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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Give Input on Strategies for Optimizing the Impact and Sustainability of Biomedical Research

An important, recurring discussion topic on our blogs is ways to maximize the impact and sustainability of NIH-funded biomedical research. In 2011, a Rock Talk post on managing NIH’s budget in fiscally challenging times solicited many comments and led, in part, to an NIH-wide policy on special council review for applications from PIs who have more than $1 million in NIH funding. We have also implemented new programs that provide more stable support for investigators over longer time periods. A more recent example of the “maximizing impact and sustainability” theme is an NIGMS Feedback Loop post that discussed ideas for how to optimize the biomedical research ecosystem.

We’re each leading an NIH-wide working group focused on topics key to this important theme. One group (chaired by Sally) is exploring ways to decrease the time it takes investigators to reach research independence, and the other (chaired by Jon) is looking to develop more efficient and sustainable funding policies and other strategies.

Recently, NIH solicited your comments on an “emeritus award” concept as part of activities of the group chaired by Sally. The group is now in the midst of analyzing all of the comments it received to see what the next steps will be in regard to this type of award.

To inform the efforts of Jon’s group, NIH has just issued a new request for information (RFI) seeking your:

  • Input on key issues that currently limit the impact of NIH’s funding for biomedical research and challenge the sustainability of the scientific enterprise.
  • Ideas about adjusting current funding policies to ensure both continued impact and sustainability of the NIH research enterprise.
  • Ideas for new policies, strategies and other approaches that would increase the impact and sustainability of NIH-funded biomedical research.
  • Comments on any other issues that you feel are relevant.

While we read and consider comments responding to our blog posts, in order to make your input part of our formal analysis of RFI responses, it needs to be submitted via the RFI by May 17.

Give Input on NIGMS Undergraduate Student Development Programs to Enhance Diversity in the Biomedical Research Workforce

As part of our longstanding commitment to fostering a highly trained and diverse biomedical research workforce, we have launched a review process to ensure that our programs contribute most effectively to this goal. An important part of this effort is to seek your input.

To this end, we just issued a request for information for feedback and novel ideas that might bolster the effectiveness of our undergraduate student development programs. Some of the things we’re particularly interested in are:

  • The advantages (or disadvantages) of supporting a single program per institution that begins after matriculation and provides student development experiences through graduation.
  • Approaches to leveraging successful institutional models for preparing baccalaureates for subsequent Ph.D. completion.
  • Strategies to build institutional capabilities and effective institutional networks that promote undergraduate student training programs that lead to successful Ph.D. completion.
  • If applicable, your specific experiences with any of our student development programs and their outcomes in preparing participants for biomedical research careers.

More broadly, we welcome your suggestions regarding the most important issues we can address in this arena.

I encourage you to share your views (no longer available) on these and associated topics by the response deadline of April 15, 2015.

New NIGMS Guidelines for Funding Investigators with Substantial Unrestricted Research Support

Jon Lorsch recently posted a message about the responsibility that our grantee community shares with us to help the research enterprise thrive. One way that we have addressed this is by taking a hard look at the funding of investigators who are already well supported. As most of you know, in an effort to increase efficiency and to support as many outstanding scientists as possible, we have long required special advisory council approval  for any grant that, in combination with the principal investigator’s (PI’s) other research support, would provide over $750,000 in direct costs.

We have now developed guidelines that we will use in awarding R01s and other research grants to investigators with substantial levels of long-term, unrestricted research funding from any source. Unrestricted funding means that it is not project-based and may be used to conduct research on a broad topic at the PI’s discretion. We consider such support substantial and long-term if it is over $400,000 in direct costs (excluding the PI’s salary and direct support of widely shared institutional resources) and extends for at least 2 years from the time the NIGMS grant would be funded.

Abiding by these new guidelines will enable us to fund additional labs, increasing the likelihood of making significant scientific advances. The guidelines will take effect for applications submitted on or after January 2, 2016. If you might be affected by the new guidelines, I encourage you to discuss your plans with your program director.

More on My Shared Responsibility Post

Thanks for all of the comments and discussion on my last post. There were many good points and ideas brought up, and these will be very useful as we consider additional policy changes at NIGMS and NIH. I hope these conversations will continue outside of NIH as well.

Several people asked about the current distribution of funding among NIGMS principal investigators (PIs). Here are a few relevant statistics:

  • In terms of the NIH research funding of NIGMS grantees, in Fiscal Year 2013, 5 percent of the PIs had 25 percent of this group’s total NIH direct costs and 20 percent of the PIs had half of it. A similar pattern was recapitulated NIH-wide.
  • NIGMS PIs who had over $500,000 in total NIH direct costs held approximately $400 million in NIGMS funding.
  • The figure below shows the distribution of total NIH direct costs for NIGMS-supported investigators as well as the average number of NIH research grants held by PIs in each range.
Graph representing distribution of NIGMS investigartors' total NIH direct costs for research in FY2013
Figure 1. The distribution of NIGMS investigators’ total NIH direct costs for research in Fiscal Year 2013 (blue bars, left axis). The number below each bar represents the top of the direct cost range for that bin. The average number of NIH research grants held by PIs in each group is also shown (red line with squares, right axis). The direct costs bin ranges were chosen so that the first four bins each included 20 percent of NIGMS investigators.

With regard to changes NIH might make to help re-optimize the biomedical research ecosystem, NIH Director Francis Collins recently formed two NIH-wide working groups to develop possible new policies and programs related to some of the issues that I highlighted in my blog post and that were discussed in the subsequent comments. The first group, chaired by NIH Deputy Director for Extramural Research Sally Rockey, will explore ways to decrease the age at which investigators reach independence in research. The second, chaired by me, will look at developing more efficient and sustainable funding policies. Once these committees have made their recommendations, Sally plans to set up a group to consider the question of NIH support for faculty salaries.

As I mentioned in my post, we at NIGMS have been working for some time on these issues. We’ll be discussing additional changes and ideas with the community in the coming weeks and months on this blog and in other forums, including our upcoming Advisory Council meeting.