The age at which scientific investigators receive their first research grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) has been increasing in recent decades. The number and percentage of grants awarded to younger researchers has been decreasing. While investigators under the age of 40 received over half of the competitive research awards in 1980, that age cohort received fewer than 17 percent of awards in 2003. As of 2002, the median age at which PhD researchers receive their first research grant was 42. Moreover, the percentage and absolute number of awards made to new investigators—regardless of age—has declined over the last several years, with new investigators receiving less than 4 percent of NIH research awards made in 2002.
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. The first effects may be starting to occur as recent data have indicated a decline in the number of U.S.-trained postdoctoral researchers in the biomedical sciences even while the rate of new PhDs has remained constant.
Moreover, there is a serious concern that new investigators are being driven to pursue more conservative research projects instead of the high-
risk, high-reward research that can significantly advance science. The special creativity that younger scientists may bring to their work is also lost as these investigators are forced to focus on others’ research.
Because of concerns about the effects of the increasing age of first grant on the careers of academic scientists and their ability to undertake high-risk research, the NIH has asked the National Academies to recommend mechanisms to foster the independence of new investigators in biomedical research. This report therefore focuses on the transition to independence of postdoctoral researchers and entry-level faculty with emphases on mechanisms to enhance the quality and effectiveness of postdoctoral training, the ability of young scientists to receive independent research funding, and the establishment of stable research programs. The committee convened a public workshop as the principal data-gathering event of the study. Over 150 people participating in person and 100 more via a live webcast engaged in consideration of available data, model programs to support new investigators, as well as the previous recommendations and the impediments that have prevented them from being put into practice.
Simply put, there are not enough tenure-track academic positions for the available pool of biomedical researchers. Very little that the committee can recommend will cause a sudden explosion in the number of such positions and consideration of the appropriate size of the pool is beyond the scope of this committee. As such, the report focuses on other mechanisms to enhance the quality of training and foster opportunities for independence.
NIH has significant responsibility for the current state of affairs, but also a significant ability to help reverse the increasing age of independence. Lengthy training periods and the requirement for preliminary data in grant proposals are the result of NIH policies and available funding. However, one cannot isolate the role of NIH from that of other stakeholder groups—including universities, professional societies, public and private funding agencies, academic administrators, senior faculty, junior faculty, staff scientists, and postdoctoral scientists. The findings and recommendations in this report are provided for all of these groups, in addition to the NIH itself.
The definition of “independence” as a researcher in a tenure-track faculty position who has received his or her first R01 research project
grant1 is outdated. With changes in scientific research and the academic biomedical research workforce, independence must also incorporate non-tenure-track researchers, those without their own research laboratory, and those who work as part of large research teams. In this way, we define an “independent investigator” as one 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. “Independence” does not mean necessarily “isolated” or “solitary,” or imply “self-sustaining” or “separately funded.”
In addition, the committee has affirmed the interconnectedness of scientific research and research training. Mentoring and research training cannot be separated from scientific research for anyone in postdoctoral—or graduate student—positions and should not be considered as separate objectives.
The committee did not begin its consideration de novo as there is a history of concern for these issues and many previous recommendations have been offered to address them. However, there has been disappointingly little progress in improving the situation confronting new investigators or in implementing previous recommendations. In formulating its recommendations, the present committee has considered the earlier recommendations and the challenges that have prevented them from being implemented or from producing the desired effect.
Overall, NIH has not implemented most of the previous recommendations. The committee did not have an opportunity to fully investigate the reasons for the slow progress in implementing previous recommendations.
