NIH should take decisive steps to promote independence, originality

WASHINGTON -- The National Institutes of Health can foster independence among postdoctoral scholars, entry-level faculty, staff scientists, and other new investigators in biomedical research by improving their training and giving them more resources to pursue their own projects, says a new report from the National Academies' National Research Council. For example, NIH should provide postdocs and early-career investigators with more financial support for their own studies, and limit the maximum length of time they can spend in training under senior NIH-funded scientists to a total of five years. Cultivating the independence of all new investigators should be an agencywide goal, said the committee that wrote the report.

Concerns have been raised for decades about scientists spending longer periods of time as postdoctoral appointees, unable to set their own research directions. In 2002, for example, the median age at which researchers with Ph.D.s received their first independent grant from NIH was 42. In 2003 investigators under the age of 40 received less than 17 percent of the agency's competitive research awards -- down from more than 50 percent in 1980. New NIH policies and practices are needed to reverse the trend of ever-longer training periods, the report says. NIH officials and other stakeholders -- including university administrators, professional societies, funding agencies, and the scientific community at large -- have a shared responsibility to transform the status quo. "Science would benefit from a system that actively encourages new investigators to try out novel ideas and approaches," said committee chair Thomas R. Cech, president, Howard Hughes Medical Institute, Chevy Chase, Md., and distinguished professor of chemistry and biochemistry, University of Colorado, Boulder. "Now is the time for action. Our report offers a plan to help ensure the continued vitality of the biomedical research enterprise and its work force."


Contact: Vanee Vines or Megan Petty
The National Academies

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