In part because of the absence of NIH-wide electronic trainee tracking data, the NIH data contractor achieved a very low response rate from its efforts to locate and interview trainees. This was the case despite its use of two commercial and proprietary credit card databases that together maintain credit card-related contact information for millions of Americans and the query of the U.S. Postal Service address-forwarding database. The committee was disappointed, but not entirely surprised, by the low response rate. Establishing an NIH-wide, centralized, electronic data collection system for trainee tracking is necessary to assess program efficacy on an ongoing basis. Current plans for an electronic system—the electronic Streamlined Noncompeting Award Process (eSNAP)—that would capture trainee tracking data supplied to NIH by recipient institutions in the context of annual progress reports include collection of the following data elements for all trainees: trainee’s first, middle, and last name; date of birth; Social Security number; degrees earned; and role on the project. It is important to note that these data are insufficient for tracking trainee outcomes, as evidenced by the trainee survey discussed in this report. NIH may wish to consider asking trainees to provide parents’ contact information and/or contact information for three individuals who will always know how to locate the trainee. Doing so will render the task of locating trainees after they move on from the program much easier.
The committee experienced additional difficulty at the outset of the study, because it was unable to obtain a comprehensive listing of minority research training programs, current or past, supported by NIH. Perhaps due to the distributed nature of the NIH campus, the independence of the ICs, and the dynamic nature with which programming is offered or retired, no one at NIH maintains such a list. The committee believes that having a ready means for maintaining such an inventory of active programs will greatly assist future accountability practices.
Another difficulty faced by the committee at the study’s outset was the prohibition against accessing or viewing individual trainee race and gender data. Given the necessity of distinguishing minority from nonminority trainees for purposes of carrying out this study, the committee had to rely on an intermediary NIH-approved contractor that was allowed access to individual trainee race and gender data. Since the National Academies had no direct contractual relationship with the NIH-approved contractor, it had little leverage in terms of the deliverables produced.
The committee is cognizant of the sensitivity of race and gender data and the degree to which the NIH Office of the Director strives to protect the privacy of its trainees and grantees, but in this case it made the very task the committee was contracted by NIH to conduct, very difficult. Thus, NIH may wish to revisit its policy regarding access to individual trainee race and gender data for circumstances in which an outside evaluator is used to conduct research training programs assessment. It may also want to revisit the value of having more than one contractor approved for access to individual trainee data.