Several of the programs that are advertised as helping new investigators are actually designed to meet specific institute goals, rather than the more general needs of new investigators. While the committee appreci-
R01 research project grants are the predominant mechanism for individual investigator research funding from NIH. As defined by the NIH, “the Research Project (R01) grant is an award made to support a discrete, specified, circumscribed project to be performed by the named investigator(s) in an area representing the investigator’s specific interest and competencies, based on the mission of the NIH.” (Source: http://grants2.nih.gov/grants/funding/r01.htm)
ates the need to meet a variety of objectives, fostering the independence of new investigators has not been a significant NIH-wide goal addressed in a coordinated fashion. The committee hopes that the NIH Roadmap and its initiatives will provide a unifying structure for implementing trans-NIH initiatives, such as efforts needed to foster the independence of new investigators. The discussion that follows proceeds by career stage, looking first to the postdoctoral training period, followed by the transition to the first independent position, and finally the establishment of stable research programs. The 14 recommendations are numbered according to the chapters in which they appear.
OPTIMIZING POSTDOCTORAL TRAINING
Postdoctoral training has become almost required in the biomedical sciences with early-career researchers spending several years in one or more postdoctoral positions. A 1998 National Research Council (NRC) report on Trends in the Early Careers of Life Scientists commented that the postdoctoral period has become too much of a “holding pattern” for many young scientists. In addition, many postdoctoral experiences more closely resemble employment than they do training. The postdoc is a crucial opportunity for providing early-career researchers with skills and experiences that will help foster their transition to independence. The committee has, therefore, paid particular attention to programs and cultures that can help optimize postdoctoral training for all aspiring researchers.
Shorten the Postdoctoral Appointment
The NRC and others have emphasized that postdoctoral training should be a temporary appointment, with researchers transitioning to a variety of other positions after no more than 5 years as a postdoc. Moreover, researchers who choose to stay in the same laboratory after the 5-year limit should be promoted to staff scientist positions, with a full complement of benefits and appropriate levels of responsibility. NIH and many academic institutions and scientific organizations have agreed to the principle of the term limit, but do not always have a mechanism for enforcing the limit. In fact, NIH makes no mention of this limit in the guidelines for research awards, even though the vast majority of NIH-supported postdocs are funded on investigator research grants.
4.1 NIH should enforce a 5-year limit on the use of any funding mechanism—including research grants—to support postdoctoral researchers. The nature of the position, including responsibilities and benefits, should change for those researchers who transition to staff scientist positions after 5 years.
NIH should require and enforce that a person can only be classified as a “postdoctoral researcher”—or other title used by the institution for the position—for no longer than 5 years total (whether at one or multiple institutions), regardless of the type of award. That is, the time limit will apply equally to postdoctoral scientists supported with individual Ruth L. Kirschstein National Research Service Awards (NRSAs), training grants, or R01s. In circumstances where a postdoctoral scientist requires an extra year beyond the 5 years to complete an already-started job search, a professional development plan should be submitted to NIH indicating why a single extra year is needed to achieve career success and independence.
Five years is meant to be the maximum duration of a postdoctoral position, with the expected duration much shorter. A postdoctoral tenure should last only as long as is needed to prepare the investigator for the next career stage. The committee hopes 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.
Reallocate NIH Resources for Postdoctoral Support
The use of the R01 as the predominant mechanism to support postdoctoral scientists poses problems, as almost all postdocs are supported on research grants made to others. These postdocs may thereby be required to spend 100 percent of their time on the research plan described in the R01 of the Principal Investigator (PI), stifling the ability of postdoctoral researchers to pursue independent research. Postdoctoral scientists would be better served if they received their own support through individual awards—such as the NRSAs and career development K awards—or through training grants that at least diminish the employment relationship between postdoc and PI. At the same time, innovation and discovery in American biomedical science would be stimulated by postdoctoral scientists having more of a role in designing, conducting, and evaluating their own research projects, while still under the mentorship of more senior investigators.
4.2 Postdoctoral researchers should be more independent and less dependent on the research grants of PIs. NIH should reallocate some of the resources for postdoctoral support away from the R01 and toward individual awards and training grants.
This realignment in mechanisms of support for postdoctoral scientists would increase accountability for mentorship and training responsibilities. The proposed increase in the number of awards made to indi-
vidual postdoctoral scientists would encourage postdocs to take ownership of the conceptualization, design, and scientific direction for their research.
