Avoiding Hype and Enhancing Awareness in Science Communication

When I joined NIGMS about four years ago, I was struck by the number of press releases from journals and grantee institutions that came across my desk each day. Many of them focused on a recently published paper and failed to explain how the work fit into the broader field. Others overstated the research results to make them sound more exciting and closer to clinical application.

I moderated one of the panel discussions.

Around the same time, science communicators started writing articles and conducting studies about the effects of hyped research findings (e.g., Schwartz et al., 2012; Yavchitz et al., 2012 Exit icon, Sumner et al., 2014 Exit icon; Vox, 2017 Exit icon). While these discussions focused on clinically oriented research, we at NIGMS began thinking deeply about how the issue relates to basic biomedical science. On the heels of our work with the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology (FASEB) on enhancing rigor and reproducibility in biomedical research, we started talking to them about this topic as well. Two years later, we were pleased to host their Workshop on Responsible Communication of Basic Biomedical Research: Enhancing Awareness and Avoiding Hype Exit icon.

The June 22 meeting brought together a diverse group of science communicators Exit icon [PDF, 22KB] who included early and established investigators, researchers who study science communication, academic and corporate communication officers, policy advisors and journalists. Each panelist represented a stakeholder group with a role in what panelists later called the “hype cycle” and shared his or her perspectives on the problems of hype, the incentives that cause it and recommendations for avoiding it. The meeting focused on basic biomedical research, but the discussions were also relevant to other areas of science.

In her keynote address Exit icon, veteran science journalist Erika Check Hayden defined hype as “exaggerating the outcomes of research, for whatever motives people have, leading to potential negative effects due to inaccurate portrayal of research.” She credited this definition to Judith Greenberg, our deputy director.

The keynote address by Erika Check Hayden focused on new directions in science communication.

The subsequent discussions Exit icon highlighted the shared responsibility among all the stakeholder groups for improving science communication and changing the incentives for it. Panelists acknowledged that scientists sometimes oversell the conclusions of studies hoping to get their work published in “better” journals or to improve their chances for obtaining funding; journals may decide on manuscripts to publish based on which ones they think will be cited the most or get press attention; communication officers and journalists are often judged by how many hits their stories get; and universities and research institutes may consider the fundraising potential of scientific news stories.

Here are some of the topics discussed during the workshop that really resonated with me. Continue reading

Give Input on Strategies to Enhance Physician-Scientist Training Through the Medical Scientist Training Program

NIGMS has a longstanding commitment to developing the next generation of biomedical scientists through a variety of programs, including the M.D.-Ph.D. dual degree Medical Scientist Training Program (MSTP). This program provides Ruth L. Kirschstein Institutional Predoctoral Training Grant (T32) awards to medical institutions that are responsible for training physician scientists. The Physician-Scientist Workforce Working Group Report [PDF, 6.2 MB] of NIH’s Advisory Committee to the Director highlighted the decline of physician scientists as a percentage of overall NIH principal investigators. NIH data presented at the 50th Anniversary Medical Scientist Training Program Symposium showed that while earlier cohorts of MSTP trainees were highly successful in achieving independent research careers and NIH grant support, more recent graduates have been less successful. Many factors may contribute to this difference, including lengthening of the post-M.D.-Ph.D. training period before achieving independence and increased competition of investigators for limited research funds and positions.

We are seeking input from the biomedical research community and other interested groups through a Request for Information (RFI) on strategies and ideas for the modernization of physician-scientist training that can be addressed through the MSTP.

More specific topics are included in the RFI, but examples of broad areas of interest are:

  • Trainees (e.g., time of recruitment to the MSTP, diversity of the applicant pool and selection criteria)
  • Financing/funding (e.g., how different M.D.-Ph.D. funding models influence the range of institutions that apply for MSTP support, the pool of trainees and the trainees’ commitment to research careers)
  • Dual-degree training (e.g., time-to-degree, integration of curriculum, training areas, mentoring and career advising)
  • NIGMS management of MSTP grants (e.g., size, number and distribution of training programs; evaluation of outcomes; and peer review)
  • Anything else specific to MSTP training that you feel is important for NIH to consider with respect to enhancing M.D.-Ph.D. training and the persistence of physician-scientist trainees in research careers (note that changes in post-M.D.-Ph.D. training and future research support are outside of the scope of this RFI)

Responses can be submitted via an online form Exit icon and can be anonymous. The due date for providing input is August 9, 2017.

Your Perspectives: Catalyzing the Modernization of Biomedical Graduate Education

NIGMS actively supports efforts to catalyze the modernization of biomedical graduate education. We have undertaken a number of initiatives to stimulate this process, including hosting a symposium to showcase innovations in biomedical graduate education and providing administrative supplements to T32 predoctoral training grants to enhance rigor and reproducibility, career development and skills development.

