NIH taskforce recommends changes for training and sustaining the biomedical workforce

June 14, 2012

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.

No Responses Yet to “NIH taskforce recommends changes for training and sustaining the biomedical workforce”

  1. Pinko Punko Says:

    Unfortunately if students want to stand out to even be considered in top labs for post-docs, they need to bring the goods. The years at the end of training tend to be the most productive. Trimming those years doesn’t necessarily do a lot of good. Anecdata from my graduate cohort: high productivity out of the last year, time to degrees between 5.5 and 6.5 years. When asked by training grant site reviewers on why I was not going to graduate with one nice paper my response was I have two more that I want to finish. Since budgets are being cut left and right, supporting these individuals as post-docs (while at a more fair and correct wage) means there will be fewer people supported. I guess the end around is to have students graduate and continue to be supported as post-docs. But of course we need a system that can afford to support senior research scientists that do research as you have alluded to many times.


  2. Dave Says:

    Noise, noise and more fucken noise from the NIH toolbags. Some real gems in there though. I thought it was screenplay for a new comedy when I read some of them. Some of the highlights for me:

    “….adjust its own policies so that all NIH-supported postdoctoral researchers on any form of support (training grants, fellowships or research project grants) receive benefits that are comparable to other employees at the institution…”

    This is so lofty in ambition that it is ridiculous. Why is is that janitors get benefits and post-docs don’t? The NIH cannot fix this in the same way that they cannot really do anything about post-doc salaries. It is not really an NIH problem, it is much more an institution problem.

    “To encourage larger numbers of PhD graduates to move rapidly into permanent research positions, NIH should double the number of Pathway to Independence (K99/R00) awards, and shorten the eligibility period for applying to this program from the 5 years to 3 years of postdoctoral experience”

    This is the complete opposite of what they should do. As long as you are a post-doc, fully dependent on others for salary and space, and cannot write a faculty-level grant, you should be eligible for a K99. This policy will just hang more post-docs out to dry in my opinion as many are not ready to submit these grants until the 4th or 5th year. Also, where is the money coming from for this doubling? These are expensive grants. What would that do to R01s and other K’s?

    “NIH also should double the number of the NIH Director’s Early Independence awards to facilitate the “skip-the-postdoc” career path for those who are ready immediately after graduate school”

    I just don’t get this. What is the rationale? Where is the money? Perhaps they haven’t seen the Presidents 2013 budget.

    And, my favorite:

    “The working group believes that institutions should provide some fraction of salary support for their researchers in order to qualify for NIH funding”

    Oh, do they? Well that is very nice of you, Mr Working Group. How does 1% grab you? I really appreciate your concern NIH, but there is NO FUCKEN WAY THIS IS HAPPENING in any significant way. Again, where does the money come from? Who pays?

    What a waste of fucken space these guys are sometimes.


  3. whimple Says:

    Well it’s more fun with dates all over again:
    The NIH has had these problems for a very long time, they are built in and can’t be fixed, everything the NIH has tried has failed, but they keep on trying. Bless their sweet little hearts!


  4. physioprof Says:

    permanent research positions

    And what the fucken fucke are these permanent research positions supposed to be, and who the fucken fucke is supposed to pay the salaries? I swear these motherfuckers are putting this shitte out there as a motherfucken reductio ad absurdum.


  5. DJMH Says:

    I think the plan to hustle students through grad programs faster, and incentivize shorter postdocs, is awesome! I particularly like the part that incentivizes boomer deadwood to retire by age 62 to free up the faculty slots that us young kids will be tak….wait, what?


  6. Joe Says:

    This 6yr limit on payment from NIH funds for grad students will be a problem for some students and in some fields. I only have NIH funds. If I have a 6th year student that needs to stay another 6mos. to satisfy the thesis committee, what am I supposed to do? You could say that I and the thesis committee would have kept the limit in mind all along, but I am not sure that works. Some students bloom late in their grad studies. Nearly all of my students graduate in 5 to 5.5 yrs, but some went as far as 6.5 and could not have graduated earlier.


  7. whimple Says:

    @Joe, obviously, you just graduate them out before they hit the limit. We’ve been doing this with the PhD portion of MD/PhD programs for years.


  8. Grumble Says:

    “And what the fucken fucke are these permanent research positions supposed to be, and who the fucken fucke is supposed to pay the salaries?”

    Most (all?) research institutions already have some sort of non-tenure-track research associate position. Isn’t the idea that these would become permanent, or more permanent, positions? Who the fucken fucke pays their salaries now? Well, sometimes they write R01s, which often don’t do well because the “environment” isn’t superior (a corner of some bigwig’s lab) and for other reasons. Or they get paid by said bigwig’s grant. It would be easier for them if there were a dedicated grant mechanism to get these people paid.