The committee recognizes that such a shift is not without possible challenges, including the effect on university budgets with significant differences in indirect cost recovery between research and training awards and a possible mismatch between research funding of PIs and the workforce needed to conduct that research. But the viewpoint of this committee is that postdocs are not simply workers, but scholars with their own ability to contribute. This committee’s focus on the quality of biomedical research training to foster independence causes it to conclude that funding of postdocs through individual awards and training grants is preferable to funding on PI research awards. Furthermore, if eligibility for postdoctoral training support is expanded to include non-U.S. citizens, as recommended below, then the size of the applicant pool could double.
One difficulty of an increased reliance on training awards is that they are restricted to U.S. citizens and permanent residents. Yet the number of postdoctoral biomedical scientists in the United States on temporary visas has increased dramatically in the last 20 years so that today, more than half of the biomedical postdoctoral researchers in this country hold non-U.S. citizenship. It is difficult to consider the U.S. biomedical research enterprise without acknowledging the critical role played by scientists from outside the U.S. At present, the only way that these individuals can be supported with NIH funds is through research grants to a PI. Non-U.S. citizens contribute significantly to biomedical research, but cannot apply for training awards. Therefore, to increase innovation and discovery in U.S. biomedical science, it is critical that all postdocs have such training opportunities.
4.3 In order to provide equal opportunities for non-U.S. citizens, the citizenship requirement for NRSAs and related postdoctoral training awards should either be modified, or alternative and equivalent mechanisms of support should be available for those who are not U.S. citizens or permanent residents.
The best interest of biomedical research and biomedical researchers calls for effective training opportunities for all conducting research in the United States. This recommendation could increase the competition for existing awards by doubling the pool of potential applicants. This effect would be mitigated, however, by also implementing recommendation 4.2 that calls for increased support for individual fellowships and training grants overall. In addition, making federal support available to those who are not U.S. citizens or permanent residents can be controversial, but it is
important to recognize that those who would receive such training awards are likely already supported on research grants and are, in fact, critical to the advances in U.S. biomedical research. The NIH has already committed to providing international postdoctoral trainees with a similar level of support and training environment as U.S. citizens, but progress has been slow in implementing a broad plan to achieve this goal.
Provide Independent Funding
In order to further promote increasing independence for postdoctoral scientists, the NIH should create targeted mechanisms that allow postdoctoral scholars to receive individual research grants. They would conduct this research in the laboratory of an identified mentor.
4.4 A new research award is needed at NIH to provide postdoctoral researchers with the opportunity to conduct an independent project under the mentorship of a senior investigator. This postdoctoral independent research award would complement, but not replace, the existing NRSA.
The new award would constitute a research grant to the postdoctoral researcher for a particular project conducted with an identified mentor. The awards would be portable and have sufficient resources for the institution to provide benefits—as well as salary—for the postdoc. Host laboratories would benefit from the expertise and experience of independent researchers as well as the broadening of the laboratory’s research interests.
The proposed awards would encourage independence for postdoctoral researchers by giving them more control in determining the subject and course of their research interests than is currently available. Because they could take extensions of the project with them, the odds of achieving successful independence are enhanced.
Clarify the Mentorship Responsibilities of PIs
The R01 is currently by far the predominant mechanism by which postdoctoral researchers receive support. This use of the R01 has resulted in the dependence of PIs on trainees to produce work for their publications and grant renewals as well as the dependence of trainees on their PIs for support. Even though all postdoctoral scientists would benefit from enhanced training from their mentors, reviews of R01 proposals do not consider training; as such, training only tends to occur at the discretion of the PI. The R01 application and review process should be modified to correct these deficiencies.
