Nexus September 2011
Dr. Sally Rockey

Rock Talk

PhD Production and Career Opportunities: More Fuel for Thought in Providing Us Your Input

I recently came across an interesting article External Web Site Policy by Fuhrmann et al. in the fall 2011 edition of CBE—Life Sciences Education. The article talks about the range of career options that eventually attract graduate students who train at UCSF (Figure 1.).

graphic showing the paths students choose: PI in academia, other research careers, and non-research careers

Figure 1. UCSF graduate student career preferences. Courtesy of C.N. Fuhrmann et al., CBE Life Sciences Education, 2011.

The authors argue that a broader curriculum is needed to prepare individuals for careers in different employment settings, especially those outside of research. Shifting employment outcomes are also recognized on a national scale in the recommendations related to training grant peer review that appear in the National Research Council report Research Training in the Biomedical, Behavioral and Clinical Research Sciences External Web Site Policy.  

Thinking about ways to improve research training and the balance between PhD production and future career opportunities reminds me to encourage each of you, either individually or through your professional society or institution, to think about responding to our request for information on the biomedical workforce. As I noted previously, the last day to submit a comment is October 7. This is an important way to communicate your opinions directly to the Advisory Committee to the Director’s study on the biomedical research workforce. Your input is important.

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Balancing Life and Career

I hope you saw all the great attention our sister agency the National Science Foundation received this week. They announced their 10-year plan to provide greater work-related flexibility to men and women in research careers. We agree wholeheartedly that family-friendly policies are a win-win!

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Have Big, Bold Ideas? This Program May Be for You!

I wanted to let you know about a relatively new program. The NIH Director’s Transformative Research Awards fund big, bold, paradigm-shifting science. Investigators from any discipline that supports the NIH mission can apply. Total annual costs can be as high as $25 million.

Because these types of projects tend to be inherently risky, they typically don’t fare as well in traditional NIH review. So we are piloting new approaches in the instructions to applicants and reviewers. If you apply, you will be asked to focus your research strategy on the significance and innovation of the idea, and there is no expectation for providing preliminary data. Reviews will be conducted using a multi-phase, editorial board style review process, and if you review, you will be instructed to maintain the emphasis on significance and innovation.

Do you have an idea that would transform the view on a particular topic? Check out the awardees from 2011, browse the website, and read the funding opportunity announcement for more information. The deadline for submitting applications is January 12, 2012, with letters of intent (not required but strongly encouraged) due by December 12, 2011.

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Help NIH Bring Hands-On Science into K-12 Classrooms

lab challenge logoScience literacy has grown among the adult citizenry of the United States during the past couple decades, and we need to continue this positive trend. Undergraduate curriculum is one way to do this, but engaging people even earlier, during the formative K-12 years, can provide the spark of interest that may burn for a lifetime. Hands-on experiences, such as actually conducting experiments, are great ways to introduce kids to the joys of science. So we’re going there and you can help us do this by participating in a new initiative—the NIH Lessons About Bioscience (LAB) Challenge.

This online challenge asks people to help bring hands-on science into the classroom by submitting engaging experiments for elementary, middle, or high school students. We are especially interested in entries from scientists. I am sure that many of you, or your graduate students or postdocs, visit local schools from time to time and have a favorite experiment you bring along. Consider submitting it.

The goal of the LAB Challenge is to identify hands-on experiments that:

  • are geared toward grades K–12,
  • can be done using easily available, inexpensive materials,
  • take no more than 90 minutes total of in-class time,
  • have a clear learning objective, and
  • are related to the NIH mission.

Submissions will be accepted until December 1, 2011. A panel of educators, students, and scientists will pick the top entries and announce the winners on March 1, 2012. The collection of experiments will be available for free in print, online, and on mobile devices. Winners of the NIH LAB Challenge will have their name and organization published in the final collection. In addition, they will receive an official winners badge that can be displayed on social media sites and websites. 

I’m looking forward to seeing what you come up with!

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Fostering the Next Generation of Researchers

It’s been awhile since I’ve presented some data, so I wanted to point you to a study that we just put up on our website. It looked at three of our most widely used mentored career development award mechanisms—the K01, K08, and K23. We were interested in finding out more about the characteristics of individuals that applied for and received these awards, and, for those who received an award, whether the career development experience affected their subsequent career paths. Ultimately, we wanted to know are the career awards fulfilling their purpose, do all awardees benefit from these awards, and are there any areas that we can improve upon?

Are these awards fulfilling their purpose?

Overall, the answer is yes. Looking at comparable unfunded and funded applicants, those who received a career development award were more likely to:

  • remain in research,
  • publish in scientific or medical journals,
  • apply for an NIH research grant,
  • receive an R01, and, for those who could be followed long enough,
  • apply for and receive a renewal.

Figure 1. Subsequent NIH grant outcomes, by programgrant outcomes by k award type

Do all the awardees benefit from these awards?

Yes, but the benefits vary. Investigators who received a K08 or K23 career development award (mostly MDs or MD/PhDs) improved their chances of getting a subsequent research grant (Figure 1), and they received their awards just as quickly as their peers in the comparison group (Table 1). For investigators who received a K01 award (mostly PhDs), the benefits were more modest, as might be expected from a group that already has significant research training and experience. Although K01 awardees received R01s at about the same rates as unfunded applicants, a higher percentage of K01 awardees remained active in research and published their research findings (data available in the full report). When K01 awardees did receive an R01 grant, it was, on average, a year later than their counterparts (Table 1).

Table 1. Average time to R01 application for K applicant cohortstable of k awards and the average years to first R01 app and award and average age at award

    Bold font is used to highlight differences that are significant at p<0.05
    *Sample size is too small to perform significant tests.
    Note: “First R01 Application” and “First R01 Award” refer to the first application and award after the last K application within this study.