    Seems to me this would move us towards a more European system, where a few bigwigs are in charge of enormous labs full off asst prof and research scientist types — but without the “low but steady” funding stability that comes with that system.


  9. Grumble Says:

    “If I have a 6th year student that needs to stay another 6mos. to satisfy the thesis committee, what am I supposed to do?”

    Well, what happens in this case if your grant runs out? Doesn’t the college take over the student’s stipend and even some research expenses if needed?


  10. Joe Says:

    @Grumble “Well, what happens in this case if your grant runs out? Doesn’t the college take over the student’s stipend and even some research expenses if needed?”

    It is not the college, but the department that pays the unfunded student, and the dept is none too happy about it. There is a ghost-book listing how much you owe the dept for this offense. So I think what would happen is that students would graduate before they should, i.e., the committee would feel pressured to pass the student even though all the work was not done. Alternatively, students might leave without the Ph.D. because there was no way they could be paid to continue their project and no other money to pay them.


  11. drugmonkey Says:

    If you can’t get grad students out in 5 years, ave, then your program needs to re-evaluate its exploit/train ratio.


  12. Grumble Says:

    “Alternatively, students might leave without the Ph.D. because there was no way they could be paid to continue their project and no other money to pay them.”

    Once prospective students start hearing that this happens, you can then watch them stay away from your school in droves.

    “If you can’t get grad students out in 5 years, ave, then your program needs to re-evaluate its exploit/train ratio.”

    You are forgetting one thing. The brain is fucking complicated. In fact, I have a suspicion that it’s more complicated than, say, the liver. Sometimes it takes complicated experiments to understand part of it. Sometimes those experiments require that the student employ several techniques (two or more each of behavior, pharmacology, anatomy, electrophysiology, molecular biology, modeling, etc). Learning more than one category of technique is not only great for the project, but for the STUDENT. And getting a project like this done in less than 5 years is typically not going to happen.


  13. zb Says:

    “If you can’t get grad students out in 5 years, ave, then your program needs to re-evaluate its exploit/train ratio.”

    This could be one explanation, but I’ve also seen another, graduate programs that don’t push people to do the Ph.D. work in the fastest possible way to get to the end of the road (i.e. allow time off research teach a community college course, or volunteer at the student outreach, or to have/care for children, . . . .). The family leave could be addressed with a family leave clock stop (well, kind of), but the other things can’t.

    Time limits would ramp up requirements to be in the lab, work on research all the time, or produce PhD’s who haven’t done anything important enough to make them at all viable to do research on their own. Even if you don’t have a publication requirement (on the grounds that publications have a lot of politics), pressuring people to be done in 5 years (and evaluating the institutions on that variable) will just mean that you graduate people with paper PhD’s that mean nothing (way more likely than that the PhD will be done more efficiently in a way that benefits the candidate).


  14. Genomic Repairman Says:

    I see fantastic PhD students graduate in 5 years having accomplished many things, learned multiple techniques, and publish multiple papers in well-regarded journals. Everyone’s mileage can vary, but around 5 years should be the goal for graduate education in my opinion.

    dude trying to graduate in 5 years and is on track to.


  15. Alex Says:

    When people say 5 years average, is that for students who come in with a BS or MS? It may or may not make a difference for course requirements, depending on the department’s requirements and what they took with their MS, and it might not even mean much in terms of already knowing the techniques (depends on what they did for their MS) but I suspect it means a lot for the more general skill of “Knowing how to get going on a project.”


  16. Dave Says:

    “The brain is fucking complicated. In fact, I have a suspicion that it’s more complicated than, say, the liver”

    How dare you!!!! The liver is my organ of choice.


  17. drugmonkey Says:

    Bullshit, Grumble. on the basis of your rationale the PhD should be a posthumous award.


  18. Dave Says:

    Why not just dump the bs classes and coursework and throw the students into the lab, day 1? It’s the Euro way (in general) and has disadvantages, but if speed is what you are after…….


  19. DrLizzyMoore Says:

    If a PhD student truly isnt ready to graduate in 5 years, then either the student will never be ready OR the mentoring was complete shitte.


  20. drugmonkey Says:

    Or, DrLizzyMoore, the motivation is more to extract work from the graduate student than it is to train them.


  21. Pinko Punko Says:

    Alternatively, the student wants a record with which to obtain a post-doc, other than something nebulous like “training”.


