NIH, Research Community Target Next Generation of Scientists

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Over the past decade, the landscape for researchers has become increasingly competitive. For early career scientists, it can be hard to gain a foothold in the research community. But the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and many academic medical centers are trying to change that through targeted programs designed to support new investigators as they build their careers.

“There is a tremendous amount of anxiety about getting their initial grants and being able to have a research career,” says Edward Abraham, MD, dean at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine and acting executive vice president for health affairs and CEO of the University of Miami Health System. “We need to think about the next generation of scientists and bring in new investigators to have a vibrant and sustainable scientific enterprise.”

“Having a vigorous research enterprise that impacts our understanding of disease processes, treatment of disease processes, particularly those that are important in population health, is absolutely essential for the health of this country.”

Edward Abraham, MD
University of Miami Miller School of Medicine

Although federal funding for NIH has increased in the last two years, when adjusted for inflation, based on AAMC calculations, the agency’s purchasing power remains 17% lower than it was in 2003, when a five-year doubling of the NIH budget ended. The decreased purchasing power has hindered NIH’s ability to support younger scientists.  

According to NIH data, the average age at which PhD scientists receive their first R01 grant—a sign of a successful research career—has increased from 35.7 in 1980 to 43 in 2016. For MD investigators the average age is 45. Even after getting that first grant, it can be challenging to maintain funding for early established investigators, or researchers who are within 10 years of receiving their first independent R01. “The field of science loses a lot of people at the end of their first R01, since it seems to be a particular challenge to be funded for a second cycle,” says Ross McKinney, MD, AAMC chief scientific officer.

In a May 2017 blog post, NIH Director Francis Collins, MD, PhD, noted that 10% of NIH-funded researchers receive 40% of available funding. But by funding more researchers across a larger number labs, NIH “might maximize the number of important discoveries that can emerge from the science we support,” Collins wrote.

Although NIH has tried over the last several years to fund more grants for early career researchers, in his blog post, Collins noted that the percent of grants going to late-stage career scientists has increased, while the percent going to early stage investigators has been constant. For mid-career scientists, the percent of grants has declined. “The track record [of established investigators] is wonderful, but that could mean somebody has been working on the same thing. Our worry is that new ideas are not coming into the system from new researchers,” McKinney says.

In response to this problem, NIH is stepping up efforts to target early career and mid-career researchers. In August 2017, it launched the Next Generation Researchers Initiative to address these challenges and promote a stable, diverse biomedical research workforce. The program will reserve $210 million each year for proposals from early career and mid-career researchers who have “not previously received substantial, independent funding from NIH.” After five years, that amount will increase to $1.1 billion per year. As part of the initiative, NIH also set a goal of funding 200 more grants for both early career and early established investigators in fiscal year 2017 than it did in FY 2016.

Investment leads to successful research careers

As the environment for researchers whose careers are at the beginning in the early and middle stages of their careers has become increasingly competitive, many institutions are finding ways to help their junior faculty succeed.

At the University of Maryland School of Medicine, the Research Careers Development Program offers mentoring, as well as seminars on topics such as preparing grant applications, scientific writing, and identifying funding sources. Any faculty member can participate, but the program primarily works with women, minority, and junior faculty. In addition, the program staff are completely focused on providing guidance, support, and resources to help faculty develop their research careers. “Each person doesn’t have to create their own wheel. They can go to this one-stop resource, and there’s a suite of experts who can guide them and teach them,” explains E. Albert Reece, MD, PhD, MBA, dean at the medical school.

Miller School of Medicine is giving junior faculty start-up packages of five years, compared with the previous three-year package. That provides additional time for scientists to establish their research programs and “greater security in terms of how well they’ll do,” Abraham says. A junior faculty program that emphasizes mentoring and relationships with department chairs and senior investigators also is critical. As Abraham explains, “We need to have an institutional safety net in terms of mentoring to make sure that [early career scientists] aren’t disappearing, that they are getting their needs met, and we’re doing everything possible to ensure their success.”

The environment has been particularly challenging for physician-scientists who often end up focusing primarily on clinical work if they don’t get their first grants early in their careers, according to McKinney. He notes that protected research time is one way institutions can encourage physician-scientists to pursue research. “Particularly in the earliest stages of a career, people need time to learn how to do research. People end up very well trained as clinicians, but we do a better job of protecting clinical time than we do protecting research time,” McKinney says.

Reece echoes the concerns for physician-scientists, noting that about one-quarter of the faculty who take advantage of services in the Research Careers Development Program are clinicians. “Basic science faculty typically have a mentoring group around them. But the clinician scientists need that kind of support and don’t usually have it in their departments.”

Going forward, it will be critical that institutions invest in helping early career and mid-career scientists develop research skills, Reece adds. “Either way, the [biomedical research] landscape will get more competitive. We just can’t allow our faculty to be out there on their own; we have to provide a stronger infrastructure to help them. To the extent that institutions invest in their [faculty], I think it will serve us all well.”

In Miami, Abraham agrees that preparing the next generation of scientists and ensuring a sustainable research enterprise will be essential, with implications stretching beyond medical schools and teaching hospitals. “Having a vigorous research enterprise that impacts our understanding of disease processes, treatment of disease processes, particularly those that are important in population health, is absolutely essential for the health of this country.”