Are there areas to improve upon?

There’s always room for improvement. Given the more modest effects of the K01 program on PhD awardees, should NIH’s career development opportunities for PhDs be modified in some way? As for clinician researchers, we noticed that there was a small but notable cohort of investigators applying for K23 awards more than 15 years after their terminal degree. NIH has traditionally focused on fostering the training and career development of individuals early in their careers—should we do more to encourage mid-career clinicians interested in pursuing patient-oriented research? There is much more than I could cover here. I encourage you to delve into the study and then let us know your thoughts.

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Presidential Award for Mentoring

Many of my recent posts have been about the biomedical research workforce and various aspects of diversity. The issues are being carefully considered by recently established workgroups that operate under the auspices of the NIH Advisory Committee to the Director. As part of the NIH approach to diversity, Drs. Tabak and Collins mentioned mentoring External Web Site Policy as a component to help bring the brightest minds to biomedical research. I agree whole heartedly and believe our continuing ability to address the full range of health-related research remains dependent on training and nurturing the careers of scientists from all backgrounds. We will be looking more closely at how mentoring is done across our research enterprise, and how NIH supports it.

I am pleased that the White House has re-announced the Presidential Awards for Excellence in Science, Mathematics, and Engineering Mentoring. Currently inviting nominations for both institutional and individual awards, the program recognizes high quality mentoring in all fields of science, including biomedicine. Awardees are selected based on their track record of enhancing participation and retention of individuals who might not otherwise have considered careers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. The awards are administered by NSF. 

If you know of individuals or institutions that have a record of high-quality mentoring, especially as it relates to diversity, I encourage you to get your nominations in. The proposal deadline is October 5, 2011. For more information, see this notice.

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Top Stories

Multiple Investigator Policy Revised

Since 2007, we have allowed more than one principal investigator on most grant applications. Designed to promote team science and multidisciplinary approaches to biomedical research, multiple principle investigators could be requested only for new and renewal applications.

After several years of experience with the multiple investigator model, we determined that unique circumstances may arise in which it would be in the best interest of a project to change the leadership model mid-award, and that peer review of the new leadership team and leadership plan may not be essential in these cases.

Therefore, we amended the policy to allow a change:

  • from multiple investigators to one investigator,
  • from one investigator to multiple investigators, or
  • to the makeup or number of investigators on a multiple investigator award.

Although such a change is expected to be rare, the grantee institution should submit their request to the funding NIH institute or center for approval. The IC will carefully review requests and approve only those that present a strong scientific justification. Justifications based on administrative convenience will not be considered. For details, see NOT-OD-11-118.

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Comment Period Extended for Proposed Human Subjects Regulations

In July, we told you about potential changes being made to the regulations that affect human subjects research. The Department of Health & Human Services extended the deadline for comments to October 26, 2011. So let us know what you think. Submit your comments to

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Find OER This Fall and Winter

Whether you are an administrator or scientist, you can find OER at a professional meeting this fall and winter.

Society of Research Administrators, October 22-26, Montreal, Canada        

OER presentation

Association of American Medical Colleges, November 4-9, Denver, Colorado

Loan Repayment booth 

National Council of University Research Administrators, November 6-9, Washington, DC            

Multiple OER presentations (NIH Day – Nov. 9)

Grants Information & eRA booths

Society for Neuroscience Annual Meeting, November 12-16, Washington, DC

Grants Information & Loan Repayment booths

American Society for Cell Biology, December 3-7, Denver, CO

Presentation by Dr. Sally Rockey on December 6th

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Use eRA Commons for No-Cost Extensions

Starting October 1, 2011, signing officials must submit no-cost extension notifications electronically using eRA Commons. The link that allows you to extend appears on your eRA Commons Status screen 90 days before the project end date.

Have questions?

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New Resources

Financial Conflict of Interest: Updated FAQs

Frequently asked questions and answers about the revised financial conflict of interest regulations have been posted.

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Peer Review 101 Video

“What Happens to Your Grant Application” looks at what happens to your NIH grant application once it comes in the door. Find this video and more on NIH’s Center for Scientific Review website.

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New NIH Intramural Website

Visit the new NIH Intramural Research Program website. Ongoing intramural research is organized by focus area—cell biology, immunology, clinical, and so on. The “Research in Action” section highlights a few of the labs and researchers. The “News” section lists recent science press releases and a sampling of peer-reviewed articles. The “Careers” and “Research Training” sections describe the multitude of employment and training opportunities in the intramural research program. See

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Assembling the Right Team for Your Project

All About Grants logoThis week, we return to our podcast series on grant writing. In this podcast, Amanda Boyce, a program director from the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases, and Dave Curren, a policy analyst from OER, explain the key roles available to staff on your grant application, including PI, co-investigator, collaborator, and consultant.

To get new podcasts as they are released, subscribe by visiting us on iTunes or catch our podcast RSS using your favorite software.

All of our past podcasts, including transcripts, are available on our website.

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You Ask, We Answer

How Will the Revised Multiple Investigator Policy Impact My New Investigator Status?

We define a new investigator as an investigator who has not successfully competed for a significant, independent NIH research award. Therefore, if an individual with new investigator status is added as a principal investigator to an existing, active award, they will not lose their new investigator status because they did not compete for the award. For more details, see NOT-OD-11-118.

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October 10, 2011 (Columbus Day): NIH Closed

NIH (including help desks) will be closed on Monday, October 10, 2011 in observance of Columbus Day.

If a standard postmark/submission date falls on this federal holiday, the application deadline is automatically extended to the next business day.

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