Addressing the Nation's Changing Needs for Biomedical and Behavioral Scientists (2000)
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NIH Statement in Response to Addressing the Nation’s
Changing Needs for Biomedical and Behavioral Scientists

National Institutes of Health

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) has analyzed the recently issued report from the National Academy of Sciences (NAS), Addressing the Nation's Changing Needs for Biomedical and Behavioral Scientists and has prepared a statement that describes NIH intentions to implement selected recommendations. The NIH offers the statement below for comment in order to determine the views of the extramural community prior to implementation. The original NAS report can be found at http://grants.nih.gov/training/outcomes.htm.

Please post all comments to the email address: PersonnelNeeds@od.nih.gov. Comments must be received on or before April 30, 2001.

Email Address for Comments: PersonnelNeeds@od.nih.gov

Additional inquiries may be directed to:

Walter Schaffer, Ph.D.
NIH Research Training Officer
Office of Extramural Research
6701 Rockledge Drive, Rm. 6184
Bethesda, MD 20892-7911
301-435-2687
Email: schaffew@nih.gov

 

NIH Statement in Response to the NAS Report: Addressing the Nation’s Changing Needs for Biomedical and Behavioral Scientists

The NIH would like to thank the National Academy of Sciences’ (NAS) Personnel Needs Committee for the report Addressing the Nation’s Changing Needs for Biomedical and Behavioral Scientists.  Copies can be found at http://grants.nih.gov/training/outcomes.htm. This report provides an insightful analysis of the training environment experienced by health-related graduate students and individuals in postdoctoral training. Additionally, the report offers a number of useful recommendations designed to improve the nature of graduate and postdoctoral training to more appropriately meet future needs.

With the following statement, the NIH addresses its intention to support and implement selected recommendations from the Biomedical and Crosscutting sections of this report.  Other sections of the report may be addressed in subsequent statements.  We include here plans that encompass the funding of the National Research Service Award (NRSA) training grants and fellowships as well as students and postdoctorates supported by NIH funded research grants.  This statement also describes areas in which NIH plans depart from the findings and recommendations of the NAS Committee.  We hope that the statement will encourage a broad discussion within the scientific community and will inform the next quadrennial study of research personnel needs. 

Within Addressing the Nation’s Needs, the Committee describes a life-sciences enterprise that is highly productive but is dependent on graduate students and postdoctorates for much of the day-to-day work of research.  The Committee concludes that current levels of research training may be higher than necessary to maintain the biomedical workforce.   They encourage the development of a more permanent laboratory workforce and at the same time they caution against a broad reduction in PhD production that might delay or disrupt research progress. The NIH generally supports these observations, but differs somewhat from the Committee’s approach for systematic improvement.  The specific recommendations from the report are laid out below along with the NIH position and a specific plan for implementation.


BIOMEDICAL

Recommendation 2-1.  There should be no growth in the aggregate number of Ph.D.s awarded in the basic biomedical sciences.

The Committee used a life-table model of the biomedical workforce (see Appendix D of the NAS Report) to describe the expected replacement and expansion demand for biomedical scientists over the next several years.  The model predicts that between 1,571 and 3,031 new biomedical PhDs will be needed each year to meet employment demands by the year 2005.  This compares to a current annual biomedical PhD output that is close to 5,400.  In spite of the fact that the Committee believed there is a substantial overproduction of biomedical PhDs, it recommended continuance of current production rates to avoid disruption of research progress.  While the NIH agrees that there is no rationale for growth in the number of PhDs in the basic biomedical sciences, we are less convinced of the need to take any specific steps to curtail the entry of students into science. 

The Committee observed a tension between an apparent overproduction and the need to keep a successful enterprise functioning. We also would like to emphasize the uncertainties in predicting future growth and needs in specific fields.  There are concerns about the reliability of replacement needs calculated using existing workforce models. Such limitations must be taken in context as we face an explosion in post-genomic sciences and an expansion of linkages between biology and the allied disciplines. Emergence of a new era of biological inquiry imposes even greater uncertainties on future projections and suggests that requirements for highly trained scientists are unlikely to decline. Uncertainties about future demands for researchers also must be considered in light of recent reports indicating stability or contraction of graduate enrollments (see http://grants.nih.gov/training/GSS1999/GSS.html) and PhD production rates (see http://www.norc.uchicago.edu/studies/sed/sed1999.htm Link to Non-U.S. Government Site - Click for Disclaimer ) in biomedical sciences. 

