The federal government makes a substantial investment in future scientists through a variety of training and research grant mechanisms. These individuals make their own investment, by devoting upwards of 12 years of time, intellect, and skills to prepare for a career in biomedical research after obtaining a bachelor’s degree.1 Considering the magnitude of this public and private investment, it is imperative that they receive comprehensive and meaningful research training, mentorship, and, as discussed in Chapter 3, the information needed to find and then thrive in a career that aligns with their interests and talents. This is essential for the United States to retain its leadership role in biomedical research and advancements.
As of 2013, 80 percent of U.S. biomedical Ph.D.’s enter postdoctoral research training after receiving their doctoral degrees (Kahn and Ginther, 2017). Most individuals enter into a postdoctoral research position with the intention of becoming an academic research faculty member (Sauermann and Roach, 2012), but only 18 percent ultimately secure tenure-track or tenured positions within 10 years of obtaining their doctorates (Figure 2-1). Others enter postdoctoral training to prepare for industry or other non-academic positions, while others do not state any clear career goal (Gibbs et al., 2015).
As explained in Chapter 2, the postdoctoral experience should be a mentored transition to research independence with the purpose of providing additional scientific, technical, and professional skills to advance an individual’s career. However, as also explained in Chapter 2, postdoctoral researchers have long been
1 In this report, “biomedical” refers to the full range of biological, biomedical, behavioral, and health sciences supported by the National Institutes of Health.
recognized as valuable to the research enterprise, “performing a substantial portion of the nation’s research in every setting” (Institute of Medicine et al., 2000, p. 10). The tension between the roles of trainee and institutional employee can taint the postdoctoral experience and compromise opportunities for postdoctoral researchers to develop the skills needed for their eventual careers. Trainee status, for example, typically entails low wages relative to the postdoctoral researcher’s educational background, and studies indicate that it can take up to 15 years after degree attainment for the postdoctoral cohort to catch up in salary compared to the non-postdoctoral cohort. To the extent that trainees are forgoing higher wages2 and benefits for a limited time period in exchange for meaningful opportunities to advance their long-term career goals, this trade-off is not controversial. However, if trainees are languishing in low-paying jobs, not securing appropriate mentorship and training, not progressing steadily toward research independence, and not receiving counseling about other potential career tracks (i.e., as a staff scientist), the situation becomes deeply problematic and violates core academic norms and values.
Although biomedical researchers throughout the enterprise face a variety of challenges during their research careers,3 the challenges experienced during the postdoctoral research stage command explicit attention in this report (Gibbs et al., 2015; Institute of Medicine et al., 2000; Kahn and Ginther, 2017; National Academy of Sciences et al., 2014). To address these issues, the committee makes the following set of recommendations.
Research institutions, principal investigators (PIs), and federal funding agencies should each play their part to support transitions from Ph.D.’s, M.D.’s, and M.D.-Ph.D.’s. to research independence by providing every postdoctoral researcher, regardless of the support mechanism or training location, with a high-quality training experience that prepares them for success in their chosen career. To achieve this overarching objective:
- The National Institutes of Health (NIH) should require the inclusion of an institutional training and mentoring plan as a component of
2 National Science Board. Science & Engineering Indicators 2018, Table 3-18: Median salaries for recent U.S. SEH doctorate recipients in postdoc and non-postdoc positions up to 5 years after receiving degree: 2015. https://www.nsf.gov/statistics/2018/nsb20181/assets/901/tables/tt03-18.pdf (accessed February 28, 2018).
3 The National Academies’ Committee on Revitalizing Graduate STEM Education is addressing these same issues from the perspective of graduate training in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.
- the “Resources and Environment” reported on research and training grant applications. In addition, NIH should require PIs to provide a postdoctoral research training and mentoring plan in all grant proposals, as well as updates on those plans in annual and interim research performance progress reports for funded proposals.
- Research institutions should provide evidence to NIH of formal training of faculty mentors of postdoctoral trainees.
- Research institutions should introduce a mechanism to facilitate career guidance counseling for all postdoctoral researchers. This mechanism would preferably begin in the first year but must occur no later than the third year of postdoctoral training. Such guidance should assess the postdoctoral researchers’ progress and evaluate alignment of their career aspirations with career prospects.
