Interview with Francis Collins about Biomedical Workforce Development Initiatives

On December 11, the NIH Office of the Director issued  a press release describing two main NIH initiatives: workforce development and data and informatics. (see links to the press release and original report here.) Last week Gene Russo published an interview with Francis Collins in the journal Nature in which he asked Dr. Collins to discuss in more detail the workforce development initiative. Dr. Collins states that “Only about 23% of US-trained biomedical PhD holders were in academic tenure or tenure-track positions in 2008,” which may help explain the avalanche of queries I receive about medical writing careers.

Summary from the Nature article:

For years, the US National Institutes of Health has struggled with promoting non-academic career tracks for biomedical scientists, gauging the supply of PhD holders and demand for research jobs, enticing under-represented minorities into science and establishing funding avenues for early-career researchers. Hoping to bring some evidence-based clarity to these issues, NIH director Francis Collins asked two working groups of the NIH Advisory Committee to study the issues and make recommendations. They released their recommendations in two reports in June; Collins responded in December. The NIH has decided to take measures that include raising its postdoc stipend, increasing the number of grants that encourage early-career independence and offering 25 institutional grants, each worth about US$250,000, to support training programmes that prepare students for a broad range of research-related careers, including non-academic paths.

Read the full interview here.

NIH Will Pilot Anonymous Peer Review of Grant Applications

On December 7, the NIH Office of the Director issued a press release announcing a series of new initiates. The initiatives group under two main themes: workforce development and data & informatics.

I strongly recommend that people read the one-page press release to get a sense of the way NIH will set priorities in terms of its funding portfolios going forward. Look for new funding opportunity announcements and NIH policies addressing the issues laid out in this document in the upcoming months/years. It is also worthwhile to peruse the original recommendations given to the NIH Director by the Advisory Committee to the Director (ACD) last June, from which these initiatives derive.

Within workforce development, topics include the launch of new initiatives to provide mentored support to new researchers, training and standards for mentors, numerous initiatives to promote diversity at all levels, and increased support to grant mechanisms that foster an independent research career, such as the K99/R00. Notably, the following language appears pertaining to peer review:   Promote fairness in peer review through interventions including implicit bias and diversity awareness training for both scientific review officers and members of review panels, and piloting a program that would make grant applications completely anonymous.

Under data and informatics, they list the following:

  • Maximize the value of biomedical data through a new Big Data to Knowledge (BD2K) initiative that would create:
    • improved data and software sharing policies, catalogs of research data, and data/metadata standards development to facilitate broader use of biomedical big data
    • analysis methods and software development and dissemination
    • enhanced training for biomedical big data
    • proposed new centers of excellence
  • Launch the NIH InfrastructurePlus adaptive environment to advance high-performance computing, agile hosting and storage approaches, and modernization of the network, among other approaches.

What Does the NIH FY12 Appropriations Report Actually Say?

Why should we follow the Appropriations process? Aside from the obvious reason—to know how big the pot of extramural money will be next year and to understand the government’s commitment (or lack thereof) to science funding—there is another important reason: If you know the language worked into Appropriations testimony you can strategically design your research and incorporate key language and ideas into your NIH proposal in order to improve your odds of funding. (In these competitive funding times, every little advantage helps.) So without further ado, here are some key concepts from the NIH FY12 Appropriation report:

NIH has requested $31.987B for FY12. In the cover letter for the report from the Office of the Budget, Francis Collins states: “The requested funding will enhance NIH’s ability to support research that prolongs life, reduces disability, and strengthens the economy. NIH-funded research contributes to economic growth, produces well-paying jobs, and helps to keep the United States competitive on the global stage.” He continues: “For the FY 2012 budget request, NIH has identified one major area of extraordinary opportunity and three other themes that are exceptionally ripe for investment and integral to improving the health of the American people.” The one major area of opportunity of course is the proposed highly-controversial National Center For Advancing Translational Science (NCAT), which Collins refers to as “a new paradigm for turning lab discoveries into cures and treatments through targeted investments in translational science and medicine.” The three themes that NIH has deemed “instrumental in paving the way for more rapid scientific advances across all areas of human health and disease, including global applications”:

 1) Technologies to Accelerate DiscoveryThis area focuses on genes and the environment (I guess we will see more of those FOAs), and directly lists advanced technologies such as DNA sequencing, microarray technology, nanotechnology, new imaging modalities, and computational biology.

2) Enhancing the Evidence Base For Health Care Decisions. Language here includes “comparative effectiveness” and “personalized medicine.” He also cites the new HMO Research Network, which “will bring together HMOs caring for more than13 million patients for the purpose of accelerating research in the high priority areas of epidemiological studies, clinical trials, and electronic-health-record-enabled health care delivery.”

3) New Investigators, New Ideas. Here Collins mentions two programs: “the NIH Director’s New Innovator Award, which supports new investigators with potentially high-impact projects, and the Early Independence Award, which enables our most talented young scientists to move directly from a doctoral degree to an independent research career.”

If you write NIH grants, I strongly encourage you to spend some time with the full Appropriations report put out by the NIH Office of the Budget. (click here)

The Administration requested $31.829B for NIH FY12. Here are highlights that the Administration pulled from the NIH report (and therefore deem important):

*The FY12 budget proposes to support a total of 9,158 competing Research Project Grants (RPGs), a reduction of 228 from FY10. In total, NIH projects it will support 36,582 RPGs (competing and non-competing) in FY12, an increase of 43 grants from 2010.

*The budget also proposes a 4 percent increase in stipends under the Ruth L. Kirschstein National Research Service Award (NRSA) program. The goal is to “improve NIH’s ability to attract high-quality research investigators to the field of biomedical research.” This will result in an increase in NRSA funding of $19 million over FY10, for a total of $794 million.

*The Cures Acceleration Network would receive $100 million in FY12; it is included in the budget of the Office of the Director.

*As in previous years, $300 million is transferred out of the budget of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) for the Global Fund to Fight HIV/AIDS, Malaria, and TB.

*Although the budget narrative specifically mentions implementation of the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences (NCATS), the National Center for Research Resources (NCRR) remains a line item in the FY12 budget.

*At a briefing of NIH advocates, NIH Director Francis Collins said that within the next month, the agency expects to file a budget amendment detailing the movement of NCRR programs into NCATS or other NIH institutes and centers.

*The National Children’s Study would receive $194 million, the same level as FY10; the Common Fund would receive $557 million, an increase of $13 million.

*NIH intramural research would increase by $50 million, to a total of $3.382 billion, which is approximately a 1.4 percent increase.

*NIH estimates it will be able to save more than $15 million in administrative costs in FY12. The agency plans to do so through such means as using technology to save study section travel costs by holding virtual peer review sessions.

To illustrate the achievements of NIH, Dr. Collins used two particularly compelling examples at the budget briefing:

*A 21-year-old diagnosed today with HIV/AIDS has a life expectancy of 70 years, thanks to the anti-retroviral         therapy made possible by NIH funding.

*Gains in life expectancy supported by NIH-funded research result in $3.2 trillion in annual savings.

NIH identified in its FY12 budget justification priority areas and initiatives related to the following diseases: autism; cancer; Alzheimer’s disease; type 1 diabetes; and HIV/AIDS.

Some scientific program areas of accomplishment or special emphasis provided by NIH include: bioinformatics and computational biology; National Technology Center for Networks and Pathways programs; epigenomics; genotype-tissue expression; global health; Gulf oil spill long-term follow-up; health economics; high-risk, high-reward investigator initiated research; the HMO research collaboratory; the human microbe project; and nanomedicine.