Optimizing the Research Training Partnership

Strategic Plan for Biomedical and Behavioral Research TrainingIt’s been nearly a year since we posted our Strategic Plan for Biomedical and Behavioral Research Training. In August, I announced that we were on course to implement most of the plan in early 2012. I’m very pleased to tell you that our Blueprint for Implementation is now available. As you’ll see, it’s truly a blueprint, and in the months ahead we’ll be posting more details and guidance about each of the action items.

One of the most important messages in the blueprint is that research training is a partnership between NIH and the academic community. We recognize that addressing many of the action items depends on those of you in the front line of training. We also know that many of you already do an excellent job of training and mentoring students and postdocs. Nevertheless, training outcomes can always be improved, and our blueprint aims to provide our view of what excellent training is, along with encouragement and resources to adopt and improve certain practices to achieve the goals of the action items. These ideas are based on the broad input we received over the course of our strategic planning and implementation process.

I encourage you to read the blueprint and the other documents that we post on our new training partnership Web page and send us your comments, questions, suggestions and examples.

10 comments on “Optimizing the Research Training Partnership

  1. Does this blueprint take account of the fact that for the last decade there has been incessant upward pressure on post-doctoral and graduate trainee compensation–even if it comes from research grants–with simultaneous downward pressure on research grant budgets?

  2. NIH believes that graduate students and postdocs should receive a level of compensation that they can live on. Reflecting this, stipends on T32 training grants have been increased in Fiscal Year 2012. At the same time, NIGMS recognizes that salaries for graduate students and postdocs consume an increasing portion of grants and may necessitate that grantees change the number or mix of personnel to accomplish the aims of their projects.

    NIGMS’ Strategic Plan for Training and the implementation blueprint focused on the quality of training rather than on issues related to funding, so compensation levels were not taken into account.

    • NIGMS’ Strategic Plan for Training and the implementation blueprint focused on the quality of training rather than on issues related to funding, so compensation levels were not taken into account.

      How can you decouple training and funding? It is simply impossible to provide “quality” training with inadequate funding. While I don’t disagree that grad students and postdocs should be adequately compensated, ignoring the effects of raising stipends in an era of shrinking grant budgets makes me think the NIH isn’t really concerned with training “quality”.

    • I would suggest, if NIH wishes to regulate salary pay scales then the personnel component could become separated from the remainder of the grant. An applicant could submit for these salaries in addition to a decreased general budget.

  3. At the same time, NIGMS recognizes that salaries for graduate students and postdocs consume an increasing portion of grants and may necessitate that grantees change the number or mix of personnel to accomplish the aims of their projects.

    This is gruesome obfuscatory bureaucrat-speak for “fire necessary personnel, but get the science done regardless”.

  4. A one-module cut knocks one salary off a project. The NIH likes to cut a module off 9 grants to fund one more. Trouble is, that new award hires maybe 2 new people. More grants funded, but a loss of at least 5 to 7 jobs.

    Comradde PhysioProffe has raised a critical question. It deserves more than a brush-off answer.

  5. I applaud the NIGMS for its Strategic Plan for Biomedical and Behavioral Research Training, which includes two of its four Themes consistent with increasing the diversity of the research workforce:
    • Theme II: Research Training Focuses on Student Development, Not Simply Selection of Talent
    • Theme IV: Diversity is an Indispensable Component of Research Training Excellence, and it Must be Advanced Across the Entire Research Enterprise

    However, by its insistence on reporting of GRE scores on applications for T32 and F31 applications, NIGMS unintentionally acts counter to these two themes. I strongly urge that the application process remove submission of these scores from the submissions, to enable applicants and programs to be judged by their potential to increase scientific capabilities of the biomedical and behavioral research workforce.

    GRE scores have no demonstrated predictive value beyond the first year of graduate studies; however, it has been shown that students from groups underrepresented in the biomedical and behavioral sciences tend to have lower scores on these standardize examinations, although the reason for this difference remains to be determined. Since T32 and F31 grants generally do not support students until after completion of core courses and passage of the PhD qualifying examination, I do not believe that the GRE scores are useful for the evaluation of applicants to the NIGMS for F31 support (Individual National Research Service Awards), or for judging the quality of trainees in T32 programs (Institutional National Research Service Awards). The requirement that T32 programs and F31 applicants report GRE scores does not help reviewers to do their job, and creates a barrier to NIGMS support of under-represented group members who have successfully completed their initial years of graduate study.

    Therefore, I request that the NIH eliminate the reporting of GRE scores of trainees from the applications and progress reports for T32 Institutional National Research Service Awards and F31 Individual National Research Service Awards. I suggest that this change will improve the rate of entry of under-represented trainees into these programs, and will have no negative impact on the scientific capabilities of trainees supported by these two funding mechanisms.

  6. When NIGMS talks about its “training resources” or “training budget” is the Institute including funds from R01s that go toward graduate student support?

    I commend NIGMS for finally acknowledging that the majority of graduate student training is funded by R01s, but I would like to know how you plan to increase oversight in that area. The Blueprint talks about “strongly encouraging” PIs to have training plans. This is certainly a good step, as it will promote thoughtful discussions on the subject of training. Good ideas will emerge,and an optimistic person could envision an organic process by which many of the good training practices already in use by responsible and committed PIs will be widely adopted.Junior PIs will see good examples of training in practice.

    However, your approach of “strong encouragement” puts a lot of onus on individual PIs. What about the responsibilities of the institutions that employ these PIs? How will you ensure that institutions are responsible for supporting faculty efforts in training, and providing the resources for a good training environment? The best efforts of the most conscientious PI to train graduate students can be undermined by a poor training environment. Similarly, a strong training environment can buffer trainees from the impacts of mentors on a learning curve, or bad PI-mentee interactions. Institutions must recognize that they have a responsibility to ensure and demonstrate that all of these federal funds that wind up in their coffers are being used effectively. If institutions do not support faculty efforts to maintain rigorous standards for admission and retention (and thus the continuous flow of NIH funds to the university for tuition remission and benefits), and do not encourage or facilitate faculty-driven strategic planning to an optimal work force, we will continue to see programs that turn out non-competitive graduates. Faculty efforts and public funds will not be spent well, regardless of the strength of the training plan that an individual PI may be “strongly encouraged” to articulate.

    I sometimes question whether universities see themselves as partners in the training of the future scientific work force. They simply place demands on the faculty to keep the funds coming, and the newly-minted PhDs going, without providing the necessary support for faculty efforts. One sees this at institutions at the margins, who are less able, for reasons of geography or prestige, to recruit the talent necessary to sustain a rigorous and effective training program. How will the NIGMS support PIs who face such unsupported mandates from their institutions?

  7. Our training strategic plan addresses training of all NIGMS-supported graduate students and postdocs, regardless whether the support is a training grant or an R01. However, since we cannot move funds between the research and training categories of our budget, when we talk about our “training resources” or “training budget,” we mean only the funds allocated to the Ruth L. Kirschstein National Research Service Awards.

    Regarding your second point, we agree that positive efforts of institutions, and not only of individual PIs, are essential for creating a strong training environment. NIH’s current policies don’t allow us to enforce the establishment of training plans and individual development plans. However, we will try to influence faculty and institutional attitudes through outreach and publicity, providing guidance, enlisting the cooperation of professional societies, and other means.

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