- NIH should increase the Ruth L. Kirschstein National Research Service Award (NRSA) starting salary for new postdoctoral researchers to $52,700 (in 2018 dollars), with annual adjustments for inflation and for cost-of-living increases tied to the Personal Consumption Expenditure Index. Research institutions should adjust their base postdoctoral salary annually to match the corresponding NRSA rate, with adjustments based on local cost-of-living, and they should harmonize benefits for all postdoctoral scholars regardless of support mechanism.
- Research institutions should levy a fee of at least $1,000 per year, to be paid by the host investigator, for each postdoctoral fellow on all biomedical research grants. Funds from the fee would be used to support effective training and professional development programs for postdoctoral researchers, as well as effective training of mentors. Research institutions should report publicly on the use of the money generated by this fee.
- All research institutions should, following best practices, identify or provide an institutional ombudsperson to resolve fairly and expeditiously conflicts and concerns between PIs and postdoctoral researchers related to training experiences.
For the purposes of this report, “postdoctoral researchers” are advanced trainees who, by definition, are entitled to receive training and mentoring regardless of the funding mechanism that supports them. This approach aligns with recommendations made by NIH, the American Association of Medical Colleges (AAMC), the National Postdoctoral Association (NPA), and the Office of Management and Budget (OMB).4
4 See Box 2-1 and NIH Notice NOT-OD-15-008, https://grants.nih.gov/grants/guide/notice-files/NOT-OD-15-008.html (accessed February 8, 2018).
Currently, approximately 46 percent of biomedical postdoctoral researchers at universities are supported on research project grants (RPGs).5 Unlike training grants and individual fellowships, RPGs do not explicitly require postdoctoral training or career development activities or reports on training outcomes. Further, the peer review process for RPGs focuses on the merit of the proposed project and does not assess the PI’s training record or the quality of the experiences of postdoctoral researchers supported on the grant. Postdoctoral researchers supported on RPGs during their entire tenure lack external benchmarks (such as the need to develop their own research project for a fellowship application) that could encourage and recognize the development of research independence. In addition, RPGs are awarded to PIs and therefore are not portable by postdoctoral researchers, making them dependent upon the PI for salary and research support. Finally, the use of RPG funding for postdoctoral researchers makes it more difficult to monitor the number of postdoctoral researchers and to assess their career progress.
Even if the number of fellowships and training grants were to be increased substantially as recommended below, postdoctoral researchers will remain supported largely through RPGs for the near future, given that only 10 percent of postdoctoral researchers are currently supported on federal fellowships and traineeships.6 Nonetheless, select changes in the RPG application and peer review could hold both the PI and the institution accountable for postdoctoral research training and thereby reduce disparities between training experiences. To start, NIH should require that the “Resources and Environment” section in all grant applications includes an institutional training and mentoring plan, as well as an individualized plan that outlines the PI’s commitment to the scientific and professional development of all postdoctoral research trainees. These additional requirements would build upon the existing requirement that NIH annual progress reports describe how individual development plans (IDPs) help to identify and promote the career goals of graduate students and postdoctoral researchers associated with NIH awards.7 This recommendation encourages research institutions to take responsibility for developing robust training and mentoring programs for their postdoctoral researchers.
This recommendation also contemplates a new mechanism to facilitate consideration by the researcher and their mentors of the researcher’s credible career opportunities, based on their demonstrated commitment to, and capacity for, rigorous, creative, and meaningful independent research activity. This career guidance mechanism should be documented and should occur between the first
5 NIH Data Book. Primary Source of Support for Postdoctorates. https://report.nih.gov/NIHDatabook/Charts/Default.aspx?showm=Y&chartId=263&catId=20 (accessed December 14, 2017).
6 NIH Data Book. Primary Source of Support for Postdoctorates. https://report.nih.gov/NIHDatabook/Charts/Default.aspx?showm=Y&chartId=263&catId=20 (accessed December 14, 2017).
7 NIH Notice NOT-OD-14-113. https://grants.nih.gov/grants/guide/notice-files/NOT-OD-14-113.html (accessed February 8, 2018).
and third year of the RPG or postdoctoral fellowship support. The committee envisions that every postdoctoral researcher would receive a written career guidance report that is signed by the PI and researcher and co-signed by the departmental head/chair. A final report would be included in any RPG or fellowship proposal that requests continued funding for that postdoctoral researcher. Following that report, each postdoctoral researcher would propose a concrete career plan, such as an IDP. Those aspiring to an academic research career would be expected to apply for an F or K award to continue preparation for an independent research career. Those ending their postdoctoral training would receive a reasonable time period to secure other employment. The discussions about career opportunities should cover a diversity of career paths, because the majority of biomedical Ph.D.’s do not transition into academic research positions (National Institutes of Health, 2012).
