The Great Diseases Project: A Partnership Between Tufts Medical School and the Boston Public Schools

One of NIH’s two main initiatives going forward is workforce development. Here is a group at Tufts Med School doing wonderful work to develop comprehensive, cutting-edge biomedical curricula for 11th- and 12th-grade students in the Boston public schools. The article, by Berri Jacque PhD and colleagues, will come out in the May 2013 issue of the journal Academic Medicine. But here is a teaser to whet your appetite:

Or read the abstract here:


Medical schools, although the gatekeepers of much biomedical education and research, rarely engage formally with K–12 educators to influence curriculum content or professional development. This segregation of content experts from teachers creates a knowledge gap that limits inclusion of current biomedical science into high school curricula, affecting both public health literacy and the biomedical pipeline. The authors describe how, in 2009, scientists from Tufts Medical School and Boston public school teachers established a partnership of formal scholarly dialogue to create 11th- to 12th-grade high school curricula about critical health-related concepts, with the goal of increasing scientific literacy and influencing health-related decisions. The curricula are based on the great diseases (infectious diseases, neurological disorders, metabolic disease, and cancer). Unlike most health science curricular interventions that provide circumscribed activities, the curricula are comprehensive, each filling one full term of in-class learning and providing extensive real-time support for the teacher. In this article, the authors describe how they developed and implemented the infectious disease curriculum, and its impacts. The high school teachers and students showed robust gains in content knowledge and critical thinking skills, whereas the Tufts scientists increased their pedagogical knowledge and appreciation for health-related science communication. The results show how formal interactions between medical schools and K–12 educators can be mutually beneficial.

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.