On June 8, 2016, we took another step to encourage such change with the release of a Request for Information (RFI) seeking input on how our institutional predoctoral training grants program can be used to promote innovations in training. The RFI asked members of the community to weigh in on the strengths and weaknesses of the current system, the skills the next generation of graduate students should acquire, barriers to change and strategies to promote change through our institutional predoctoral research training grants.

We received 90 unique responses from stakeholders ranging from students and faculty to institutions and professional societies. Themes represented in the responses were organized around five major categories:

  • Institutional and training-related issues,
  • Skills development,
  • Systemic issues within the research enterprise,
  • Careers, and
  • Administrative and review issues.

Figure 1. Major Categories in Graduate Education RFI Responses. Bar chart showing the number of RFI responses in which one of the major categories was represented. A total of 90 unique responses were received for the RFI.

While NIGMS recognizes that those who responded to the RFI are unlikely to represent a random subset of the individuals and organizations who have a stake in graduate biomedical education, these responses provide insights regarding how members of the extramural community view the current challenges and opportunities in graduate biomedical education. As such, these comments will inform NIGMS’ ongoing efforts to catalyze the modernization of graduate education through a new predoctoral T32 funding announcement, which is currently under development. For more details about the analysis, we encourage you to explore the report.

Moving Further Afield

In recent talks for iBiology Exit icon  and TEDx Exit icon, NIGMS grantee Alejandro Sánchez Alvarado proposes that because so much of biomedical research focuses on only a handful of model organisms we are limiting our knowledge of biology. He suggests that many important discoveries lie waiting in species that have not yet been the subjects of sufficient investigation. This is a topic of interest to us as well; in fact, Dorit Zuk, director of our Division of Genetics and Developmental Biology, is currently leading an internal working group that’s examining the varied landscape of organisms studied by NIGMS grantees and the new scientific questions that could be answered using a diversity of organisms. We’ll be discussing these topics in future posts.

In addition to the number of organisms we study, other aspects of the biomedical research system may be limiting the breadth of our knowledge. For example, does the expectation that junior faculty work on a problem closely related to their postdoctoral research constrain our explorations to “islands” of study, leaving vast areas under- or unexplored?

The forces keeping biomedical junior faculty within their postdoctoral research areas include the expectations of faculty search committees, grant review panels and funding agencies, as well as the promotion policies of academic institutions. Interestingly, in the chemical sciences, junior faculty are usually expected to develop projects that are distinct from their postdoctoral work, which often involves moving into completely new areas of study. Why the sociology of chemistry evolved so differently in this regard from other fields related to biomedical research is an interesting question.

Should the biomedical research enterprise change its expectations to empower junior researchers to move further away from their postdoctoral work when they start their independent research careers? Would this accelerate the pace of discovery? New programs such as the Maximizing Investigators’ Research Awards (MIRA) for Early Stage Investigators give us an opportunity to revise our expectations for researchers at the beginning of their independent careers. Would this be desirable? What might we look for in assessing outcomes? If we, as funders, successfully made such a change in expectations, would the rest of the research ecosystem make parallel changes to support efforts by junior scientists to leave their home “islands” and move into new territory?

I would be interested to hear your thoughts on these questions.

Special Issue of CBE-Life Sciences Education Advances the Science of Broadening Participation

NIGMS’ longstanding support of and commitment to programs that promote workforce diversity have contributed to significant progress Exit icon, but persistent representation gaps along demographic lines remain in the ranks of both independent investigators and scientific leadership. These gaps lead to the loss of valuable contributors from the talent pool and limit the ability of the biomedical community to identify and address critical scientific and societal concerns. A special issue of CBE-Life Sciences Education Exit icon, published September 1, provides the broader community with a chance to assess the progress made and plan for a future in which we cultivate and harness all available talent.

Attendees at the INBRE-sponsored Mississippi Academy of Sciences annual meeting are featured on the cover of this special issue.

The papers in this issue, which I edited with Pat Marsteller of Emory University, fit four main themes:

  • Innovative and effective interventions or approaches for broadening participation.
  • Mechanistic explanations for why certain approaches have been effective.
  • Novel insights about institutional and systemic factors that influence broadening participation efforts.
  • Syntheses of research and practices that provide a “plan of action” heading forward.

NIGMS leadership, staff and grantees authored 11 of the 35 features, editorials, essays and articles in the special issue. While all of the papers focus on topics of importance to developing a diverse scientific workforce, I wanted to call your attention to a few representative articles:

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Partnering with Professional Societies

Not long ago, Jon Lorsch and I and several other NIGMS staff met with the leadership of one of the professional societies that represents many of our grantees. It was an opportunity to discuss NIGMS’ policies and grant mechanisms, hear about challenges that investigators face, and share ideas about how the biomedical research and training environment can be improved.

Meetings of this kind are not unusual, but they are just one of the ways we interact with the society partners related to NIGMS’ mission and, through them, communicate with their members. Another way is by attending the societies’ scientific meetings, where our staff learn about the latest research in the field, conduct grantsmanship workshops, and answer questions about the funding process.