The second point is that the NIH is not in a position to control graduate enrollments. The NIH supports only about 30% of all biomedical graduate students at any point in time considering both NRSA and research grants. Although the NIH provides substantial support for graduate training, responsibility for enrollments will continue to reside with the universities. We believe universities should continue to select individual students based on their prospects for scientific contribution. They should retain the ability to increase enrollments in emerging or expanding scientific fields and to reduce enrollments in fields that appear to be contracting.  Some universities have been guided in this process by analyzing the career outcomes of former students and postdoctoral trainees. This type of information also has been used effectively to inform and shape the career expectations of prospective and current students. We encourage all schools to take a broad view of the likely placements of their students and provide appropriate career advice. 

Recommendation 2-2.  Support for NRSA training grants and fellowships at the predoctoral and postdoctoral levels should be gradually increased.  At the predoctoral levels, the NIH should seek to provide at least 50 percent of its research training support through training grants and fellowships. 

This recommendation was based on the assumption that by managing the numbers on research grants and training grants, the support for students could be stabilized at current levels.  However, this is not consistent with the functions of these mechanisms.  Training grants are not used as a generic mechanism for graduate student support.  Their primary purpose is to stimulate and encourage specific programmatic goals by supporting only the best institutions and the best students.  Research grants are used to award support for research projects, and that support is provided with a maximum degree of flexibility.  We believe that attempts to manipulate these mechanisms for the purpose of controlling Ph.D. numbers would run counter to their primary purposes.

The recommendation to shift student support from research grants to training grants also derives from a recent, as yet unpublished, report that shows that recipients of at least nine months of NRSA research training support are more likely to attain a faculty appointment and are more likely to apply for and receive an NIH research grant than their colleagues without NRSA support. We believe that training grants offer optimal developmental experiences for the early years of graduate research training.  But, part of the relative success of NRSA recipients is almost certainly related to the fact that training program directors are motivated by a stringent review process to select the best students for appointment to the grant.

We agree that universities should ensure that all individuals in graduate and postdoctoral training have access to appropriate training and career development information and opportunities, that a faculty committee frequently monitors training progress, and that there are effective means for resolving grievances.  Many of these principles have been effectively described in two recent reports: At Cross Purposes:  What the experiences of today's doctoral students reveal about doctoral education (http://www.wcer.wisc.edu/phd-survey/ Link to Non-U.S. Government Site - Click for Disclaimer ) and Enhancing the Postdoctoral Experience for Scientists and Engineers (http://www.nap.edu/books/0309069963/html/ Link to Non-U.S. Government Site - Click for Disclaimer ).   Further, the NIH recognizes that institutions differ in terms of access to institutional funds to support students early in graduate training. Nevertheless, we believe that as a general rule, recently enrolled graduate students should not be immediately supported on research grants, but should be permitted and encouraged to attend classes and engage in rotations prior to selection of a dissertation subject.

We also believe that universities should try to constrain the duration of both graduate and postdoctoral training. The NIH supports the concept that federal funding from any combination of NRSA and/or research grants should not exceed six years for graduate training and five years for postdoctoral training. Universities should consider conversion of all individuals in postdoctoral training to staff or faculty appointments at the earliest possible opportunity. Certainly, by five years of postdoctoral training experience, training should be completed and individuals who are being retained at the institution should be converted to non-training positions that provide appropriate levels of income and a benefit package that includes such items as retirement, leave, and health insurance. The increased costs associated with such positions have been and will continue to be allowable under NIH research grants. Principal Investigators are encouraged to build such costs into the budget request for future competing grants.

Recommendation 2-3.  The NIH should consider at least a small increase in dual-degree training in the basic biomedical sciences.

