A Vision for 2010
Current policies and practices for funding and training postdoctoral biomedical scientists, and for funding, mentoring, and promoting the advancement of new investigators do not sufficiently address the challenge of fostering independent and innovative careers. This is a critical deficiency given the rapid pace of change and expanding scope of biomedical research. Multiple trends are changing the environment for biomedical research (NRC/IOM, 2003) including the need for better approaches to translate basic science discoveries into medical treatment, the threats of emerging infectious diseases and bioterrorism, the increased need for large-scale and trans-institution projects that require longer-term strategic planning and commitments, the emergence of ”-omics” and its informatics and data requirements, the opportunity to employ interdisciplinary research to tackle many diseases, and, in view of these developments, the need to assure opportunities for the independent ideas and research of individual scientists.
Given these trends, we might ask, how will the biomedical research enterprise look in 2010 and how should it look? What policies and practices related to the preparation of new scientists might foster change and independence of thought? This chapter sets the stage for the recommendations made in the following chapters for changes that should be made over the next five years by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), academic research institutions, faculty, and the postdoctoral and research communities to help launch more productive research careers for more of the country’s early-career researchers. The recommendations address the challenges confronting new investigators in a variety of different ways,
with each designed to address a different segment of the research community or a specific challenge. Some of the changes can and should be implemented immediately; others will require large-scale policy decisions and adjustments in the academic culture.
The committee first looked ahead to 2010 to create a vision of where the training and nurturing of new investigators might lead and then developed more detailed recommendations for how to achieve those goals. While some of the visions might not be fully achieved by 2010, the 5-year deadline means that change must begin now. Setting a deadline further off would make it too easy to delay response in the belief that someone else will deal with it sometime in the future. But the need for attention and, especially, action is urgent and must be initiated immediately.
This chapter therefore presents a vision for the future in order to provide a scaffold for the recommendations and discussion that will be discussed in more detail in the remainder of the report: from optimizing the postdoctoral experience (Chapter 4), to facilitating the transition to a first independent position (Chapter 5), to establishing stable research programs (Chapter 6).
NEW ALLOCATION STRATEGIES AND FUNDING MECHANISMS FOR SUPPORTING POSTDOCTORAL RESEARCHERS
NIH currently relies on four primary mechanisms to support postdoctoral researchers. A majority are supported on research grants held by their advisors; fewer are assigned to training grants awarded to institutions; still fewer have individual fellowships via National Research Service Awards (NRSAs); and a small number of senior postdoctoral scientists have mentored K-series transition awards. There are several ways in which NIH could reallocate funds and support postdoctoral researchers’ efforts to achieve independence. The vision for the future distributes funding to support training and programmatic goals, rather than defining goals by funding opportunities. The recommendations of Chapter 4 describe this vision.
Fostering Collaborative Research
Is the training of independent researchers outmoded? As collaborative, interdisciplinary research becomes increasingly valuable in answering some of biology’s most difficult questions, what is the role of the independent researcher? As defined in Box 1-3, the new definition of “independence” does not mean that a researcher must work alone as long as the investigator enjoys independence of thought.
Collaborative research can be especially attractive to a new investiga-
tor because it thrives on the exchange of ideas and communication. Currently, NIH emphasizes research project support through the R01-type mechanism. Although this strategy has been very successful overall, it tends to isolate scientists both physically and intellectually. The vision for the future broadens funding policies and mechanisms in order to encourage applications that empower groups of scientists with diverse expertise to devise collaborative approaches to complex biological problems.
Possible new mechanisms would differ from current project and center grants by acknowledging multiple PIs, each with primary responsibility for a particular disciplinary component of the proposed study. In this way, both responsibility and credit could be allocated appropriately, providing new investigators with the recognition needed to advance their careers. Some of these mechanisms should be framed in such a way to encourage engineers, computer scientists, mathematicians, physicists, and chemists—as well as clinical and basic biomedical researchers—to join these research teams. Such an arrangement would permit those without explicit training in the biological sciences or medicine to enter the field. New investigators serving as PIs for parts of projects within these collectives would be encouraged to think independently as acknowledged experts in a given area, while having the advantages of operating within a collaborative group.
The committee’s vision for collaborative research involves one in which independent researchers from different disciplines or with different sets of expertise come together as equals. In this way, the reach of a collaborative group can be more than just the sum of its constituent parts as independent researchers engage each other in questioning that spans traditional disciplinary boundaries. In fact, interdisciplinary collaborative research teams argue for increased independence as investigators in such teams must be able to fully trust those in different research areas as they work together to solve problems of common interest.
New Investigators and the R01 System
The criteria for the R01 award deserve reconsideration. Currently, R01-type mechanisms and traditional study section behaviors are biased toward experienced investigators because of an emphasis on preliminary data and track record. The system has moved so far in this direction that most “new investigators” are over 40 years old and—counting their graduate studies—have already been working as practicing scientists for 12 to 15 years. The vision for the future would provide opportunities for postdoctoral researchers and other non-faculty to apply for their own research funding in order to establish independence earlier in their careers. The vision extends to providing opportunities for transitioning to inde-
CHANGES NEEDED IN ACADEMIC RESEARCH INSTITUTIONS
Academic institutions can do much to create an environment that promotes independence, recognizes the contributions of new investigators, and rewards scientists who choose a non-academic career path. The biomedical community would benefit from reconsidering who is brought into the enterprise, what positions they are brought into, when they are brought in, and how they are encouraged to stay and be productive. The social and cultural issues surrounding research career structures and issues such as tenure and credit are important ones that cannot be ignored. A complete analysis of this situation is beyond the scope of the present study; however, a more thorough national examination of the current environment, including recommendations for the future, would help the academic and research communities.
