The most important resource for the successful future of biomedical research is not buildings, instruments, or new technologies – it’s the scientists doing the work. But by now, it’s no longer news that biomedical researchers are stressed – stressed by a hypercompetitive environment that’s particularly destructive for early- and mid-career investigators. But those are the researchers who, if we don’t lose them, will comprise the next generation of leaders and visionaries. Almost 10 years ago, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) took steps to improve funding opportunities for “early stage investigators”, those who were 10 years or less from their terminal research degree or clinical training. Those steps helped, but many stakeholders have concluded that more is needed. Stakeholders include members of Congress, who included a “Next Generation Researchers’ Initiative” (NGRI) in the 2016 21st Century Cures Act. This act asked NIH to support a comprehensive study by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) on policies affecting the next generation of researchers and to take into consideration the recommendations made in their report. The National Academy began their study in early 2017 and completed it in April 2018. The NIH has initiated steps to fund more early stage investigators to improve opportunities for stable funding among investigators who, while funded, were still beset by unstable prospects. The NIH also convened a special Advisory Committee to the Director (ACD) Working Group, focused on the Next Generation Researchers Initiative (NGRI) with members included from all career stages – from a graduate student through senior faculty.
The NASEM NGRI panel recently released a long-awaited report, “The Next Generation of Biomedical and Behavioral Sciences Researchers: Breaking Through.” The report includes a detailed summary of previous reports and their recommendations, along with a data-driven description of the biomedical research workforce “landscape.” The report offers a number of recommendations that deserve close attention. The NASEM report presents its assessment and recommendations within a multi-actor systems context: “Many stakeholders tend to hold the federal government responsible for this system, placing blame for failures at the feet of NIH, the principal funder of biomedical research. Doing so, however, obscures the important role that other organizations, particularly universities, must play in developing and implementing solutions.” We welcome the chance to work with other stakeholders to find those solutions.
The NASEM panel also calls for greater degrees of data transparency and communications from all stakeholders. It notes that “a lack of comprehensive and easily available data about the biomedical research system itself has impaired progress.” Therefore, “biomedical research institutions should collect, analyze, and disseminate comprehensive data on outcomes, demographics, and career aspirations of biomedical pre- and postdoctoral researchers using common standards and definitions.” Last December, in a welcome development, the recently formed “Coalition for Next Generation Life Science” announced that 10 major institutions would disseminate data that would help students and early-career researchers make better-informed decisions. These data include information on admissions, enrollment, degree completion rates and time, time spent in post-doctoral research fellowships, and jobs held by former graduate students and postdoctoral researchers.
Like the NASEM NGRI committee members, the ACD Working Group on NGRI is thinking in a systems-oriented data-driven manner. The Working Group is also wrestling with the issue that keeps us awake at night – considering how to make well-informed strategic investment decisions to nurture and further diversify the biomedical research workforce in an environment filled with high-stakes opportunity costs. If we are going to support more promising early career investigators, and if we are going to nurture meritorious, productive mid-career investigators by stabilizing their funding streams, monies will have to come from somewhere. That will likely mean some belt-tightening in other quarters, which is rarely welcomed by the those whose belts are being taken in by a notch or two.
The NIH looks forward to integrating the recommendations of the NASEM NGRI report with the preliminary recommendations of the ACD NGRI Working Group in June, and their final report in December. We pledge to do everything we can to incorporate those recommendations, along with those of the NASEM panel, in our ongoing efforts to design, test, implement, and evaluate policies that will assure the success of the next generation of talented biomedical researchers.