Last year, as I reflected on finishing my first full year as NIH Deputy Director for Extramural Research, I noted five themes that reflected most of the content of this blog: applicant behavior, activity, and outcomes; peer review; basic science; biomedical research workforce and training; and scientific rigor, transparency, and research impact. Looking back on 2017, which was certainly a busy and active year, many of these themes continue to be at the forefront, though one in particular, the make-up and future of the biomedical research workforce, has been the center of much debate.
On May 2, we posted a blog on “Implementing Limits on Grant Support to Strengthen the Biomedical Research Workforce” in which we proposed using a “Grant Support Index (AKA Research Commitment Index)” to cap the total support going to any one principal investigator. Our goals were to relieve the pressures of hyper-competition, particularly for early and mid-career investigators; we also sought to increase the number of independent early career scientists and to stabilize the career trajectories of those who do high quality work. The blog received 418 comments – by far the most number of comments for any one blog since we started in October 2015. The blog was not the only platform for debate – there were stories in the scientific press and mainstream media. NIH chose to revise its approach, instead moving to NIH-wide targets for funding early career investigators, and seeking input from an Advisory Committee to the Director (ACD) working group to refine the “Next Generation Researchers’ Initiative (NGRI).” Two blogs on the initiative and policy together received over 200 comments.
The intense attention reflects, I think, high levels of anxiety about the future of American biomedical researchers and their work. We see this discussed in social media conversations and external postings that appeared after we announced the NGRI. For example:
- Mark Peifer, a senior scientist and member of the NIGMS Advisory Council, published the article, “The Argument for Diversifying the NIH Grant Portfolio.” Peifer argued that the NGRI suffered from two inherent faults: no source for the needed funds and a real possibility that the initiative would jeopardize mid-career investigators who are doing high-quality work by hanging on by only one grant.
- Yarden Katz and Ulrich Matter, both from Harvard University, posted a working paper “On the Biomedical Elite: Inequality and Stasis in Scientific Knowledge Production.” The authors used NIH data to show that “that funding inequality has been rising since 1985, with a small segment of investigators and institutes getting an increasing proportion of funds, and that investigators who start in the top funding ranks tend to stay there (which results in stasis, or lack of mobility).” Commenting on NIH’s experience with the Grant Support Index proposal, the authors wrote, “In response to criticisms of the highly skewed distribution of funding in biomedical research, the NIH recently proposed a cap on the funds a single investigator can receive, which sparked strong backlash from some elite biomedical scientists and was promptly withdrawn. The selective pressure induced by the maintenance of this concentration of wealth (exerted in part by a small and influential segment of biomedicine that profits from the status quo), coupled with the emphasis on metrics, is likely to exacerbate the lack of diversity within biomedical science.”
We acknowledge these concerns, and through informed discussion with the NIH ACD working group, through feedback and data from NIH’s institutes and centers, and through feedback and recommendations from a National Academy of Sciences (NAS) panel, we will be further refining our approach. We are also pleased to learn of steps that external stakeholders are taking: for example, the presidents and chancellors of nine US research universities and one research institute recently announced a new initiative, the “Coalition for Next Generation Life Science.” The Coalition is engaging in a series of “transparency enhancing efforts,” including providing data to life science trainees on educational and career outcomes.
Alongside the future of the biomedical research workforce, our blog activity also reflects the discussions about efforts to enhance stewardship and transparency of clinical trials. We have cited previous concerns about the under- or delayed-reporting of the main results of NIH-funded trials, a problem that some view as pervasive and as a serious threat to the well-being of the scientific enterprise. Much of the discourse over the past few months has focused on the scope of our policies, with critics arguing that our policies should not extend to trials with a primary purpose of basic science. The journal Nature Human Behavior posted essays critical- and supportive of the scope of NIH’s approach. We appreciate the active feedback on the blog, as it has helped us produce, revise, and refine resources that help applicants and grantees.
We look forward to continuing dialogue as we work to maximize the transparency of NIH-funded research, especially research that involves prospective experiments performed on people.
What’s in store for 2018? I’m reminded of a famous quote, attributed to Niels Bohr and to Yogi Berra that “Prediction is very difficult, especially about the future.” There’s scientific evidence that experts, for the most part, are mediocre predictors; along those lines, recent data show that it’s difficult to predict when a scientist will be most productive. I think it’s fair to say that the five aforementioned themes will remain active and salient. We may see even more dialogue about rigor, accountability, and transparency given increasing attention in the news. And we will continue to struggle with figuring out how best to allocate funding resources – how best to balance small science and big science – and how best to deal with long-term hyper-competition and its effects.
As I wrote last year, we are grateful to all our readers for your interest, your feedback, your engagement, and your passion. We wish you all the best for 2018 and beyond.
Table 1: Top “Open Mike” posts by page view, Jan 1, 2017 through Dec. 27, 2017