4.5 NIH should modify the application for R01s so that requests for postdoctoral research positions include a description of how the postdoc will be prepared for an independent career (training) and a description of the elements of the proposed project in which the postdoctoral researcher will be involved. PIs should provide basic information for all current postdocs and those supported within the last 10 years to include name, time in the laboratory, and their current title and institution.
Adding these requirements to the R01 would reinforce upon faculty the responsibility they have toward the postdoctoral researchers whom they supervise, not as employers, but as educators. It would also underline the critical interconnection between research and training and emphasize that research is enhanced by effective training. While some could see this as one more administrative burden for PIs and administrators, it only makes explicit what should always have been implicit: that is, all trainees should benefit from mentoring to allow them to achieve the goals of their training.
Broaden Educational Opportunities
Many of the skills required of PIs and faculty are not well taught—or possibly never mentioned—to postdoctoral researchers. Instead, PI mentors and postdocs spend almost all of their time on research without acknowledging the kinds and complexities of issues that faculty members and PIs confront. Institutions and programs should provide a variety of opportunities offering training and experience in different skill sets.
4.6 Postdoctoral scientists should receive improved career advising, mentoring, and skills training. Universities, academic departments, and research institutions should broaden educational and training opportunities for postdoctoral researchers to include, for example, training in laboratory and project management, grant writing, and mentoring. NIH should take steps to foster these changes, including by making funds available to facilitate these endeavors.
Funding should be made available for institutions or groups of institutions to develop career guidance and professional development courses (e.g., mentoring, grant writing, laboratory management, budgeting, publishing and authorship, conducting collaborative science, and project management). Funding could also be used to host workshops by experts from outside of the institution.
The difference of opinion on the appropriate balance of support for postdoctoral researchers between research grants, training programs, and individual fellowships emphasizes the need for a rigorous independent analysis of NIH postdoc programs.
4.8 NIH should commission an independent evaluation of the different models of postdoctoral support.
Such a study could compare different postdoctoral funding mechanisms to evaluate the relative merits and success of each approach.
TRANSITION TO FIRST INDEPENDENT POSITION
Postdoctoral researchers express concern as they look to the future. In particular, many have difficulties in making the transition from postdoctoral researcher to independent investigator. What mechanisms will help bridge this transition?
Career Transition Research Grants
A small number of career transition awards offered by private foundations have shown success in facilitating the transition to independence for new investigators. They provide opportunities for independent research while still in postdoctoral positions, facilitate movement into career positions, provide stable resources and protected time to establish an independent laboratory, and enhance the ability to pursue novel research and collect preliminary data for future grant proposals.
Although NIH offers the K22 career transition award, it is actually a collection of different awards, many of which have not successfully attracted applicants. An NIH-wide award that draws upon the best aspects of the K awards and private career transition awards should replace the K22s.
5.1 NIH should establish a program to promote the conduct of innovative research by scientists transitioning into their first independent positions. These research grants, to replace the collection of K22 awards, would provide sufficient funding and resources for promising scientists to initiate an independent research program and allow for increased risk-taking during the final phase of their mentored postdoctoral training and during the initial phase of their independent research effort. The program should make 200 grants annually of $500,000 each, payable over 5 years.
These awards would provide postdoctoral training support for a maximum of 2 years for the awardee to develop an independent research program and 3 or more years of support once a fully independent research position has been obtained. After approximately a year of mentored postdoctoral training, the award would support the transition to independence by providing research support in tenure-track or other career-path positions. Resources would provide at least partial salary support and funds for research and career development activities. The award would have uniform requirements across all NIH institutes and neither be limited to NIH intramural candidates nor require that the postdoctoral training phase be carried out at an NIH intramural laboratory. These grants would replace the current collection of K22 awards, which differ from institute to institute. The award amount and duration is similar to that of the Burroughs Wellcome Career Awards, which have shown success at fostering the independence of new investigators.