The collection of a modest fee for each postdoctoral researcher would create a partial funding source for institutional programs, including those that enhance training activities that occur outside the research laboratory, and would provide postdoctoral trainees with the resources, skills, and knowledge needed to succeed within and outside of academe. The imposition of an explicit, transparent fee in the RPG also reinforces the mentorship and training responsibilities of PIs and their home institutions. The amount of $1,000 is not so large that it will disrupt the RPG budgets, but is large enough to not only contribute funds to institutional programs, but also make PIs more cognizant of non-salary costs to employ and train postdoctoral researchers and to consider these costs when deciding whether or not to hire a postdoctoral researcher.8 For institutions employing fewer than 100 postdoctoral researchers, the sum raised will be relatively modest but sufficient to encourage them to augment programs to enhance the training and employability of their postdoctoral researchers. Federal funding agencies should make this fee an allowable and itemized direct cost budget item, and institutions should be accountable for and report the use of the fee.
Regarding the specific training that postdoctoral researchers should expect to receive, the committee endorses the six core competencies cited by the National Postdoctoral Association: (1) discipline-specific conceptual knowledge, (2) research skill development, (3) communication skills, (4) professionalism, (5) leadership and management skills, and (6) responsible conduct of research.9 Peer review for grant proposals should evaluate both laboratory-based and institutional plans for trainees, adopting these competencies as criteria and rating as “ACCEPTABLE/UNACCEPTABLE,” analogous to evaluations of the use of human subjects, the inclusion of children in research, and the use of vertebrate
8 In economic terms, the tax reflects the cost of university-provided training that otherwise is exported from the lab to the university, thereby providing better information to PIs about the full cost of engaging a postdoctoral researcher in their labs.
9 See http://www.nationalpostdoctoralresearcher.org/page/CoreCompetencies (accessed November 24, 2017).
animals. Any concerns should be resolved before applications are recommended for funding.
Currently, stipends paid to postdoctoral researchers supported on RPGs are at the discretion of the PI. Although institutions establish guidelines, they may be optional or not enforced. Postdoctoral Experience Revisited (National Academy of Sciences et al., 2014) includes a recommendation that postdoctoral research salaries start at $50,000 in 2014 dollars. The committee considers this recommendation sound and endorses its adoption for all starting postdoctoral researchers. NIH has already revised NRSA stipend levels since the publication of this 2014 report, and many institutions base their postdoctoral research salary guidelines on these levels (National Academy of Sciences et al., 2014). Encouragingly, recent survey data show that institutions employing 60 percent of the U.S. postdoctoral population have instituted policies to raise postdoctoral salaries (Bankston and McDowell, 2017). The committee believes that this salary level should be adjusted periodically for inflation (meaning that the baseline salary would be $52,700 in 2018 dollars10) and for local cost-of-living increases (using existing federal guidelines). Institutions should also provide postdoctoral researchers with fringe benefits appropriate for advanced trainees as cited by the National Postdoctoral Association11 and should make these benefits equitable across the institution, regardless of the source of postdoctoral research support.
The dependent status of most postdoctoral researchers—including a lack of job security, an inability to transfer salary support to a different laboratory, and the fact that their advisor will serve as a professional reference—renders them particularly vulnerable to instances of unfair or exploitative treatment. Therefore, each institution should appoint an ombudsperson to fairly and expeditiously resolve conflicts and concerns between PIs and postdoctoral researchers related to training experience, authorship disputes, and other matters. To be effective and credible, the office must be an impartial and independent actor and not saddled with responsibilities outside its narrow mandate (i.e., the broad employment and training issues relevant to postdoctoral researchers).
All postdoctoral researchers should be offered a mentored transition to independence and opportunities to develop skills and acquire substantive knowledge in their area of intended research. They should also be afforded opportunities to ascertain, in a timely manner and in concert with their mentors, suitable career trajectories following their postdoctoral experience. Given that the postdoctoral experience should be temporary, NIH, prior National Academies study commit-
10 Bureau of Labor Statistics, CPI Calculator. https://data.bls.gov/cgi-bin/cpicalc.pl?cost1=50000&year1=201401&year2=201801 (accessed February 27, 2018).
