It’s GO time, disgruntle-docs and disgruntle-profs!

August 17, 2011

The NIH has put out a request for information (NOT-OD-11-106) to gain “Input into the Deliberations of the Advisory Committee to the NIH Director Working Group on the Future Biomedical Research Workforce“.
This blog, its readership and the corner of the blogosphere we inhabit has a slightly greater than passing interest in such matters. If you are not sure, here are a few areas of interest for this RFI:

  • The balance between supply, including the number of domestic and foreign trained PhDs and post-docs, and demand, i.e. post-training career opportunities.
  • Characteristics of PhD training in biomedical research, including issues such as
    • The length of the PhD training period.
    • Recommendations for changes to the PhD curriculum.
    • Training for multiple career paths (including bench and non-bench science).

  • Characteristics of clinician-research training including issues such as
    • The balance between MDs and MD/PhDs
    • Career development of clinician-researchers.
    • Recommendations for changes to the curricula for training clinician-researchers.

  • Length of Post-doctoral training.
  • The ratio of PhD students and postdoctoral fellows on training grants to those supported by research grants.
  • Possibilities for professional/staff scientist positions and the level of training required for such positions (e.g. PhD or MSc degrees).
  • Issues related to the attractiveness of biomedical research careers (e.g. salary, working conditions, availability of research funding)
  • The effect of changes in NIH policies on investigators, grantee institutions and the broader research enterprise.

I encourage you in the strongest possible terms to comment and let your opinion be heard. The last time there was a similar “how are we doing” type of RFI from the NIH that I got blogwood over, I seem to recall the number of comments was in the low thousands, 2,000 maybe? Compared to the number of individuals who are affected substantially by NIH extramural research policies this is tiny. This is your chance to have your representative voice punch far above your weight class folks. Avail yourselves of it.

I also encourage you to keep the whining to a minimum and to stick to reality. There are indeed serious problems with the NIH treatment of its extramural research force and there are any number of fixes that would improve lifestyle and productivity for many folks. My view is that using this comment period as an opportunity to restate the obvious, whine about over-personalized situations or create pie-in-the-sky fantasy castle solutions is a waste.
I’m not saying that you can’t go big. The NIH definitely needs to field some outside-the-box thinking on this. But give small and medium suggestions too. Things that can work within the existing structures as we know them.
My example of going medium is my oft-blogged approach to creating sustainable career scientist tracks for those who do not wish to, or cannot, become the current version of the NIH extramural lab head, aka, Principal Investigator.
As recognized by the bullet item in the RFI, there is a need to restructure the career path of individuals who are now “postdocs”, “research scientists”, “research associates” and a host of other terms describing non-faculty, doctoral level scientists. Some of these individuals may have even reached the non-tenure track faculty ranks. Heck, some of these individuals may have actually reached the tenure track ranks….but would really have preferred a different path to a reasonably stable career.
These people have contributed, continue to contribute and will contribute STRONGLY to the mission of the NIH. So make no mistake, this is not only about the interests of the scientists who are doing the work, it is also in the integral interests of the NIH.
My suggestion is to create a new K mechanism for exactly this purpose. The award would be salary support for a career scientist, renewable every 5 years and tied to an existing R01/equivalent award. Obviously this would require the person to be involved in some degree of grant writing, the very thing that some of the target class of scientists finds objectionable about the PI job. I see this as a small but necessary price.
The competitive renewal every 5 years would keep the scientist honest in the sense of productivity. I’d be happy to see the review criteria focus on production and usefulness to the parent grant(s) rather than expecting a creative, innovative or sexy research plan. (You might compare this with the way service Cores are written in the context of a BigMechanism such as a Center or a Program Project.)
The connection to existing R01/equivalent award(s) is necessary to my view since after all these are the main interest of the NIH. All the training mechanisms and infrastructure mechanisms are really devoted to supporting the cause of primary research behavior, right? This can be no different.
One key is that it should be easy to shop this career K around to other research groups at the University and even to projects at other Universities. The goal here is to keep this person and her career somewhat independent of any given PI. Independent of their fluctuations in funding and, most importantly, independent of the indentured-servant/Stockholm syndrome/learned helplessness stuff that occasionally contaminates the existing ad hoc relationships. This part may be a little tricky based on the original NIH Institute or Center that hosts the award but I’m sure there are ways around it. Put it in the Office of Director budget or something and if one IC is over/under burdened with these career K scientist awards, this could be adjusted in subsequent Fiscal Years to rebalance the workforce.
I call this a small-to-medium fix because it is nearly zero-sum. As we all know, these people already exist. They are already being funded by the NIH on a grant-by-grant basis. Just…unevenly. Sure, turning this into a career award may slightly improve the payscale and benefits. It might keep a few more older types (with escalating salaries) that would otherwise have been shelled out. But this is chump change. Especially if my hypothesis is correct that there are some individuals who seek (and obtain) research grants mostly because it is the only way to get the stability they desire and not because they really want to be PIs.
This is but one of the many important issues raised in the RFI. I’ve probably barely scratched the surface of the potential answers to this issue alone.
I encourage you to forward the RFI link to all of your science peeps. To put it up on Facebook, Google+ and your Twitter feed. Above all else, I encourage you to submit your own responses to the questions.
The NIH is listening.
You might also leave a comment at the Rock Talk blog of NIH’s head of the Office of Extramural Research.

