NIH Open Mike

Dr. Lauers Reflections on 2020: Transcript

January 4, 2021


David Kosub: Hello, my name is David Kosub, and I'm with the NIH's Office of Extramural Research, and avid readers of our "Extramural Nexus" e-mails know that around this time, our fearless leader, Dr. Michael Lauer, gives us kind of his reflections on the year that was and his thinking going forward, "Where are we going for the next year?" And I'm proud to say that Dr. Lauer agreed to participate again in giving us his reflections but this time in-person. Well, actually, virtually because we're all working from home these days. So with that intro, I want to thank Dr. Lauer for participating. Welcome.


Dr. Michael Lauer: Thank you, David. Good to see you.


David Kosub: Likewise. So how did 2020 go?


Dr. Michael Lauer: Well, 2020 was definitely quite a year. I think it goes ... It's not an understatement to say that this was an unusual year and a year that we're all going to remember. We'll talk about this. In some respects, of course, we had some major problems in 2020. That goes without saying. Some severe disruptions due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and in other respects, some very interesting and positive things happened.


David Kosub: So in your previous reflections blogs, you've talked a little bit about our decision-making processes and what worked well and the bets that we've made in particular, what would you say worked well for us in 2020?


Dr. Michael Lauer: I think what was interesting was how the agency was able to make decisions rather quickly about a situation that really none of us had ever dealt with before. On a very local level, we had to make decisions about what to do with our staff. So we went on telework, virtually and instantaneously, in the middle of March. That went fine. Then on the extramural side, we had to make decisions about flexibilities and accommodations we could make. We had to work quickly with other parts of the government. We had to communicate messages about what was happening and about reassurance. We'll probably also talk about this. There were a number of IT steps that we had to take. But I think what was remarkable was that we are actually able to make all these decisions and for the most part, they turned out okay.


David Kosub: Definitely glad to hear it turned out okay. A lot of these decisions obviously COVID-related or with the impetus for ... What do you see from the flexibilities that we allowed for our grantees or recipients? What might be moving forward? What can be thought of as lessons learned that we can take going forward?


Dr. Michael Lauer: Well, one of the important lessons is that the way our grant system is set up and our grant policy system ... grant policy statement is set up, there are already a lot of flexibilities that we have. Now, as you know, we give our grant recipients expanded award authorities. That we do as a matter of baseline. On a case by case basis, we can negotiate changes in grant terms and conditions. We can provide extensions. There's a lot that we can do, even without going to extraordinary lengths. So one is that you might say we discovered that a lot of these existed. Now, we are very grateful because the Office of Management and Budget did issue some memos early in the pandemic that enabled a number of flexibilities. I think one that got a great deal of attention that was salary and stipends and the ability to pay salary and stipends despite remarkably reduced productivity. That lasted for a while, and I think it helped to cushion the blow for many.


David Kosub: So alongside COVID and all the other flexibilities there, I know the workforce is always an important topic, and COVID obviously impacted the workforce quite dramatically, especially folks with diverse backgrounds, women scientists, et cetera. What are we thinking about going forward as it relates to keeping the workforce as strong as we can possibly keep it?


Dr. Michael Lauer: Well, David, I agree with you. I think this is one of the most critical questions, and we know that there have been serious concerns about the pandemic affecting the workforce in disproportionate ways. Women, particularly women with childcare responsibilities, who sudden are responsible for caring for their children and providing them with education at the same time that they're also expected to maintain their academic work, they likely had a disproportionate share of the burden. Early career investigators, investigators from underrepresented groups are also of concern to us. As you know, we put out in one of our blogs, we put out a survey, or actually two surveys, one to institutional leaders and one to our researchers, where we now have preliminary results from that survey back, and we showed a little bit of that at the ACD meeting a week or so ago. I anticipate that we're going to have much more to share over the next month or two. I think that these surveys as well as work that's been done by other groups will help us better understand what the effects of the pandemic are and will be and have been. We're not over yet. The problem is, we don't know how this story is going to end because it's still ongoing. In the mean time, we're trying to gather as much information as we can, so we can make the best informed decisions.


David Kosub: Definitely look forward to hearing about those COVID survey results early next year. In addition to those kind of survey results that were targeted to investigators and our institutions, have you had conversations with other organizations that represent scientists, and what can you share from that that you think might be relevant going forward?


Dr. Michael Lauer: Well, many. By the way, one of the interesting features about the pandemic is that since we're all virtual, it was actually possible for us to do more outreach than we normally could. So I individually could meet with multiple groups literally all over the globe, literally all over the globe in a very short and compressed period of time because here I am, sitting in the exact same chair. There's no need to go anywhere. Last week, I was involved in an international meeting talking with people all over the globe at the same time, the same day that I was meeting with people more locally. So we've had a number of interactions. I'm very grateful to the various organizations for inviting us to join them for webinars and conversations. I think that these have been very helpful. Well, what are the worries? I think that, no big surprises here, the worries are, what's the future of the workforce going to look like? How are we going to weather the financial hits? Some of the financial hits have been quite substantial. What are we going to do about reductions in hiring and promotions? We saw that survey, I think it was published in "Science" back in September or October that the number of new faculty positions had declined by 70 percent. If that's even half true, we've got a very serious problem. So we have had an opportunity to engage in quite a bit of dialogue, and I think this has helped us to appreciate just how anxious and nervous people are about the state of the research in general and the workforce in particular.


