Investing in the Future: National Institute of General Medical Sciences Strategic Plan for Biomedical and Behavioral Research Training 2011
The Future of Discovery
The National Institute of General Medical Sciences (NIGMS) of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) has a long-standing commitment to fostering a highly capable biomedical and behavioral research workforce.
Science and the conduct of research continue to evolve, though, as do workforce needs. It is our responsibility to stay attuned to these new needs and opportunities. As Director of NIGMS, I want to be sure that all of our activities related to the training of scientists are aligned with our commitment to build an excellent, diverse research workforce to help achieve the NIH mission, now and in the long term.
Toward that goal, in 2010 the Institute launched a process to examine our activities and general philosophy of research training. The coming pages describe the result of that process. In summary, the NIGMS Strategic Plan for Biomedical and Behavioral Research Training presents several actions that relate directly to four key themes. A detailed, contextual discussion of these themes begins on page 7.
At the outset of this endeavor, we reasoned that since NIGMS-sponsored training does not operate independently—indeed, it is a subsystem within a complex training network—the Institute needed to gather information and data to understand the major influences and trends. In so doing, we noted several realities about the current biomedical and behavioral research training landscape in the United States. As we collected input and analyzed current NIGMS programs, we took into account each of these concepts, which are articulated below.
- NIGMS is only one of many funders of research training. Although NIGMS views research training as a critical activity and a key comp onent of our Congressionally mandated mission, the Institute is only one of many funders of research training in the United States. Most predoctoral and postdoctoral research trainees, even if they receive NIH support, also receive funds from non-NIH sources. In fact, NIH-sponsored training grants and fellowships account for a minority of all U.S. biomedical and behavioral research training-related dollars.1 Although research training is a core responsibility for NIGMS, because the Institute has a limited source of funds available for this endeavor, our role in this arena is to focus on quality rather than quantity.
- The most prevalent mode for support of research trainees—for both NIGMS and NIH—is research project grants, most often R01s. As we undertook this assessment of NIGMS-sponsored research training, we considered it crucial to look broadly at training as it occurs in its many forms. A large proportion of preand postdoctoral trainees are supported via research grants, and this fraction has risen steadily over the last decade and a half. This situation exists because many members of NIH-funded research teams include graduate students and postd octoral researchers who engage in research as a key component of their training activities.
- Many different career outcomes that can contribute to the NIH mission are available to trainees. It is evident that today’s biomedical and behavioral research trainees receiving some level of NIH support continue to seek a range of career paths.2 NIGMS recognizes the various avenues in which a well-trained scientist can make meaningful contributions to society. These include research careers in academia, government or the private sector as well as careers centered on teaching, scientific policy, patent law, communicating science to the public and other areas.
- Time to scientific independence is longer than it has ever been, likely too long. We know that in addition to the observed shifts in the types of careers sought and obtained by research trainees, the amount of time spent in training is longer than ever. The average age of recipients of a first NIH R01 grant—admittedly just one measure of independence—is now 42 years.3 In the mid-1970s, only 10 percent of recent doctorates remained postdoctoral trainees after 3 to 4 years. Today, that fraction has grown considerably, with 40 percent of recent doctorates still in postdoctoral positions after 3 to 4 years.4
- The U.S. biomedical research workforce does not mirror U.S. diversity. One of the most important issues facing biomedical and behavioral research is the fact that our nation’s workforce does not look like America.5 In 2008, the make-up of the U.S. population was slightly more than 60 percent Caucasian. By 2050, the Census Bureau predicts, this pro portion will drop below 50 percent, due largely to growth in the Hispanic population. Existing data from the National Science Foundation (NSF) and other sources shows a striking lack of correlation in the level of representation among research trainees, and even more so among science and engineering faculty.6,7
Throughout this document, the term "trainee" is used broadly to represent students and postdoctoral scholars supported by any type of funding.
It is no secret that the practice of biomedical and behavioral research is a time- and labor-intensive exercise, with administrative responsibilities that extend beyond addressing the key activities of conducting innovative research and mentoring trainees. Staying funded and assuring access to high-quality resources is a necessary part of the job. NIGMS is sensitive to, and is making a conscious effort to reduce, any potential administrative burdens that may coincide with proposed changes to research training.
Active discussions among various sectors of the biomedical and b ehavioral research community are consistent with our own observations and conclusions about gaps and opportunities in research training.8,9,10 Ultimately, a healthy biom edical and behavioral research enterprise requires that government, academia, industry and other partners work together toward common goals that recognize the essentiality of high-quality mentoring and career guidance for the next generation of scientists. Our future, the future of discovery, and the utilization of such discovery for the benefit of humankind depend on it.
Jeremy M. Berg, Ph.D.