The concept of K awards is meritorious, but the large variety of K awards and inconsistent usage across NIH institutes and centers makes it difficult for applicants to use the opportunities that exist optimally. Furthermore, the program would be enhanced if K awards were given by a greater number of institutes and centers than is currently the case.
Recommendation 9-2: The committee recommends that the restructured K awards include the following: (1) a transition award to span senior postdoctoral status and an independent research position; (2) beginning faculty awards to free certain classes of investigators from nonresearch duties; (3) senior scientist awards for the purpose of faculty moving into new research areas; (4) awards to allow faculty and other researchers to maintain research careers during periods when personal demands (e.g., child rearing) prevent full employment status; and (5) clinical science awards to provide research training for clinical faculty/personnel.
The committee recognizes that the above categories, except for the fourth one, are included among existing K awards. However, uniform presentations and criteria across NIH would make these awards more accessible. This list is not meant to be inclusive, but in any event, it is important to delineate clearly what mechanisms are available, who is eligible, and how applications can be made.
Recommendation 9-3: The committee recommends that NIH develop a mechanism for support such that NRSA postdoctoral fellows receive the employee benefits of the institutions at which they are located.
Although NRSA postdoctoral fellows are selected through a highly competitive process, they are often at a financial disadvantage with regard to postdoctoral employees paid directly through research grants. In particular, health insurance benefits are not always readily provided. This need not be a major budget issue if a portion of the current supplemental allocation is used for this purpose. This usage of the supplemental allowance could even be required if health insurance is not provided by other means. In terms of the normal fringe benefits package provided by institutions, a lower rate should be possible for postdoctoral fellows since they are very seldom able to utilize the retirement portion of the package due to vesting requirements, typically 5 years.
Recommendation 9-4: The committee recommends that supplements to existing training grants be made available for the purpose of developing outreach programs for undergraduates and high school students from underrepresented minorities and for the secondary school teachers serving them.
Training resources for minorities at the doctoral and postdoctoral levels is clearly insufficient. The pool of suitable candidates is far too small by the time the doctoral level is reached. It is critical that NIH find new ways to encourage members of underrepresented groups to pursue research careers well before the doctoral level. Furthermore, updating and training for secondary school teachers are critical for this effort. By utilizing existing training programs, already evaluated for their excellence, a quality environment is assured and resources can be rapidly dispersed. Among the programs envisioned are summer research experiences, weekend training sessions, and direct interaction of training grant personnel with students.
Recommendation 9-5: The committee recommends that NIH work with other federal agencies to find ways to encourage students at precollege levels to pursue training in technical, computational, mathematical, and scientific areas that are necessary precursors for careers in science.
In recent years the need for researchers trained in such areas has been filled by an influx of foreign scientists. This influx may change due to immigration laws or changes in the support structure in foreign countries. It is a slow and long process to change the education structure in a way that will produce larger numbers of students capable and willing to pursue careers in science.