have adequate faculty and facilities available to provide a suitable research environment for a high-quality research training experience. The proposed research training experience must enhance the applicant’s conceptualization of research problems and research skills. The sponsor should be an active investigator in the proposed area of research, and be committed both to the research training of the applicant and to the direct supervision of the applicant’s research. Applicants are encouraged to identify more than one mentor, i.e., a mentoring team, if this is deemed advantageous for providing expert advice in all aspects of the research and training program. In such cases, one individual must be identified as the principal sponsor who will oversee and coordinate the applicant’s research training program. The primary sponsor, or a member of the mentoring team, should have a successful track record in mentoring predoctoral students. The research training should occur in a research-intensive environment that has appropriate human and technical resources and is demonstrably committed to research training in the particular program proposed by the applicant.

In practice, this means a successful applicant needs to be already enrolled in a well-respected graduate program at a high-falutin research University. The primary mentor has to be a BigCheezDoodle scientist of international repute who has already mentored a swath of trainees who are currently occupying professorial jobs. The mentor’s laboratory had better be larded up with research funds and be pumping out the papers with regularity as well.

Ok, ok, so this is not an obligation…but it sure does help with reviewers if these kinds of elements are to be found in an F31 application.

But here’s my problem. If the applicant graduate student already has this available, the good training program and the awesome mentor…she. doesn’t. need. a. fellowship. to. provide. her. with. an. “opportunity”. She doesn’t need the fellowship to enhance her training much either. She’s in a strong training program with a strong mentor and kickingly productive laboratory.

All the fellowship does, is increase the number of worker bees trainees the BigCheezDoodle can have working in his laboratory. Basically, the fellowship for Grad Student Doe only benefits Grad Student Smith who the PI can now take into the lab because his proprietary slot on the Institutional training grant has now opened up or because it frees up a salary line on one of his five R01s!

So what would it look like if the NIH leaned more heavily on the idea of using F31 NRSA graduate student fellowships to provide opportunities that would be otherwise unavailable? This would mean a bias for primary mentors who were struggling, wouldn’t it? Mentors who didn’t have much in the way of research funding would surely be able to provide a better training environment if the grad student didn’t cost any money to the lab.

Extra points for applicants from poorly-funded graduate programs (no Institutional Training Grants!) so as to boost those programs upwards, right? This would have all the positive synergy benefits claimed in those Institutional Training Grant awards.

The obvious drawback, from where I sit, is that you churn out more trainees who have acquired training that is better…but still isn’t top flight. And I suppose that is the question. Are the F31s really just there to lard up the successful laboratories with yet more money so as to increase, on a population basis, the number of top flight training slots that are available? And all this “opportunity” for the specific applicant business is just window dressing?

Maybe they should scrap the Individual NRSAs in favor of more Institutional training grants, if this is the real goal.