Remember the task force? Well, the Executive Summary has been issued [PDF].

A few pullquotes of interest from the Recommendations:

NIH should create a program to supplement training grants through competitive review to allow institutions to provide additional training and career development experiences to equip students for various career options, and test ways to shorten the PhD training period. The best practices resulting from this program will help shape graduate programs across the country. The working group felt that including diverse types of training (e.g. project management and business entrepreneurship skills needed in the pharmaceutical and biotechnology industries, or teaching experiences needed for a successful faculty position in liberal arts colleges) would be particularly valuable for those who go on to conduct NIH-funded research as well as benefit those students who do not follow the academic research career track.

Shorter: Alternate Careers, duh! But they expect training programs to “partner” with business, private foundations and SBIR awardees…. yeah, without putting the money into training grants for this it is very unlikely to happen.

To encourage timely completion of graduate degrees, NIH should cap the number of years a graduate student can be supported by NIH funds (any combination of training grants, fellowships, and research project grants), with an institutional average of 5 years and no one individual allowed to receive support for more than 6 years.

Emphasis added. This addition is huge, if you ask me. It makes it seem pretty serious. I like this. I’m not a fan, at all, of extended graduate training. I am not a fan, at all, of putting publication requirements of any sort in place as the barrier to the PhD. This focus on timeline is the right way to go about it.

To ensure that all graduate students supported by the NIH receive excellent training, NIH should increase the proportion of graduate students supported by training grants and fellowships compared to those supported by research project grants, without increasing the overall number of graduate student positions.


To ensure that all postdoctoral fellows supported by the NIH receive excellent training and mentoring, NIH should increase the proportion of postdoctoral researchers supported by training grants and fellowships and reduce the number supported by research project grants, without increasing the overall number of postdoctoral researchers.

Some yahoo on the Twitts seemed to think that I would be dismayed by something in this report, perhaps the salary increases. If you remember comments made by PP about increases to trainee salaries you will likewise recall that his objection that these increases came in the context of a static full-modular grant limit of $250K/year, a fixed year-to-year escalation clause for traditional budget grants of about 3% and the tendency of Program to cut budgets by a module or two in any case. Salary increases put massive pressure on research grants. This plan to shift more of the postdocs currently supported by the NIH from research project grants to training grants has excellent potential to first, manage the salaries and benefits better and second to disconnect those issues from the grant budgets. There is even some potential that PIs would need fewer grants, be able to use them more flexibly (salaries are entirely inflexible save for firing people) and therefore worry less about churning out the applications.
So I love this proposal. Question is, will they look at a department like mine, assess how many trainees have been supported by research grants over time and just hand out that many slots in new TG awards? Second question is, how in the hell are they going to enforce the “without increasing the overall number of….” part? They could, I suppose, take a look at the budget justification of all the research awards in the department, subtract out these new training grant slots and then tell people they cannot put any more trainees on the research grants. maybe.

NIH should revise the peer review criteria for training grants to include consideration of outcomes of all students in the relevant PhD programs at those institutions, not only those supported by the training grant. Study sections reviewing graduate training programs should be educated to value a range of career outcomes. This recommendation could be phased in relatively quickly.

Sure it could. Easy to get the study sections on board with new initiatives is it NIH? How’s that “Innovation” coming along? How are you doing in getting R21s reviewed appropriately? What about ESI applications? Are you still having to pick them up with expanded paylines or are the study sections returning appropriate scores? HAHAHHAHAHAAHA!!!!!!
The first part is good though, you can force applicants to some up with new analyses, sure. Although verification will be a nightmare. The way this is done now is mostly as added-value. That is, departments / TG groups are motivated to include all the trainees not supported by the TG itself that make the group look good. There is no requirement to mention the trainees who didn’t work out, failed, went on to shame as data fakers or anything else at all. So far as I know anyway.

NIH-supported postdoctoral fellows need to be adjusted … index the starting stipend according to the Consumer Price Index (CPI-U) thereafter.

Sounds great…but see above. If they are going to also index research project grants to the CPI-U then no problemo. Increase my budget (even in the noncompeting years) by the amount you are requiring me to increase my postdocs’ salaries / benefits and we have no problem.

The large jump between years 3 and 4 is meant to emphasize a transition from postdoctoral training to research production, and to incentivize PIs to move fellows to more permanent positions.

Yeah….that’s going to work out really swell. What this incentivizes is pushing experienced postdocs along after three years and scooping up noob ones. There is no “move fellows to permanent positions” being facilitated here. Especially since they dropped the ball on superannuated postdocs/staff scientists:

The working group encourages NIH study sections to be receptive to grant applications that include staff scientists and urges institutions to create position categories that reflect the value and stature of these researchers.

That’s it. After identifying the problem of sub-PI level scientists and their lack of permanent homes in the system, such as it is. This is what they come up with. FFS, I even laid out the solution for you blockheads! Look, many of these people do not WANT to be in the grant-getting rat race. They just want to do science and to let someone else worry about the details. And how are institutions supposed to “create position categories” when just one section later the report is lambasting the soft-money system? It’s like they are being intentionally obtuse here. Where are the fantasy dollars supposed to come from?

Combined with the emphasis on making a salary jump to discourage keeping 7 yr+ postdocs around, this is not good. At all.