ESTABLISHING STABLE RESEARCH PROGRAMS
American science would benefit from a system that encourages new investigators to try out new ideas and approaches as they begin their independent research careers. The present system of research support does just the opposite. New investigators are ranked relative to previously-funded investigators by study sections, even though new investigators lack the “preliminary results” that study sections rank highly. New investigators thus tend to continue their postdoctoral projects since proposing something different with greatly increased risk places even more obstacles to obtaining funding.
R01s for New Investigators
The receipt of an R01 award is crucial in the career of an early-career researcher and unmatched by any other awards: Anything but the “R01” designation is devalued in the eyes of promotion and tenure committees. Meanwhile, R01 applications require submission of preliminary data that would predict the success of the proposed project, but new investigators who wish to do something original have difficulty obtaining such preliminary data. Therefore, the committee proposes a new investigator R01 award that would substitute a discussion of previous experience instead of preliminary data.
6.1 NIH should establish and implement uniformly across all of its institutes a New Investigator R01 grant. The “preliminary results” section of the application should be replaced by “previous experi-
ence” so as to be appropriate for new investigators and to encourage higher-risk proposals or scientists branching out into new areas. This award should include a full budget and have a 5-year term. NIH should track new investigator R01 awardees in a uniform manner including success on future R01 applications.
The award should be designated as an R01 and have the same budget as other R01s. All new investigator R01s should have a term of 5 years to allow researchers time to establish a laboratory, train personnel, and collect data without a need to renew research support immediately. The regular study sections should review the proposals, but do so en bloc with appropriate instructions so that they fully consider the different criteria for new investigator awards. Funding for this program should be allocated separately from those of previously-funded investigators so that new investigators are not competing against those with more experience. All new investigator R01s should be scored in order to provide complete feedback on their proposals even when they are not funded.
A transition to independence is not really complete if the first research grant is the only research grant. That is, an investigator must not only be able to be funded through targeted programs for new investigators, but have a possibility of stable research funding. Moreover, the capacity for stable funding should apply to all types of independent investigators including both tenure-track and non-tenure-track.
Support for Non-Tenure-Track Scientists
Very few postdoctoral researchers obtain a tenure-track position in academia. A growing percentage enter non-tenure-track positions. They may conduct independent research, but without running a large research laboratory. However, they find it difficult to receive independent support because they are competing with larger research groups. Although some biomedical research has already entered an era of big science, there is still much to be gained from maintaining a broad platform of independent research projects, which has been the hallmark of NIH’s success.
6.2 NIH should establish a new renewable R01-like grant program for small science projects (less than $100,000 direct costs per year), open to researchers who do not have PI status on another significant research grant, including “soft-money” staff and research-track scientists. This program should receive its own set-aside funding from the NIH budget.
These funds would be directed at applicants who work as independent investigators but have positions other than traditional tenure-track faculty appointments. Scientists with PI status on other research grants would normally not be allowed to apply. By recommending this grant program, the committee does not intend to encourage the creation of additional “soft-money” positions; rather, it recognizes the reality of the growing number of these researchers and seeks to provide them with increased opportunities for independence.
Providing for Enhanced Job Security
The number of tenured and tenure-track faculty in research universities and institutions has remained approximately constant over the last decade, while the ranks of non-tenure-track scientists have swelled. The contribution of these researchers must be acknowledged with opportunities for them to pursue their own independent research support.
Such non-tenure-track scientists are generally completely dependent on external grant support. They rarely have any job security and may have to take on teaching or clinical responsibilities that further inhibit their chances at independence. Institutions should provide some means of job security and protection against a single unfunded grant proposal. Moreover, NIH should provide bridge support for the most highly deserving applicants who do not have additional funding.
6.3 Non-tenure-track “soft-money” researchers should have a budgetary “safety net” that provides time to reapply for grant support if their funding lapses. This safety net should be a joint responsibility of the NIH and the host institution: NIH should expand the Shannon Award to provide merit-based bridge awards for those without other sources of support and host institutions should offer multi-year renewable contracts to its staff scientists that guarantee space, salary, and minimal research support even in the absence of external funding.