David Kosub: So how might we actually attempt to address all of these issues? There are quite a bit of issues talked about. Is there a strategic way we're looking at moving forward?


Dr. Michael Lauer: Well, that's a very interesting question. So in a way, this is a bipolar question. On the one hand, we have COVID-19 research, and we've seen some very interesting changes in strategic direction over the past year. So work that normally would take 5 to 10 years got compressed to less than a year. The most obvious ... Today's newspaper headline is that the Moderna vaccine is being distributed. Think about this. We have a vaccine being distributed for a pathogen that we didn't even knew existed a year ago. It's stunning, and none of this happened by accident. This occurred because of leveraging of existing structures, an unprecedented private-public academic partnership, new ways of doing business, a general sense that we could not wait 5 to 10 years to go down this route. So on the one hand, we have seen some major changes in strategic direction that have enabled us to make discoveries about this disease, develop preventive strategies, develop diagnostic tests, develop treatments, test treatments, conduct trials and do all that in ways that are much, much faster and more streamlined than what we've seen before. Okay, that's on the one side. Now, on the other side, we have other parts of research that went through major disruptions this past year. And the question is, what's going to happen there? I read an interesting article, which I cited in one of the blogs, by Erin Gibson from Stanford. She and her colleagues talked about a reset. The term that they used is reset. So reset does not mean go back to normal because normal wasn't so great. Normal, we had a hypercompetitive environment that was favoring certain investigators and disfavoring others. It did not necessarily lead to the most innovative science. So she and her colleagues had a number of ideas for government, for academia, for scientists. I think these are some of the things that we're going to need to be thinking about is, how do we move towards a different direction, a better direction than we were in before?


David Kosub: So on a brass tacks level, just getting right to the nuts and bolts of it, what about ... What should our grantees, our recipients really be looking out for from us?


Dr. Michael Lauer: Well, first of course is, pleased stay tuned. We're doing the best we can to communicate what's happening on a very granular level, FOAs, policies, notices and also at higher levels through different channels. The second is, please work with your staff, with your program staff and your grants-management staff. We have been quite busy these last 8 or 9 months. Despite the fact that we're all working from home, we're all working. I think if anything, we're working more. We have more interactions and we've actually received more grant [applications], processed more grants than we ever have in times past. I think the biggest mistake that scientists sometimes make ... In fact, I'm dealing with some situations right now, but I could say this virtually any day is some kind of a mix-up or confusion that occurred because a scientist did not do what it says on the announcement that says, "Please contact program staff." So I think that's an important part of this is: Please talk to us. Sometimes, a 5-minute phone conversation or a brief exchange of e-mails can save a lot of heartache down the line when clarifying questions or figuring out what's the best way to go.


David Kosub: Well, actually, before we go using that, what would you prognosticate for yourself? What are you most hopeful for in the new year?


Dr. Michael Lauer: Well, I think like everybody here, what I'm most hopeful for is that this thing has come to an end and that we can all start having more or less normal human interactions, like we've had before, that we can be in the same room without having to wear masks and without having to worry that we or our loved ones or our dear friends will come down with a life-threatening illness. I think that's perhaps the most important thing. Okay, another thing I'm hopeful for is that our IT systems will be robust and secure. Anyone who has been reading the newspaper headlines lately knows just how important this is. One amazing accomplishment that happened earlier this year is that eRA moved to the cloud. That happened back in April. It was a difficult decision at the time as to whether or not we should go ahead, since we were dealing with a lot of unknowns. But it went remarkably smoothly. I think another major IT accomplishment was the virtual seminar. We never would have done it, had it not been for the pandemic. But instead of having 900 people come to our seminar, we had 11,000 people come to our seminar, had 11,000 unique people come to our seminar, and we were able to do things that we otherwise could not do. So I'm hoping the pandemic will come to an end. I'm hoping that at some point, David, you and I can be in the same room together and not be too worried. And I'm hoping that our grant systems, our IT systems will remain robust. I hope that we will learn as much as we possibly can about how we can make things even better and finally, I guess the last thing I want to say is, I hope that this will be an opportunity for all of us, and by all of us, I mean everyone in our country and really around the world, to appreciate the value of science. We were dealing with an unbelievably serious problem, and the way we're going to solve this problem is through science. We recognized this from the very beginning, but back in March and April, those were words. I think now, we're closer to reality that the way this problem is going to be addressed is through science and through all of us working together to figure out how we can best leverage science and the scientific method to make those solutions available to everybody in a fair and equitable way.


David Kosub: Completely agree. Hear, hear. Well, Dr. Lauer, I greatly appreciate the opportunity to speak with you. Hopefully, we can do this again next year, but like you said, in person, And to reiterate what he said, definitely contact us if you have any questions or concerns out there. Again, my name is David Kosub with the NIH's Office of Extramural Research. Thank you.