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Advancing the Nation’s Health Needs
such areas is an ongoing enterprise that requires creativity and insight, but some general procedures and approaches can help ease the difficulties. Research supervision by mentors from more than one department should be encouraged. Emerging areas need to be quickly recognized and supported, a process that can and should occur within individual funding agencies but also can be furthered by outside groups (such as this committee) instructed to help in this enterprise. Establishing training grants in emerging areas is important, but it is a lengthy process and may be too slow to encourage the appropriate training. Individual awards, however, can respond rapidly to immediate needs, so the committees making such awards should be especially sensitive to the need to provide awards for research training proposals that move beyond traditional field boundaries. Further, the instructions to those applying for such awards should emphasize the importance of this criterion.
Recommendation 8-1: The standing committee created to monitor the continuing needs of the biomedical research community should also be charged to provide recommendations to NIH as to the identity of emerging research fields.
The need to react quickly to recognize important new research developments and to support the training of appropriate personnel is of obvious importance to the health sciences. To track the evolution of existing fields, the changes in relations among existing fields, and the emergence of new fields, both NIH and the standing committee should make use of techniques that analyze electronic databases to map existing scientific structures and their changes over time.
It is extremely difficult for individuals, no matter how knowledgeable, to grasp the structure of science and the way this structure evolves. Fields overlap in confusing ways, and existing mechanisms (funding and otherwise) often are rooted in old scientific divisions and classifications that have become partly irrelevant and hinder scientific progress. Perceiving the evolving structure of science is critical for NIH to make good decisions. Computational techniques are available now that produce “knowledge maps.” These maps can provide important information about the future of research.
Recommendation 8-2: The NIH should target individual NRSAs in emerging fields, interdisciplinary areas, and specific fields of interest. Such applications should be given priority in the awards process, and special review panels should be used as needed.
This approach will encourage scientists in the various fields to contribute to the task of identifying new areas. Individual awards can respond most rapidly to new initiatives. In addition they can be easily adjusted as fields mature or evolve in unanticipated directions. Moreover, a small number of awards can be very effective in attracting people to new fields and establishing standards. These awards should be made at both the predoctoral and postdoctoral levels.
The committee recognizes that such efforts are ongoing, but these efforts should be integrated across the institutes, including a formal structure to ensure a long-term vision.
Recommendation 8-3: Quantitative subject matter should be integrated into and required for training programs in all areas. Quantitative subjects include statistics, mathematics, physics, physical chemistry, computer science, and informatics.
The need for quantitative training is stressed throughout this report. With the overwhelming amount of new data becoming available, it is essential that scientists understand how to analyze and critically interpret the information. In all areas of biology and medicine, understanding biological processes and health issues on a quantitative basis will be of increasing importance. Although quantitative training is already prescribed in many cases, it is a necessity for all areas of biomedical, behavioral, and clinical research.