11 See http://www.nationalpostdoc.org/?recommpostdocpolicy (accessed December 15, 2017).
tees, research institutions, and scientific professional societies recommend limits on the length of postdoctoral training (see Appendix B).
Many argue that 5 years is an appropriate timeframe (see Appendix B) for postdoctoral researchers to complete training in preparation for an independent research career, while protecting them from languishing in a professional rank with little opportunity for career advancement. In the current climate, however, 5 years may not provide enough time for postdoctoral fellows to compete successfully for an academic research position. At the same time, 5 years is too long for timely consideration of other research and non-research career options. Although adopted by many universities, there has been little evidence that the 5-year rule on its own has substantially shortened the length of time spent in postdoctoral research positions, or has led to marked improvements in the training or mentoring experiences of postdoctoral researchers (Kahn and Ginther, 2017).
As discussed above and in Chapter 2, there are several respects in which RPGs present suboptimal training and mentoring support for postdoctoral researchers as compared to individual fellowships or mentored awards. Postdoctoral researchers on fellowships performed better on all outcomes compared to postdoctoral researchers on RPGs and training grants (National Institutes of Health, 2012). Indeed, it has been identified as potentially disadvantageous for underrepresented populations to be supported on RPGs rather than fellowship mechanisms (Working Group on Diversity in the Biomedical Research Workforce, 2012). Because PIs spend a large percentage of their time applying for funding, grantsmanship is a key skill for research independence in academia. Therefore, applying for an individual fellowship should become a standard practice during the postdoctoral training experience.
Thus, postdoctoral researchers would be better served if they secured their own support through individual awards that “diminish the employment relationship between postdoc and principal investigator” (National Research Council, 2005, p. 5). Although many PIs meaningfully train and mentor the postdoctoral researchers supported on their RPGs, it is challenging to guarantee these experiences for all postdoctoral researchers under an RPG where the primary accountable party is the PI.
In the public input received by this committee, a broad array of individuals and organizations shared the view that postdoctoral researchers should receive mentored training. As examples from the latter, the AAMC stated that “the research community should begin to disentangle ‘workforce’ from ‘training’,” and the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology recommended action to “help mitigate the current dualism that graduate students and postdoctoral researchers face as trainees AND employees.” To address this persistent challenge, the committee recommends an approach to ease postdoctoral researchers off a funding mechanism that does not explicitly promote a mentored transition to an independent career, while also presenting a natural check-point, well before
the 5-year mark, that motivates postdoctoral researchers and their advisers to actively consider the researcher’s training and career trajectory.
Therefore, the committee recommends the following:
The National Institutes of Health (NIH) should expand existing awards or create new competitive awards to support postdoctoral researchers’ advancement of their own independent research and to support professional development toward an independent research career. Both domestic and foreign postdoctoral researchers should be eligible for these awards. Over the next 5 years, NIH should incrementally and steadily increase by 5-fold the number of individual research fellowship awards (F-type) and career development (K-type) awards for postdoctoral researchers. The award recipients’ home institutions should provide them with benefits commensurate to those provided to postdoctoral researchers supported on NIH research project grants and appropriate to their level of experience. The increase should not come at the expense of institutional training grants. The indirect cost recovery rate earned by K-type and training grant awards should be increased to 16 percent.
The National Institutes of Health (NIH) should phase in a cap (3 years suggested) on salary support for all postdoctoral researchers funded by NIH research project grants (RPGs) based on the following considerations:
- The cap should not apply to time spent on fellowships or career development awards;
- The phase-in should occur only after NIH undertakes a robust pilot study (or studies) of sufficient size and duration to assess the feasibility of this policy and provide opportunities to revise it;
- The pilot study (or studies) should be coupled to action on recommendation 4.2, which calls for an increase in individual F and K awards that are not restricted to U.S. citizens and permanent residents;
- The pilot study (or studies) should assess potential benefits as well as potential deleterious consequences of such a cap for postdoctoral researchers, with special emphasis on women, underrepresented racial and ethnic minorities, and individuals with disabilities; early-stage independent investigators; and research creativity;
- A short extension of RPG support can be requested, with sufficient justification, to offset time lost because of unplanned circumstances (e.g., illness, lab disaster) or parental responsibilities; and
- Postdoctoral researchers should be allowed sufficient time between their last fellowship decision and the termination of their funding on RPGs to enable smooth career transitions.
Postdoctoral training should be limited to 5 years, after which time any postdoctoral researcher continuing in the same laboratory should be shifted to employment as a staff scientist with an increase in salary and benefits as appropriate for a permanent staff member.
