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Using eRA Commons to Improve Data on the Biomedical Research Workforce

In April I blogged about the various ways NIH is taking on the challenge of improving data on the biomedical research workforce, particularly those who receive training support from NIH. In 2009 we began requiring eRA Commons accounts for all postdocs listed in the grantees’ annual progress report and over the next year we’ll be extending this requirement to capture data on NIH-supported graduate students and undergraduate students as well. It is our attempt, with your help, to automate tracking of biomedical research careers from the onset of training and beyond. As you will see, although we are instituting this as a requirement, we hope it will reduce burden in the long run by pre-populating some reporting fields and forms. Although this change stems from requirements in the NIH Reform Act of 2007, it was also supported by the Advisory Committee to the NIH Director (ACD) working group on the biomedical research workforce. Respondents to a request for information issued in February also were supportive of NIH identification and tracking of trainees.

We’ll be rolling this out in phases to give grantees and trainees time to register in eRA Commons and create a profile. Beginning August 15, 2013, undergrads and grad students will be able to create a personal profile in eRA Commons. Beginning October 18, 2013, grantees submitting progress reports using the Research Performance Progress Report (RPPR) will be prompted to enter eRA Commons IDs for undergrads and graduate students listed in their Participant List, though these IDs will not be required at that time. However, by October 1, 2014, these Commons IDs will be required, and RPPR progress reports without these IDs will not be accepted.

We encourage all institutions to have trainees register for a Commons ID and create a personal profile as soon as possible. The eRA Commons will accept graduate student and undergraduate student profiles beginning August 15. Any undergrad or graduate student participating in an NIH-supported project for at least one month of full-time work (known as a “person month”) should be included on the progress report submitted to NIH and have a Commons ID. We are leaving it up to the supported institutions to figure out the easiest way to have their trainees register — whether all at once, when they enter a graduate department, or at the time of the RPPR submission. Whatever works best for you

Another profile-related change we’ll be rolling out is that all students and postdocs completing an NIH Commons profile will be required to answer certain questions such as date of birth, gender, race and ethnicity, disabilities, US citizenship status and country of citizenship. Note that questions on gender, disabilities, race and ethnicity must be completed, but one of the acceptable responses is: “Do Not Wish to Provide”. This information will help us better understand the diversity of the biomedical workforce receiving NIH-support. The Commons profile also will include, where applicable, information on the individual’s highest educational degree, and where and when it was earned.

We realize that many people besides Principal Investigators, postdocs, and trainees are part of the biomedical workforce and make significant contributions to NIH-supported projects. Thus, we are encouraging institutions to have other individuals who are supported with NIH support and listed in the progress report participant list to create an NIH Commons account. This could include technicians, staff scientists or others. Basically, anyone supported by NIH funds should have a Commons ID, but we are only requiring it for the three aforementioned categories. Entering an individuals’ Commons ID will simplify the completion of the Participant section of the RPPR by pre-populating much of the requested information.

It is important to remember that all eRA Commons information is and will continue to be stored in a database protected by the Privacy Act so we will protect personal information of trainees in the same way we do with all others registered in the Commons. In addition, to reduce responders’ reporting burden, we’ve also revamped the look and ease of creating and editing the NIH Commons Profile, making it much more user-friendly. My staff has created a video demonstration of the new look and new features to help you along. Finally, a completed eRA Commons Profile will help users develop their SciENcv and therefore the biosketches that can be submitted with future grant applications and progress reports. I’ll be blogging more on SciENcv in the future.

I encourage you to read the NIH Guide notice announcing these changes, and share this Notice, blog post, and personal profile tutorial with your colleagues. While it seems like there has been an almost overwhelming whirlwind of activity resulting from the recommendations of the Biomedical Research Workforce working group, I am happy to see that the community continues to embrace these recommendations, and want to thank you for your understanding the urgency and speed at which we are implementing them.

3 thoughts on “Using eRA Commons to Improve Data on the Biomedical Research Workforce

  1. I applaud you Sally Rockey and the whole biomedical research workforce working group for pushing this issue and actually being able to get a policy change at the NIH to take place. As a postdoc who avidly read the biomedical workforce report last year I was deeply concerned that the NIH does not really grasp the true number of postdocs (and perhaps even graduate students) currently conducting biomedical research in this country. Will this new requirement for all trainees (in particular grad students and postdocs) allow the NIH to actually ascertain the number of biomedical postdocs and grad students in this country? If this is possible and the numbers that you obtain end up being quite different than the estimated number ranges presented in the biomedical workforce report, will you issue a correction to the report?

    • Surveys to gather data on the scientific workforce across the nation as a whole are done by the National Science Foundation — they are the Federal clearinghouse for collecting this and other related data. The goal of the Commons ID effort is to identify and track trainees who are NIH-supported specifically, but yes, we do expect this to inform future reports from our new NIH office for the biomedical research workforce.

  2. With all due respect, over my almost 35 years of continuous federal grant funding as a PI, I have become increasingly skeptical of the value of incremental unfunded regulatory mandates, each of which may seem like a good idea to somebody, but each of which adds to a cumulative administrative and time burden that has now exceeded crushing proportions. I have seen a continuous increase in administrative requirements, with very few reassessments and retrenchments, one notable exception being recombinant DNA regulation, a concept proposed and overseen by scientists from the beginning, rather than by administrators. Each incremental administrative requirement may seem relatively small and perhaps even of some compelling value, at least to those who do not have to carry them out. However, the value to those of us who have address each new requirement is frequently questionable to nil. Moreover, there has been no global assessment of cumulative cost versus benefit of the entire palate of NIH administrative requirements, which is long overdue and would be a valuable goal and contribution given increasingly limited resources.

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