Department chairs face a number of challenges when hiring new people, especially assistant professors. Medical schools are especially constrained by the need to hire in areas with readily available funding since medical school faculty must often pay at least a portion of their salaries through external grants (Liu and Mallon, 2004). Currently, R01 funding is a virtual prerequisite for promotion to tenure or tenure-equivalent positions at research-intensive institutions. NIH study sections, therefore, almost serve as de facto tenure committees. In its vision for 2010, the committee sees additional criteria for hiring, advancement, and promotion that recognize and reward scientific creativity beyond the sole-investigator model and within the context of multi-investigator interdisciplinary groups. These criteria would acknowledge and support the skills necessary to work effectively in collaborative settings.
Changing Attribution and Publication Policies
Once hired, new faculty must compete with more established investigators for recognition of their work. The most revered approach to gaining recognition is through publications. Biomedical researchers publish their findings in scholarly journals, adhering by tradition to an attribution structure in which the first listed author has carried out most of the experiments and the last author is the independent investigator who conceived the study and obtained primary funding. As such, one measure of independence for an investigator is being listed as the last author on a publication or an author list that does not include the research mentor.
However, many scientists can make valuable independent contributions to team efforts through essential skills and expertise that do not result in a first- or last-author listing on publications. By 2010, the vision includes a new system for attribution in publications in which the contributions of each author are explicitly stated and appropriately valued by promotion committees, study sections, and other evaluators. The biomedical research community can learn and adopt models from other scientific enterprises (e.g., high-energy physics research, the biotechnology industry), where large interdisciplinary teams of creative individuals are common and publication recognition is apportioned appropriately.
Recognize and Reward Non-Tenure-Track Pathways
Finally, although the tenure-track faculty position is the dominant model for independent basic biomedical research in academia and is likely to remain so, this traditional pathway, by which life scientists achieve independent laboratory status through a “straight and narrow” route, is not as clear as it once was. On this pathway, graduate students move on to perform postdoctoral work, are hired as assistant professors, and obtain their own funding. But this pathway is not as common now and it is not the only route to creative and independent scientific research. The research community needs to retain the talents of scientists who do not pursue the tenure-track academic faculty pathway. In particular, the vision for 2010 includes respect and recognition for staff scientists, whose contributions to the research enterprise are critically important and who may conduct much of the biomedical research in the future.
In the vision for 2010, academia will establish and support new career tracks that recognize independent scientific thought and scholarly achievements outside the traditional tenure-track position. This issue is addressed in more detail in Chapter 6.
NEED FOR FACULTY REFORM
In the current system of training and apprenticeship, faculty members are largely responsible for facilitating the transition to independence of trainees in their laboratories. Currently, standards and best practice for training and mentoring postdoctoral researchers are highly variable between—and even within—institutions. In fact, some faculty members are not comfortable or skilled as mentors, and few faculty have received any training and preparation for this important role. Indeed, because the majority of postdoctoral researchers are supported on individual research grants held by their advisors, there is no mandate or stated expectation
for training, and the experience is sometimes treated primarily as a form of employment, with little or no serious educational component.
Postdoctoral researchers who emerge from this setting are typically narrowly focused, and many aspire to become “clones” of their advisors rather than to think boldly and independently. The areas of research for postdoctoral researchers usually center tightly on the work of their advisor. Further, their career opportunities are constrained by the dearth of tenure-track faculty positions for independent investigators, especially at research-intensive institutions.
Fortunately, recognition of these problems among some faculty and within certain professional societies is growing. In the 2010 vision, faculty groups within institutions, government and private funding agencies of biomedical research, and professional societies would acknowledge an educational imperative for postdoctoral researchers, defining and implementing policies for their training and mechanisms for fostering their independence. These issues are discussed in more detail in Chapter 4.
NEED FOR DATA
As discussed in Chapter 2, there are very few available data on early-career researchers, making even simple questions—such as the number of postdoctoral scholars—very difficult to answer. The lack of data on postdoctoral researchers, staff scientists, and other non-tenure-track positions—as well as for tenure-track scientists1—makes it difficult to formulate informed programmatic and policy decisions. The few existing data sources exclude large segments of the biomedical research community (see Box 2-1); for example, the Survey of Doctorate Recipients excludes MDs and anyone earning a PhD outside of the United States.
The vision for 2010 includes a comprehensive integrated research personnel database that includes basic information on all federally-funded scientific researchers. This system would provide accurate counts and statistics on the research workforce and allow the kind of targeted and rigorous analysis needed for making informed programmatic and policy decisions. The need for accurate data is critical and is discussed in each of Chapters 4, 5, and 6.