Thirteen years ago, the National Academies sponsored a report called Bridges to Independence: Fostering the Independence of New Investigators in Biomedical Research (National Research Council, 2005). Highlighting data showing that the age at which science investigators receive their first research grant was increasing, and that the number and percentage of grants awarded to young researchers was decreasing, the report voiced concern about the vitality of the U.S. biomedical1 research enterprise and, in particular, the fate of early-career investigators. The report explained the following:
Academic biomedical researchers are therefore spending long periods of time at the beginning of their careers unable to set their own research directions or establish their independence. This has led to a fear that promising prospective scientists will choose not to pursue a career in academic biomedical research and, instead, opt for career paths that provide a greater chance for independence. This “crisis of expectation” has severe and troubling implications for the future of biomedical research in the United States. (National Research Council, 2005, p. 1)
These concerns have not lessened in the years since the Bridges to Independence study. Congress included language in the 2016 Consolidated Appropriations Act2 requiring the director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to enter into an agreement with the National Academies to produce
1 In this report, “biomedical” refers to the full range of biological, biomedical, behavioral, and health sciences supported by the National Institutes of Health.
2 Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2016, P.L. 114-113, 129 Stat. 2608 (2015). Available at https://www.congress.gov/bill/114th-congress/house-bill/2029/text (accessed January 19, 2018).
(A) an evaluation of the legislative, administrative, educational, and cultural barriers faced by the next generation of researchers; (B) an evaluation of the impact of federal budget constraints on the next generation of researchers; and (C) recommendations for the implementation of policies to incentivize, improve entry into, and sustain careers in research for the next generation of researchers, including proposed policies for agencies and academic institutions.
In addition, Congress included in the 21st Century Cures Act of 20163 a section titled “Investing in the Next Generation of Researchers” that requires the NIH director to “[p]romote policies and programs within the National Institutes of Health that are focused on improving opportunities for new researchers and promoting earlier research independence, including existing policies and programs, as appropriate” and to “develop, modify, or prioritize policies, as needed, within the National Institutes of Health to promote opportunities for new researchers and earlier research independence, such as policies to increase opportunities for new researchers to receive funding, enhance training and mentorship programs for researchers, and enhance workforce diversity.” The bill also called for the NIH director to “take into consideration the recommendations made by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine as part of the comprehensive study on policies affecting the next generation of researchers.”
As a result of that directive, the Board on Higher Education and Workforce (BHEW) of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine convened an ad hoc committee tasked with evaluating factors that influence transitions into independent research careers in the biomedical and behavioral sciences, and developing recommendations to improve those transitions (see Box 1-1).
Throughout the 18-month study, the committee held five meetings, including three held outside Washington, DC, in Cambridge, MA, San Francisco, CA, and Baltimore, MD, to allow for a diversity of input from university researchers and other stakeholders (see Appendix E for the meeting agendas). In addition to issues identified during the public sessions, the committee considered a wide range of articles in the published literature and a select number of reports issued over the past 20 years that have focused on the biomedical and behavioral sciences research workforces, postdoctoral researchers, and young investigators in the early stages of their careers (see Appendix B for a list of those reports).
The committee was acutely aware that it was not the first to review the state of early-career investigators in the biomedical workforce and that it was writing against the backdrop of a series of prior reports. Early in its deliberations, the committee compiled a list of recommendations included in major reports issued
3 21st Century Cures Act, P.L. 114-225 § 2021, 130 Stat. 1051, 1052 (2016). Available at https://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/PLAW-114publ255/content-detail.html (accessed January 19, 2018).
by the National Academies, NIH, and the Federation of American Societies of Experimental Biology (FASEB), and it assembled information on the actions or inactions of stakeholders in response to the recommendations. The responses to prior recommendations are discussed throughout the report and are listed in Appendix B. The committee also received input from NIH on past and current initiatives focused on early-stage investigators.
The committee also collected data about the biomedical workforce from a range of sources. Most prominently, the committee made numerous requests for data from NIH, which responded in a diligent and timely manner. The data provided important insights that guided deliberations and informed the process for
developing recommendations and identifying the multiple stakeholders linked to the recommendations. Much of these data are discussed in Chapter 2.
Furthermore, recognizing that the rest of the world is not sitting still, and to gain perspective on the issues facing other biomedical research systems around the world and their approaches in addressing concerns about their early independent investigators, the committee commissioned expert reports on policies under way to improve the next generation of research in five other regions: Canada, China, the European Union, the United Kingdom, and Singapore. The authors of these reports presented their findings to the committee, and their analyses informed deliberations.4
As an additional means to gather input, the committee released a “Dear Colleague” letter, inviting the biomedical research community at large to provide input on recommendations proposed in the published literature (see Appendix C). BHEW staff established a website, http://www.nas.edu/nextgeninput, where the community could provide input. The committee received feedback from a range of individuals and professional organizations that further informed its deliberations.5
Consistent with its Statement of Task, the committee focused its efforts on the specific challenges facing the next generation of investigators as they transition from training to independent research careers. This transition period does not exist in isolation from the remainder of the biomedical research career path. To complete its task, the committee looked beyond this transition period to other career stages that are relevant to the question at hand—for example, what information will allow trainees to successfully transition to independence, or the implications of reforms for mid-career investigators.
In defining “independent research careers,” the committee was guided by the 2005 National Academies report, Bridges to Independence (National Research Council, 2005, p. 3), which defined an “independent investigator” as someone who
. . . enjoys independence of thought—the freedom to define the problem of interest and/or to choose or develop the best strategies and approaches to address that problem. Under this definition, an independent scientist may work alone, as the intellectual leader of a research group, or as a member of a consortium of investigators each contributing distinct expertise. Specifically, we do not intend “independence” to mean necessarily “isolated” or “solitary,” or to imply “self-sustaining” or “separately funded.”
Regarding the transition to independence of biomedical scientists, the committee deliberately considered academic faculty positions at research universities and the multiplicity of positions in government and industry where scientists currently conduct their research. Indeed, the committee believes that the narrow focus in the system on academic careers is one source of the problems affecting the next generation of scientists.
For ease of narrative, the committee refers to the biomedical sciences or biomedical research through this report; however, this report extends as well to the full range of health sciences supported by NIH. Although most of the training and NIH-funded research in the biomedical sciences is conducted at research universities, the recommendations put forth in this report, except where specified, extend to the broader spectrum of research institutions outside of academia or private industry where the next generation of biomedical researchers is trained and where research is conducted.
The remainder of this report addresses the committee’s activities, findings, and recommendations. Chapter 2 describes the challenges facing young investigators at each stage of their developing careers and why it is important to address those challenges. The four chapters that follow arrange the recommendations by theme: Chapter 3 on Transparency, Shared Responsibility, and Sustainability; Chapter 4 on Transitions to Independence; Chapter 5 on Building a Better Ecosystem for Independence; and Chapter 6 on Innovation and Experimentation. The committee then offers some concluding thoughts in Chapter 7.
National Research Council. 2005. Bridges to independence: Fostering the independence of new investigators in biomedical research. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.
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