  22. DrLizzyMoore Says:

    Which , drugmonkey, would imply questionable mentorship……


  23. Grumble Says:

    Exactly, Pinko. Which is one reason why these pronouncements that every student needs to be done in 5 years or it means the kids are being exploited are just plain nonsense. The other reason is that sometimes it just takes time to work through multiple false starts, or analyze an enormous data set to the point where it actually means something PhD thesis-worthy, or (as I mentioned above, only to be bullshat upon by DM) learn a few techniques the student is really interested in, or… well, there are a MILLION reasons why it could take longer than some arbitrary cut-off that some committee pulled out of its collective ass.

    Has anyone ever gone and asked the students whether they feel exploited by being a student for 7 years? That’s about how long it took me, and I didn’t feel exploited in the slightest. And on top of that, if I had been forced out at 5 years, it would have been with either a completely bullshit PhD thesis, or a Masters.


  24. Confounding Says:

    I’m pretty sure the solution would be to just lock students out of NIH grant funds for the first few years – good luck with the TAships kids – to give the department some headroom, and make sure that precious, limited-time NIH dollars go to students in their more productive later years.

    Heck, they’ll even be able to preen and say “Look, our average Training Grant to Graduation time is 3 years!”.


  25. physioprof Says:

    Alternatively, the student wants a record with which to obtain a post-doc, other than something nebulous like “training”.

    Finally, somebody gets a fucken clue.


  26. DJMH Says:

    Along the same lines, if they shorten both the PhD and the time window for getting K99s, nobody will have much in the way of publications by the time they apply for the K, all of two years post artificially short PhD.

    Look, we’d all like shorter time to becoming PIs, but my point above is that we don’t have seven year postdocs because we can’t think of another idea, we have seven year postdocs because there are not enough faculty positions available for the populations. Cut the number of students entering programs, or force out some unproductive boomers, and you would achieve these aims too.


  27. Alex Says:

    Cut the number of students entering programs, or force out some unproductive boomers, and you would achieve these aims too.

    Cutting the number of students entering the programs means forcing out faculty, since faculty require students to staff their labs. Fewer students, fewer faculty positions. So fewer positions for the new generation of students.

    Even in an environment of steady research funding rates, the steady-state level of competition for faculty jobs at research universities is determined by the number of students produced per professor. If tomorrow we doubled the amount of money available, doubled the number of students, and doubled the number of faculty positions, we’d clear a bunch of postdocs out of the system in the short-term, but in 10 years or so we’d be right back where we are, because the ratio of jobs to new PhDs would be the same. Ditto if we halved the number of faculty jobs, halved the number of students, and halved the number of research dollars. There’d be an adjustment period, and then we’d be right back where we are.

    Either the grad programs do a better job of steering students into non-academic careers (assuming, for the sake of argument, sufficient job availability in non-academic tracks) or faculty adopt a model of research that makes greater use of some labor source other than students. That second option supposes that funding agencies are on board with that lab model, and I’m making the generous assumption that it doesn’t evolve into some sort of perpetual limbo like a 7 year postdoc. Otherwise, we’re still stuck in a world where a lot of people leap around in academic limbo.


  28. Alex Says:

    One might argue for earlier retirement for faculty, on the theory that the level of competition for faculty jobs depends on the ratio of PhD production rates to job opening rates. However, there’s still only so many grants to go around. Replace all those unfunded ancient faculty with new faculty, and where’s the money? Or replace some ancient guy who somehow gets money but never produces, with a n00b whose lab produces students with lots of accomplishments, and you’ve just added more competitors to the pool.


  29. Drugmonkey Says:

    I’ll take the different labor model, Alex. It’s exploitative and wrong. If on balance you get more work done by u-grads and grads over techs and postdocs, you need to re-examine your liberal credentials


  30. Alex Says:

    I’m up for any labor model that reduces the time people spend in limbo. Well, almost any labor model. I’m sure that somebody could, intentionally or unintentionally, produce a labor model that reduces the time in limbo but has some sort of other substantial and inhumane consequence. Anyway, I’m up for taking a good look at just about any labor model that reduces the time spent in limbo.

    Confession: I only get work out of undergrads, but that’s because I only have undergrads. However, the students who work with me have gone on to good jobs and good grad programs, and have said that doing research with me was one of their favorite parts of college. Are my liberal credentials OK?


  31. Alex Says:

    BTW, simply steering more people into an alternative career at an early stage would almost certainly reduce the time spent in limbo, since fewer people would be sticking around in academia trying for a faculty job. But while it is a necessary part of any humane reform, it is not a sufficient part.


  32. Dave Says:

    Dont understand all this chat about alternative careers. Most of these alternative jobs never required PhDs in the first place and I don’t see why universities (and the NIH) should waste time, money and resources on kids who go on to non-research careers. The NIH also needs to decide for good whether it is the governor of science, or merely the major funder. Some of these recommendations are bordering on the social engineering of higher education.