Recommendations 4.2, 4.3, and 4.4 are premised on the belief that limiting the time postdoctoral researchers are supported on an RPG rather than fellowship will diminish the risk that the researcher will linger in a research position without clear and meaningful opportunities for advancement, training, and mentorship.
Recommendation 4.2 seeks to address the concern that the current number of available fellowships is much smaller than the number of postdoctoral researchers, and it has declined in real terms over time even though previous reports have recommended its increase, as noted in Appendix B. Of postdoctoral researchers specifically supported by NIH in 2016, approximately 79 percent were supported on RPGs and 19 percent on a fellowship or traineeship.12 To begin to shift the training system away from RPGs and toward a more beneficial platform for the next generation of researchers, the committee strongly advocates for a substantial increase in the proportion of postdoctoral researchers supported by F-type and K-type awards. These awards enable postdoctoral researchers to pursue research of their own design, and their portability ensures a suitable mentoring experience by tying the postdoctoral researchers to a project rather than a particular PI. Furthermore, peer review of F- and K-type applications ensures that postdoctoral fellows are selected for their potential to make significant scientific contributions rather than to serve as a productive subordinate.
The committee specifically recommends increases in independent F- and K-type awards rather than training grants. The committee considered various increases in F- and K-type awards, including a 10-fold increase. However, the committee concluded that a 5-fold increase in the number of F- and K-type awards over 5 years is preferable. Slightly more than 1,200 F-type awards13 and nearly 1,000 K-type awards14 were distributed in 2016, and a 5-fold increase would represent a substantial increase in the number of fellowships and career development awards and would help to transform the training landscape. These awards are not intended to increase the size of the postdoctoral researcher popula-
12 NSF. Survey of Graduate Students and Postdoctorates in Science and Engineering, 2016, Table 41: Postdoctoral appointees in science, engineering, and health in all institutions, by field, primary source of support, and primary mechanism of support: 2016. https://ncsesdata.nsf.gov/gradpostdoc/2016/html/GSS2016_DST_41.html (accessed March 6, 2018).
13 See https://report.nih.gov/NIHDatabook/Charts/Default.aspx?showm=Y&chartId=52&catId=17 (accessed February 9, 2018).
14 See https://report.nih.gov/NIHDatabook/Charts/Default.aspx?showm=Y&chartId=211&catId=16 (accessed February 9, 2018).
tion, but instead to shift their support from RPGs, which are currently the most prevalent source of postdoctoral support.15
Prior recommendations for general increases in the numbers of postdoctoral researchers supported on fellowships (see Appendix B) have not gained traction. To the committee’s knowledge, this recommendation is the first of this kind to set a concrete goal for such an increase. The committee recognizes the possibility that a large, non-staged increase could have unintended consequences for other aspects of the biomedical research enterprise, including the number and size of research grants, increased pressure on award reviewers, and the functioning and operation of laboratories. In particular, an expansion of F- and K-type awards might unintentionally penalize applications from postdoctoral researchers in the labs of early-stage investigators (ESIs) if they were deemed less competitive than those in the labs of established investigators.
The increase from 8 percent to 16 percent for indirect costs on F- and K-type awards is necessary to cover the incremental costs of multiple demands on training institutions to improve monitoring and reporting of the professional development and mentoring that trainees receive. Without a significant increase in the indirect costs associated with training grants, the new requirements outlined throughout this report would amount to an unfunded mandate and, as a result, would likely not be acted on in the manner needed.
Recommendation 4.3 creates an expectation that postdoctoral researchers who continue in positions supported by RPGs for more than a certain time period must transition to F- and K- awards (or similar awards from non-federal sources). This recommendation seeks to reinforce the decision point when the postdoctoral researcher and mentor should assess the researcher’s potential to develop an independent research project. This decision point is not meant to determine a researcher’s subsequent career choice; rather, it is meant to require the researcher to design and propose a fellowship project as a milestone on the path toward independence.
The committee suggests 3 years as an appropriate timeframe to support a postdoctoral fellow on an RPG, but recognizes that this timeframe should be examined in the pilot study (or studies). It is instructive that the authoring committee of Bridges to Independence expressed its hope that “the normal length of postdoctoral training will be closer to 3 years, whether in one or multiple environments. This is consistent with an overall training period—including graduate and postdoctoral training—of no more than 10 years” (National Research Council, 2005, p. 5). The committee recognizes, however, that in the current labor market, few postdoctoral researchers can compete for an independent position after only 3 years.