11 Responses to “It’s GO time, disgruntle-docs and disgruntle-profs!”

  1. becca Says:

    Would you be willing to post exactly what you submit to the RFI up on your blog at some point? I’ve never responded to an RFI, and since the form is somewhat more elaborate/intimidating than a blog comment form, I’m not sure how to word my responses.
    Thanks for pointing us in this direction!


  2. seamonkey Says:

    I’m hoping that the NIH will take students’ comments seriously, especially considering post-doctoral education and beyond. I’m thoroughly uninterested in the current one lab/1 PI model, but I am not necessarily interested in being a non-tenured research scientist either. I’m a basic science PhD student who was brought into my current lab (a hospital based group) to expand their translational profile. There is an official program director (my PI), but other docs conducting research under the auspices of the whole group. Each has a number of R01s etc, but they share research assistants, resources, and ideas. I really like this model and I think it is highly effective, but I don’t see that the NIH really invests in or encourages this type of “co-PI” structure under the current funding system. But that’s from my non-PI grant writing viewpoint.


  3. DrugMonkey Says:

    becca, I don’t think I would do this for reasons that should be fairly obvious to you…


  4. mat Says:

    I think the notion that the NIH should bother itself with the criteria for PhD, doctoral studies, advancement, etc is absolutely wrong headed. This is still best left in the hands of individual Universities and graduate programs.


  5. arrzey Says:

    Sorry to disagree, but as long as they are funding these positions through F & T mechanisms, and evaluating how programs train, then it is critical that they hear what those programs think is important.


  6. neuromusic Says:

    I’m with @arrzey
    These are questions of how to best appropriate and manage federal tax dollars to support the goals of the nation wrt biomedical science. And if they are funding grad students, then they should have a way to ensure that that money is well spent.
    … but I guess this is your chance to tell the NIH they should stay away from defining criteria for such things.


  7. becca Says:

    DM- D’OH. Yeah. Sorry. Is there a non-psudeononymous person who would be willing to post their comments? Anyone? Bueller?
    As far as my wish list… outcomes recording, first and foremost. That enables actual *research* on whether NIH policies are changing anything. I wanna know who leaves PhD programs and postdoctoral positions, at what stage, and what they go on to do. By “who” I most especially mean what gender/race/SES we are selecting.
    We need that data yesterday to tell us what problems are systemic.
    The K award idea is good, but I’d extend it even earlier in the career process. NSF funds graduate students on portable fellowships, why doesn’t NIH?


  8. iGrrrl Says:

    becca. In my experience, there are a lot of NSF-funded disciplines in which grad students can do work that does not need the infrastructure required for most biomedicine.
    DM, I like the new kind of K idea as a way to fund the people who don’t want to be PIs. Some people like working at the bench and are good at it, and don’t want to be the PI. It could be argued that the salary should be on the main PI’s grant, if the work the K awardee would contribute is necessary to the project. I was at “WGU” to give a seminar to post-docs, and more than a few of them had been in their post-doctoral positions for over 8 years (15 in one case). They were being pushed to get independent funding, but most didn’t have independent projects. This could be an interesting solution.


  9. DrugMonkey Says:

    It could be argued that the salary should be on the main PI’s grant, if the work the K awardee would contribute is necessary to the project.
    This is not necessary for F31/F32/T32, or for that matter those schweet K05 dealios. And NIH money is in some senses fungible…it should all be the same to them (with the caveat about navigating IC interests that I mentioned).


  10. DrLizzyMoore Says:

    Commenting on the RFI is officially on my to do list. As a n00b PI, this is not only important to my personal situation but to any student or post-doc that I mentor. After the importance of writing solid grants-that part of my job is the most important. I long for a world in which ‘non-traditional’ scientists are still just scientists….


  11. Tom Says:

    We want feedback from disgruntled as well as non-disgruntled. In the name of performing unbiased research and achieving objective feedback to submit to the NIH, we need to know both sides of the coin. What areas can be improved, but also, which areas are working very well?
    “Training for multiple career paths” Yes! The PhD is not just about science. As we all know, the process trains people to think. I know many businesses (science & non-science) who can use “thinkers” to solve problems and improve inefficient processes. This is an area I’m working to improve. Thanks for this notice of the RFI!


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