Since 1988, the NIH Loan Repayment Programs (LRPs) have been successful in recruiting and retaining early stage investigators into promising biomedical and behavioral research careers. As I have written about before, one of the most significant benefits of these programs is that NIH can repay up to $35,000 in educational loans per year for these talented professionals, which helps alleviate an often cited barrier to entering the biomedical research workforce. Since their inception, NIH LRPs have funded more than 25,000 new and renewal awards totaling more than $950 million (see more data on the LRP Dashboard).
Repaying educational debt is one thing, but what other benefits might these programs provide?
To answer this question, my colleagues within the NIH Office of Extramural Research’s Division of Loan Repayment compared individuals that applied for and received an LRP with those who applied but did not receive an LRP award between fiscal years (FYs) 2003-2009. Their history of productivity was followed through FY 2017. More specifically, we assessed pulled information on grant submissions, awards, and publications in a sample that was equalized to control for baseline differences (n=3,053 applications; funded n=1,095, unfunded n=1,958).
Results indicated that individuals who received an LRP award demonstrated consistently higher levels of what we termed “persistence in research” (Figure 1). This composite measure includes submitting grant or fellowship applications, receiving grant or fellowship awards, and publications. Further, when looking at persistence in research over time, LRP funded individuals demonstrated an approximate two-fold increase in productivity, compared to their unfunded peers. This difference was evident even 14 years after their LRP application.
These findings build on experiences we have heard previously from LRP recipients. In 2014, my colleagues invited 3,005 LRP funded individuals to participate in a customer service study to gauge their experiences in the LRP. Out of the 1,938 who responded, nearly all recipients noted benefiting professionally and personally from participating in the program. Funded applicants cited benefits ranging from being able to pursue research goals, even if it meant having to accept a lower salaried position, reduced clinical duties (i.e., more research time), as well as being more confident that they would succeed in a research career.
Our first look suggests repaying educational debt through NIH LRP awards may be an effective strategy to retain talented early-career behavioral, biomedical, and clinician-scientists in the research workforce. We will continue to assess this pool of LRP awardees and anticipate sharing more data on their research outcomes.
I would like to thank Drs. Ericka Boone and Jill Mattia for their work on this study.