The NIH supports a small increase in our contribution to the support available for MD/PhD, DDS/PhD, RN/PhD and other forms of dual degree training.

Recommendation 2-4.  The NIH should expand its emphasis on multidisciplinary training in the basic biomedical sciences. 

As the Committee points out, a multidisciplinary and multi-departmental approach has been a hallmark of NRSA supported training.  We agree with the Committee that all entering graduate students should be educated and trained in an environment that will allow them to collaborate effectively with investigators in other fields.

Recommendation 2-5.  The NIH should increase its efforts to identify and support programs that encourage and prepare underrepresented minority students for careers in basic biomedical research. 

We agree with the Committee that gains in the participation of individuals from underrepresented racial and ethnic groups in the biomedical sciences have been very slow in spite of decades of intense NIH effort.   Although some of the NIH minority programs have recently been evaluated, we agree that the current array of NIH minority programs should also be reviewed.   We also agree that the continuing underrepresentation probably stems from restricted educational opportunities far earlier in the educational career of minority students.  The NIH supports the concept of improving the quality of elementary and secondary education for all students, but notes that the responsibility for this effort is very clearly within the purview of other federal agencies such as the Department of Education and the National Science Foundation.


CROSSCUTTING ISSUES

Recommendation 5-1.  Led by the NIH, the agencies with responsibility for health research training should strengthen their efforts to ensure diversity in the research laborforce.

See response to Recommendation 2-5.

Recommendation 5-2.  The NIH, AHRQ, and HRSA should encourage research training programs to expose participants of all backgrounds to issues associated with economic, cultural, and ethnic disparities in health.

The NIH has recently issued a statement about health disparities that is available at http://www.nih.gov/about/hd/strategicplan.pdf (PDF).   This document describes the nature of such disparities and offers a comprehensive plan to address these issues.  One aspect of this plan involves training and supporting new investigators who are interested in exploring the pathophysiology related to disparities in health.   To explore this approach, the NIH recently launched the NIH Academy, which is completely dedicated to training in the area of health disparities.  This program is described at http://www.training.nih.gov/student/Pre-IRTA/previewpostbac.asp?AppType=academy.

Recommendation 5-3.  The NIH, AHRQ, and HRSA should consolidate their oversight of research training and training related activities and thereby shape and manage the workforce as envisioned by Congress when it established the NRSA program. 

The Committee refers to the following forms of oversight of the training related activities in the biomedical sciences: 

  • Tracking predoctoral and postdoctoral research assistants and associates in the same way that the NIH tracks NRSA recipients.
  • Gather more complete information on students and postdoctorates supported by the NIH in terms of the number supported, their levels of income, field of training, and prior education.
  • Analyze the workforce by linking information on recipients of NIH training support to other national databases.
  • Analyze labor market trends more frequently than is afforded by the quadrennial NAS studies of research personnel needs.  

The NIH supports these recommendations.  NRSA recipients are currently tracked and their career outcomes are periodically studied as a means of evaluating the effectiveness of these training programs.  One component of that process involves linking NIH information with databases managed by the National Science Foundation, the Association of American Medical Colleges, the Institute for Scientific Information, and other sources.  We also support the concept of collecting identifying information on graduate and postdoctoral trainees supported by research grants.  Such data collection should begin after a period of public discussion and the development of a simple, web-based information collection module.   Finally, we support the concept of more frequent analyses of labor market information.  We have tentatively agreed with the NAS to make the quadrennial personnel needs studies a more continuous process.  In that way, NAS staff will be available to consider mid-course corrections to labor-force models and to incorporate information from the biennial updates of the NSF/NIH Survey of Doctoral Recipients.  This information will be provided to the NIH and future NAS Personnel Needs Committees on a more regular basis.   

Recommendation 5-4.  Stipends and other forms of compensation for those in training should be based on education and experience and should be regularly adjusted to reflect changes in the cost of living. 