The professional societies help us disseminate—and receive—information. For instance, they share our notices about funding opportunities and changes in NIH policies as well as respond to our requests for information. Leadership from the professional societies attend the open sessions of our Advisory Council meetings and sometimes speak during the public comment period, enhancing the exchange of information between the Institute and our constituency.

We also collaborate with professional societies on specific activities. Recent examples include meetings convened by FASEB on rigor and reproducibility Exit icon and by ASBMB on research training. With ASCB, we co-organized the Life: Magnified exhibit, which brought biomedical science to a public place.

We greatly value our interactions with the societies and invite suggestions for additional ways we can partner.

Revisiting the Dependence of Scientific Productivity and Impact on Funding Level

A 2010 analysis by NIGMS and subsequent studies by others (Fortin and Currie, 2013; Gallo et al., 2014; Lauer et al., 2015; Doyle et al., 2015; Cook et al., 2015 Exit icon) have indicated that, on average, larger budgets and labs do not correspond to greater returns on our investment in fundamental science. We have discussed the topic here in A Shared Responsibility and in an iBiology talk Exit icon. In this updated analysis, we assessed measures of the recent productivity and scientific impact of NIGMS grantees as a function of their total NIH funding.

We identified the pool of principal investigators (PIs) who held at least one NIGMS P01 or R01-equivalent grant (R01, R23, R29, R37) in Fiscal Year 2010. We then determined each investigator’s total NIH funding from research project grants (RPGs) or center grants (P20, P30, P50, P60, PL1, U54) for Fiscal Years 2009 to 2011 and averaged it over this 3-year period. Because many center grants are not organized into discrete projects and cores, we associated the contact PI with the entire budget and all publications attributed to the grant. We applied the same methodology to P01s. Thus, all publications citing the support of the center or P01 grant were also attributed to the contact PI, preventing underrepresentation of their productivity relative to their funding levels. Figure 1 shows the distribution of PIs by funding level, with the number of PIs at each funding level shown above each bar.

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Give Input on Strategies for Modernizing Biomedical Graduate Education

We’ve been examining how best to support the modernization of graduate education at the national level to ensure that trainees gain the skills, abilities and knowledge they need to be successful in the biomedical research workforce.

We’re involved in a variety of efforts. For example, we and other NIH institutes and centers provided support for the development of training modules on rigor and reproducibility. We encouraged graduate programs at institutions that receive predoctoral T32 support from us to make their alumni career outcomes publicly available to prospective and current students. We’ve also offered administrative supplements to predoctoral T32 training grants to support innovative approaches in the areas of rigor and reproducibility, career outcomes and graduate education. In April, we held a symposium covering these and other topics in graduate education. Finally, we plan to write a new predoctoral T32 funding announcement.

We’re now soliciting input from the biomedical research community and other interested groups in response to a new request for information (RFI) on strategies for modernizing biomedical graduate education. We’d like to know your thoughts on:

  • Current strengths, weaknesses and challenges in graduate biomedical education.
  • Changes that could enhance graduate education to ensure that scientists of tomorrow have the skills, abilities and knowledge they need to advance biomedical research as efficiently and effectively as possible.
  • Major barriers to achieving these changes and potential strategies to overcome them.
  • Key skills that graduate students should develop in order to become outstanding biomedical scientists and the best approaches for developing those skills.
  • Potential approaches to modernizing graduate education through the existing NIGMS institutional predoctoral training grants.
  • Anything else you feel is important for us to consider.

Responses can be submitted via an online form Exit icon and can be anonymous. They can also be emailed to modernPhD@mail.nih.gov. The due date for responses is August 5, 2016.

Lab Size: Is Bigger Better?

In a new video on iBiology, NIGMS Director Jon Lorsch discusses the relationship of lab size and funding levels to productivity, diversity and scientific impact.

In a new video on iBiology, NIGMS Director Jon Lorsch discusses the relationship of lab size and funding levels to productivity, diversity and scientific impact.

The talk covers information detailed in previous Feedback Loop posts:

Read the Molecular Biology of the Cell paper mentioned at the end of the video for more discussion of lab size and other topics related to maximizing the return on taxpayers’ investments in fundamental biomedical research Exit icon.

Outcomes Analysis of the NIGMS Diversity Supplement Program

We recently analyzed outcomes of the NIGMS Research Supplements to Promote Diversity in Health-Related Research (referred to here as the Diversity Supplement Program or DSP), which provides investigators holding active NIGMS research grants with supplemental funds to support scholars from groups underrepresented in biomedical science. Using a public search approach, we could track a large proportion of participants—but not all—through doctoral training and into various careers. We assessed the educational and career outcomes for undergraduate, graduate student and postdoctoral participants supported by supplements between 1989 and 2006, and we encourage you to explore the report.

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