Therefore, postdoctoral researchers with strong potential to establish their own research programs (from all populations, including non-domestic, underrepresented ethnic and racial minorities, women, and individuals with disabili-
15 NIH Data Book. Primary Source of Support for Postdoctorates. https://report.nih.gov/NIHDatabook/Charts/Default.aspx?showm=Y&chartId=263&catId=20 (accessed December 14, 2017).
ties) should continue their work on a funding mechanism that nurtures and promotes the development of their independence. For postdoctoral researchers who are phasing out after 3 years on an RPG, there must be an adequate number of opportunities for additional (but time-limited) support in the form of grants, fellowships, or awards that will allow them to complete their postdoctoral work and advance toward an independent academic research appointment—either in the United States or abroad.
The committee does not envision that the 3 years of support on research grants must run consecutively. One scenario for application of the cap could be 3 years of support on the PI’s grant, and then a fellowship or career development award, but other scenarios are possible. The suggested 3-year cap should include a grace period of at least 1 year for parental leave to ensure that researchers with increasing family responsibilities are not selectively harmed by this policy change. The committee is mindful as well that the success of this recommendation depends on the application of a universal definition of a postdoctoral researcher, as noted in Chapter 2. Postdoctoral researchers who remain on a RPG for more than 3 years should be identified as a staff or career scientist and compensated accordingly.
The committee recognizes these recommended changes to current funding policies could have unpredictable effects on the incentives and conduct of researchers. Committee members had diverse and intensely held opinions about the likely impacts of implementing a 3-year cap on support from RPGs. In the end, committee members agreed that before any cap is instituted, NIH should develop one or more pilot studies to assess the feasibility of the recommendation and its consequences for research personnel across the biomedical research enterprise. These studies should begin expeditiously, be designed with sufficient size and duration for adequate assessment and evaluation, and be monitored by both NIH and the proposed Biomedical Research Enterprise Council (BREC).
The studies should explore different mechanisms for implementing a 3-year cap on support from RPGs, as well as expansion of funding mechanisms to provide researchers who have demonstrated the capacity and inclination for an academic research career, with additional but limited time to complete their research projects and secure an academic appointment. The committee is aware that the current number of postdoctoral awards is grossly insufficient to support postdoctoral researchers who would, under the suggested 3-year cap, be required to transition from RPGs. An additional and serious complication relates to the current restrictions on the capacity of foreign postdoctoral researchers to be supported on F-type training fellowships, T-type institutional training grants, or K-type mentored career awards, with the exception of the K99/R00 Pathway to Independence award. Currently, 53 percent of the postdoctoral researchers at U.S. academic institutions16 are not eli-
16 See https://ncsesdata.nsf.gov/gradpostdoc/2015/html/GSS2015_DST_47.html (accessed February 9, 2019).
gible for support on federal fellowships and training grants. If the eligibility criteria are not changed, then the imposition of a 3-year cap on support from RPGs would deprive the enterprise of access to a large and outstanding cadre of talent and would have a devastating impact on the quality of the current workforce.
Therefore, prior to implementation of a 3-year cap, along with the pilot studies, there should be action on Recommendation 4.2, that is, to increase the numbers of individual F- and K-type awards that are not restricted to U.S. citizens and permanent residents. In addition, there should be a transitional period between the last fellowship decision received by a postdoctoral researcher and termination of their support on an RPG.
The committee remands to NIH the responsibility of developing any additional steps that are necessary to effectively shift postdoctoral researchers from funding on RPGs to fellowships at the end of 3 years. These steps could include expansion in the number or eligibility of certain other existing awards and creation of a new award tailored to the needs of this population. The model of a temporally phased approach to postdoctoral training presents an opportunity to experiment with entirely new modes of funding, and the committee encourages NIH to make ample use of this opportunity.17
More generally, in designing the proposed pilot study, NIH should consider the many complexities that may arise with implementation of a new cap of this type. These may include, but are not limited to
- the implications for PIs, including, in particular, the potential for a negative impact on newly established and resource-limited laboratories and ESIs;
- the consequences of imposing rigid timing constraints for independent research career progression, especially for underrepresented groups, including women, ethnic minorities, and persons with disabilities;
- the potential to favor incremental or conservative research over more innovative proposals if postdoctoral researchers must compete successfully for fellowships in their second year;
- the potential for an adverse effect on internationally trained Ph.D.’s; and
- the consequences of differential overhead rates on research grants versus fellowship (F-type) and career development (K-type) awards.