  33. qaz Says:

    This whole 5-year thing is absolute crap. The problem is that many people see graduate school as akin to undergraduate in which you take some classes, do some basic work that you’ve been told to do, and go on to the next thing. In my experience, there are two views on a PhD thesis – either it is a hoop to jump through and then you go on to your next job – or it is a masterwork that you live on for 10 years.

    The most successful scientists I know all spent their time in graduate school attempting a “masterwork”. They all spent more than 5 years in graduate school. Instead of saying “I’m going to graduate in 5 years” they said “I’m going to graduate when I have completed my masterwork. ” If you ask them (and I have), none of them are complaining about having taken more than 5 years to get it right.

    Personally, I took 6.5 years and I’m still well-known (15 years later) for the work I did as a graduate student. My future career would have looked very different if I had been forced out at 5 years.

    Graduate school is an apprenticeship. As with any apprenticeship, it can work well or it can be exploitative. However, whether one’s stint as a graduate student is exploitative is COMPLETELY UNRELATED TO HOW LONG YOU ARE A GRADUATE STUDENT! If we are concerned about exploiting graduate students, let’s address that concern instead of providing arbitrary deadlines to graduation.

    The 5-year deadline is arbitrary and stupid. Let’s just get over it, OK?


  34. economyfailed Says:

    A temporary solution for a key player in the current mess: comments?

    The analysis and interpretation of the current environment in science is not openly taking into account the factor money, and all that means, because just as a starting point in questioning the extreme oddities happening around it will inevitably lead you to an insufficient economic system for even more than the niche of science, for the current society, and anywhere in the world. All the other problems are byproducts of that. Because it moves most things in society, is essential in modern times.

    So if you accept that assumption, if it becomes a problem it spoils everything else, so it would be the best starting point to solve this crisis.

    Take as an example the ‘wild idea’ somebody is running in web forums: that instead of bailing out big economic players to bail out the population with printed money at no interest. Directly, let’s say a million granted per adult (assume 300 million), which then pay bills (housing, education, health, food, transportation, beauty and grooming, set small-medium businesses, biotechs, make loans to the big players, etc). And support science, of course. The economy will, at least, get temporarily lifted and in the process those not really interested in science will have their choice out, their degrees put to use, science by default will improve and at least some of the stated goals ill come through.

    People are pissed because they are not receiving the benefits promised by science, and have no money to spare in charities that any way are being associated with damaging society.

    So a good scientist or advocate of it should see that, clear.

    Sorry for the slight deviation from the focus of your post. But it matters for science indeed.


  35. economyfailed Says:

    This can be repeated several years in a row until society comes to a better agreement in what is the best system to move forward.

    Data can be gather as to what really yields best results, what variables affect what, and so on.

    Also. probably the every day consumption in science might even be the only true jobs supported in biotech (lab bench work), and I can’t find that any where shown, but only asking for support from a rather poor national community in great need of the very basics.

    They can’t support inquiries, they probably would love to. All you have to do is use your analytical skills in your surroundings and you will notice the oddities of how society is working.



  36. DJMH Says:

    Cutting the number of students entering the programs means forcing out faculty, since faculty require students to staff their labs. Fewer students, fewer faculty positions.

    Wrong, it means higher reliance on postdocs, and techs, all of whom earn a better salary. That’s the main reason PIs oppose it.


  37. Alex Says:

    Fair point.


  38. SewScientific Says:

    A postdoc, a graduate student, and an early-stage tech pretty much cost the same at my institution so the cost would not be a factor for us in the shaping of the workforce.

    And I also think an arbitrary deadline for student graduate is wrong. Perhaps, you could incentivize P.I.’s with a track record of graduating students in a timely manner and helping the student fulfill their career goals – to select for or to encourage the good mentoring behavior that I assume is the goal anyway. Sometimes things happen and a student needs more time. I have friends that switched labs midway through. I have a friend who was diagnosed with a major illness in grad school – all these things could impact the time it takes to finish.

    But, what I really have a problem with – is what is the point of this meeting anyway. How many labs are really going to be left to institute these policies and how the hell are you going to pay for them. This seems like an exercise in futility to me and a waste of money.


  39. drugmonkey Says:

    How many labs left? A lot. Even if the NIH got a cut of, say, 20% there would still be labs left. And plenty of them. What, you can’t think of 20 funded groups in your area and contemplate the loss of 4? The impact on your subfield is…..not huge.

    Not that anyone wants to be among the 4 of course.


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