The NIH concurs with the committee’s observation that NRSA stipends are unduly low in view of the high level of education and professional skills involved in biomedical research.  NRSA stipend targets have been identified for both predoctoral and postdoctoral recipients.  NIH plans to develop budget requests that will permit an increase in stipends by 10 to 12 percent per year for the next few years in order to reach those targets.  Once the targets have been attained, annual cost-of-living adjustments will be instituted so that stipend levels remain relatively constant in real value.  The appropriateness of stipend levels will be examined in future years to maintain comparability to levels of income available to students and postdoctorates from other sources.

Recommendation 5-5.  The NIH and other federal science agencies that support research training should articulate clear goals regarding the education of foreign students and should modify their grant policies where necessary.  

The NIH concurs with this recommendation and reiterates the importance of funding opportunities for international students and postdoctorates.  The presence of foreign students and postdoctoral fellows provides important benefits to the individual, the United States, the nation of origin, and the larger scientific community.  This type of international exchange facilitates scientific advances that better help prevent, treat, and control diseases in both the US and the world population.  When foreign researchers return to their own nations with state-of-the-science knowledge, advanced techniques, and research skills, they serve as crucial international collaborators in the design and conduct of ongoing research programs.  Support for foreign students and postdoctoral trainees permits the conduct of multi-national natural history and epidemiology studies, international clinical trials of drugs and vaccines, as well as basic biomedical and behavioral research. The continued support of foreign students and postdoctoral trainees with NIH research grants is essential.  It is also important for the NIH to develop the means to monitor and track these students so that we have a better understanding of their numbers, their countries of origin, and their fields of study.  We should also seek to ensure that the training experiences of international students and postdoctoral trainees are equivalent in quality to those offered to their domestic counterparts. 


SUMMARY OF PLANS TO IMPLEMENT THE RECOMMENDATIONS IN THE NAS REPORT

The following is a summary of NIH positions on the recommendations and plans for implementation.

  • The NIH supports the concept that all entering graduate students (domestic and foreign) should receive a broad, multidisciplinary education and an opportunity to rotate through several different laboratories prior to selection of a dissertation project.
  • The NIH supports the concept that universities should encourage the earliest possible completion of graduate and postdoctoral education and training. To foster this objective, the NIH proposes to limit the use of federal dollars from any source for the support of graduate training that exceeds six years and postdoctoral training that exceeds five years.
  • The NIH supports the concept that postdoctoral trainees should be converted to non-training staff or faculty positions at the earliest practical opportunity.  Individuals in such positions should receive appropriate levels of income and benefits.  These costs are allowable under NIH research grants. Such costs should be built into future competing applications.
  • The NIH will continue to support a wide variety of education and training programs designed to increase the racial and ethnic diversity of the biomedical laborforce and will continue to devote effort to the issue of health disparities.
  • The NIH supports the concept that labor market analysis should be carried out more frequently than once every four years as currently required by law.  We announce our intention to make the data collection and analysis of workforce data a more continuous process.
  • The NIH supports the continued funding of research training opportunities for graduate students and postdoctorates from foreign countries.  The NIH endorses the recommendation that the training environment and the level of support for international students and postdoctoral trainees should be identical to that offered to domestic students and postdoctoral trainees
  • The NIH supports the idea of tracking graduate students and postdoctoral trainees supported by research grants.  A web-based data collection strategy that is both easy to use and reliable will be designed.  This information will provide information about the number of students and postdoctoral trainees supported by the NIH and will be used in future evaluation studies. 
  • The NIH supports higher stipends for NRSA recipients and therefore announces tentative targets of $25,000 for graduate and $45,000 for entry-level postdoctoral stipends.  Future budget requests will incorporate 10 to 12 percent stipend increases until these targets are reached.  After attainment of these targets, the real value of stipends will be maintained with annual cost-of-living adjustments.
  • The NIH will align the philosophy of limited training periods with stipends paid to pre- and postdoctoral trainees. For example, graduations in the NRSA postdoctoral stipend scale could be discontinued after 5 years (see http://grants.nih.gov/grants/guide/notice-files/NOT-OD-01-011.html). The NIH will attempt to gain a clearer picture of the impact of such a policy before final implementation. 


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