If due care is not taken in addressing these issues, widespread and consistent imposition of the cap could very well harm the populations that this recommendation is intended to benefit—especially ESIs and individuals already underrepresented in the biomedical research fields. At any rate, the need for careful
17 The committee debated the development of a new 3-year award (with a 2-year extension) that would be portable for use anywhere in the biomedical research enterprise—academia, government (intramural or other government research institution), big pharma/biotech, or small business—providing that the training has a strong research component.
consideration of these issues is precisely why the recommended pilot studies are important instruments for stimulating evidence-based changes in the country’s complex biomedical research enterprise.
Finally, Recommendation 4.4 endorses recommendations from earlier reports that postdoctoral training on any funding mechanism be limited to 5 years (Appendix B). After 5 years, any postdoctoral researcher continuing in the same laboratory should be shifted to employment as a staff scientist with an increase in salary and benefits appropriate for a permanent staff member. However, postdoctoral researchers should be allowed to request a short extension beyond the 5 years to account for unplanned circumstances or parental responsibilities.
Taken together, these recommendations seek to engage an enduring concern, one expressed in numerous earlier reports, that most postdoctoral researchers are supported for extended periods of time on RPGs that do not adequately promote their mentorship, training, or transition to independence. RPGs enable the PI to use postdoctoral researchers as technicians who are expected to execute predefined aims. Under these conditions, many postdoctoral researchers face barriers to cultivating independence. It was not always this way; the percentage of postdoctoral researchers supported on these mechanisms has skyrocketed in recent years. These recommendations seek to ease the postdoctoral research population away from this funding mechanism.
While acknowledging all of these complexities and their diverse opinions about the potential implications of these recommendations, the committee members were unanimous in the belief that the postdoctoral experience should be considered a period of mentored transition to independence and that an enforceable, innovative, and tested mechanism is necessary to promote the career progression to independent careers. Previous recommendations have fallen short of stimulating the action needed to transform this crucial career stage. The system is now primed for innovative, rather than incremental, systemic change—if done deliberately and with care.
Congress and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) should create and expand existing entrepreneurial and private-sector opportunities to attract and support the next generation of biomedical and behavioral researchers.
- Congress should revise the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR)/Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) program to enable NIH to create a novel ecosystem that fosters entrepreneurship for next generation biomedical scientists, facilitates women- and minority-owned entrepreneurship, and supports fulfillment of NIH’s mission across the private sector.
- Congress should extend/establish an employment tax credit to research and development (R&D) firms for hiring recently minted Ph.D.’s, M.D.’s, and M.D.-Ph.D.’s. and make the credit higher for small- to medium-sized R&D firms and firms that recruit into R&D activity for the first time.
One avenue for creating additional opportunities for Ph.D.’s, M.D.’s, and M.D.-Ph.D.’s to pursue independent research careers outside of academia would be an individual grant mechanism geared toward promoting entrepreneurship in the small business environment. Small business has long been recognized as “critical to the nation’s economic strength, to building America’s future, and to helping the United States compete in today’s global marketplace.”18 In 1982, Congress created the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program to encourage small businesses to develop new processes and products and to provide quality research in support of the U.S. government’s missions. In 1992 it created the Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) program to expand partnership opportunities for small business and nonprofit research institutions by requiring small business recipients to collaborate with academic research institutions.19 The SBIR/STTR program is overseen by an interagency committee co-chaired by the White House Office of Science and Technology and Policy and the Small Business Administration, and it is implemented through 11 federal agencies, including the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). In 2015, HHS awarded $813.8 million in SBIR/STTR funds, with the majority provided by NIH.20
In light of the 2016 21st Century Cures Act21 and 2017 American Innovation and Competitiveness Act,22 which includes a focus on the next generation of researchers and the promotion of scientific entrepreneurship, the committee examined whether the central structure of the SBIR/STTR program as implemented by HHS should be modified to align with the goals of those laws. The development of programs and support mechanisms that encourage early-career researchers to engage with the small business enterprise can provide critical preparation for biomedical research trainees, including postdoctoral researchers, to become biomedical innovators and advance economic growth. To achieve this endpoint, the NIH SBIR/STTR program should be modified to enable grants/contracts to small businesses that aim to reduce the cost of research. Several models for this approach exist across other federal agencies that participate in the SBIR program.
