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NIH launches website devoted to workforce initiatives

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) recently launched a new website that will update researchers and the public about the agency's attempts to improve the biomedical research workforce. The website details initiatives that the NIH is undertaking between now and 2015 to improve career development for NIH-sponsored trainees and investigators.

This website is a welcome follow-up to the NIH's Biomedical Workforce Task Force report that was issued last summer. I blogged about the task force's findings here. The NIH quickly (well, by government standards) implemented some of the committee's recommendations, such as increasing the number of "Pathway to Independence" K99/R00 transition grants, decreasing the number of years that postdocs are eligible for these grants, and creating a new grant mechanism for non-academic career training. But there has been pushback from the scientific community (as well as from economist Paula Stephan) suggesting that the NIH was sweeping some of the task force's tougher recommendations under the rug.

Perhaps in response to this criticism, the NIH invited comments and suggestions from the biomedical community about the task force's [the task force is also called a working group by the NIH, but I will change it to task force to be internally consistent] report, beginning in February. You can see a summary of the responses here (pdf) and a word cloud showing the words that came up most frequently in these responses on the RockTalk blog. The largest terms on the word cloud — such as  "transition/completion strategies," "institution reporting on trainee outcomes," and "mentoring process" — show that many of the comments and recommendations were focused on the transition between graduate/postdoctoral training and stable career paths. Many comments supported the use of Individual Development Plans for grad students and postdocs, decreased training periods for grad students, standardization of postdoc benefits across institutions, and tracking career outcomes of grad students and postdocs.

Overall, the comments aligned fairly closely with the original task force's report — although they added some more detailed concerns (i.e., noting that any cap on graduate training length should allow for contingencies such as a lab move or illness) and ideas for how to implement changes (i.e., the NIH should collect career outcome data and update it each year).

The new website is a good next step in this process because it details what actions the NIH plans to take to address these various issues. For example, beginning in October 2014, all graduate and undergraduate students who are supported by any NIH grant will be given an eRA commons ID so that they can be tracked (this is already a requirement for postdocs).

Personally, I'm glad to see that the NIH is finally tackling these career issues head-on and looking to the research community for ideas. I hope its new website is a sign that it is committed to making lasting changes in this arena.

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Summer Allen