The NIH James A. Shannon Director’s Award (R55) program should be expanded to incorporate a special program of merit-based bridge funding that will be awarded to the most promising researchers who do not have other means of support. That is, NIH should examine whether applications that fall just below the payline are submitted by “soft-money” researchers who have no other source of support. Since the positions held by these applicants will be put in jeopardy by a funding lapse, a small bridging award will allow them to revise and strengthen a grant proposal for resubmission.
At present, institutional commitment to “soft-money” researchers seems almost entirely tied to external funding; that is, if the funding is lost, so is the position, often before the applicant has the chance to even submit a revised proposal. The committee encourages institutions to offer multi-year renewable contracts to its non-tenure-track researchers so that they have some means of security and are protected from a single unfunded proposal.
ENHANCE DATA COLLECTION AND PROGRAM EVALUATION
It is critical that NIH have informative data on the populations of all areas of the scientific workforce, including postdoctoral researchers, tenure-track and non-tenure-track researchers. In all data collection efforts, data should be disaggregated to detect trends among and between demographic and other groups. Different sub-populations may face obstacles that should not be ignored and might shed light on overcoming challenges for the population as a whole.
For example, it is incomprehensible that NIH cannot provide anything more than an educated guess on the number of postdocs it supports through research grants. The lack of reliable data on the scientific workshop limits decision makers’ ability to analyze the effectiveness of scientific programs and funding mechanisms.
4.7 NIH should develop enhanced data collection systems on postdoctoral researchers to include all NIH-supported postdoctoral researchers, regardless of specific funding mechanism. This will allow NIH to track the effectiveness of its programs and thereby make more informed programmatic decisions.
5.2 NIH should develop enhanced data collection systems on staff scientists and other non-tenure-track researchers to include all NIH-supported researchers, regardless of specific funding mechanism. This will allow NIH to track the effectiveness of its programs and thereby make more informed programmatic decisions.
6.3 NIH should develop enhanced data collection systems on all NIH-supported researchers, regardless of specific funding mechanism. This will allow NIH to track the effectiveness of its programs, make more informed programmatic decisions, and monitor the career progression of supported researchers.
The committee would prefer that data collection be integrated across career stages instead of a different system for postdocs than for PIs than for staff scientists. NIH needs to gather data on all supported personnel regardless of their funding mechanism and track these individuals as they progress through their careers. Such data are likely to inform NIH leadership about the relative successes of various funding mechanisms and programs in fostering independence. The committee suggests that the NIH work with other federal agencies and private sector funders that support researchers to enable cross-agency data collection. This could provide a common set of definitions and measures that would enable cross-agency comparisons.
Data should be disaggregated to detect different trends among different demographic and other groups.
Despite a long history of concern on these issues, progress has been slow. The time for action is now. Every year of delay in implementing change affects tens of thousands of scientists already pursuing biomedical careers and an untold number of those who might have pursued such a career. The personal concern for this issue by leaders at the highest levels of NIH and of science in general provides a reason for optimism. But it is not only the leaders of NIH who must be convinced of the urgency. Advisory Councils, study sections, and staff members at NIH must all play their part in enacting these recommendations now. University administrators, department chairs, and faculty must recognize that the biomedical research enterprise is not the same as it was when they were new investigators and take steps to acknowledge this new reality. New faculty members, postdoctoral researchers, staff scientists, and graduate students must also recognize these realities and be proactive and realistic about their own careers.
This report presents an overview of biomedical research careers and the pipeline of recruiting, retaining, and supporting new investigators in biomedical research. While recognizing the realities of the present situation, it offers a vision for the future that will help ensure the continued vitality of the biomedical research enterprise and its workforce. The recommendations are bold, but realistic and practical. Their successful implementation relies on the participation of all stakeholders in biomedical and academic research. Working together, the stakeholders can meet their responsibility to provide a bridge to independence by helping to foster the independence of new investigators in biomedical research.