Mechanisms already exist within the SBIR/STTR program portfolio to engage early-career researchers. One such example is the Small Business Postdoctoral Research Diversity Fellowship Program supported by the National
19 See https://www.sbir.gov/tutorials/program-basics/tutorial-5 (accessed February 9, 2018).
20 See https://www.sbir.gov/awards/annual-reports?view_by=Agency (accessed December 6, 2017).
21 21st Century Cures Act, P.L. 114-225, 130 Stat. 1033-1344 (2016).
22 American Innovation and Competitiveness Act, P.L. 114-329, 130 Stat. 2969-3038 (2017).
Science Foundation (NSF),23 which promotes the engagement of postdoctoral researchers from underrepresented groups in NSF-supported SBIR companies. Congress and NIH should build on that precedent by adapting other mechanisms not currently linked to the SBIR/STIR program to promote entrepreneurship in the next generation of researchers. For example, a mechanism similar to the NIH Pathways to Independence Award (K99/R00) could be developed within the SBIR program to provide mentoring for early-career scientists and aids their transition to independence within the small business ecosystem, rather than academia. In the same way, a model similar to the Research Supplements to Promote Diversity in Health-Related Research program, which provides earmarked funding for established scientists to mentor diverse trainees interested in pursuing careers in health-related research, could be developed within the SBIR/STTR program to promote diversity in the small business-driven ecosystem.
A separate avenue for cultivating independent research opportunities for talented biomedical trainees and creating more opportunities for them in the private sector would require Congress to extend or establish an employment tax credit for R&D firms that hire new Ph.D.’s, M.D.’s, and M.D.-Ph.D.’s. By lowering the cost of hiring researchers, a tax credit should stimulate employment in R&D. The tax credit recommendation builds on Action D-2 from the National Research Council report Rising Above the Gathering Storm (National Academy of Sciences et al., 2007, p. 11) to “enact a stronger research and development tax credit to encourage private investment in innovation.”
The logic for the tax credit rests on two facts. First, tax credits are more effective when the supply of labor is forthcoming without an accompanying increase in wages (Bartik and Bishop, 2009). Second, tax credits in the form of wage subsidies for Ph.D.’s have been found to have a positive effect on the number of Ph.D. researchers hired by Belgian firms (Dumont, 2015). They have also been shown to be effective in stimulating R&D hiring by firms that have previously not engaged in research (Neicu et al., 2016). Moreover, the tax credit provides opportunities to target certain types of firms. By way of example, and consistent with the recommendation designed to stimulate entrepreneurial activity on the part of recently trained biomedical researchers, the credit could be higher for small- to medium-sized R&D firms or for young innovative companies. Such a policy would be similar to one in Belgium that provides a tax exemption on wage subsidies associated with recruiting and hiring scientists for young innovative companies and research organizations (Dumont, 2015).
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Bartik, T. J., and J. H. Bishop. 2009. The job creation tax credit: Dismal projections for employment call for a quick, efficient, and effective response. Washington, DC: Economic Policy Institute.
Dumont, M. 2015. Evaluation of federal tax incentives for private R&D in Belgium: An update. Brussels: Federal Planning Bureau.
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Kahn, S., and D. K. Ginther. 2017. The impact of postdoctoral training on early careers in biomedicine. Nature Biotechnology 35(1):90-94.
National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, and Institute of Medicine. 2007. Rising above the gathering storm: Energizing and employing America for a brighter economic future. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.
National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, and Institute of Medicine. 2014. The postdoctoral experience revisited. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.
National Institutes of Health. 2012. Biomedical research workforce working group report. Bethesda, MD: National Institutes of Health.
National Research Council. 2005. Bridges to independence: Fostering the independence of new investigators in biomedical research. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.
Neicu, D., P. Teirlinck, and S. Kelchtermans. 2016. Dipping in the policy mix: Do R&D subsidies foster behavioral additionality effects of R&D tax credits? Economics of Innovation and New Technology 25(3):218-239.
Sauermann, H., and M. Roach. 2012. Science PhD career preferences: Levels, changes, and advisor encouragement. PloS One 7(5):e36307.
Working Group on Diversity in the Biomedical Research Workforce. 2012. Draft report of the Advisory Committee to the Director: Working Group on Diversity in the Biomedical Research Workforce. Bethesda, MD: National Institutes of Health.