April 22, 2010 - ASM Comments on the NIGMS Strategic Plan

National Institute of General Medical Sciences
National Institutes of Health
45 Center Drive MSC 6200 
Bethesda, MD 20892-6200

Re:       NIGMS Strategic Plan

The American Society for Microbiology (ASM) is pleased to submit the following comments on the National Institute of General Medical Sciences (NIGMS) Strategic Plan.  These comments were prepared with input from the Public and Scientific Affairs Board Committee on Microbiological Issues Impacting Minorities and the Committee on Biomedical Research.  

1.       What constitutes “success” in biomedical research training from the perspectives of an individual trainee, an institution, and society?

a.        Individual trainee –
(1)   time to degree (often extended due to financial need or advisor requirements)
(2)   Student exposure at professional meetings (presenting at national and international meetings)
(3)   securing post-doctoral fellowships and positions at leading research institutions and companies
(4)   good and working relationship with research advisor and with mentor if different,
(5)   Opportunity to be advised and taught by productive faculty members
(6)   Additional relevant training and postdoc/employment acquisitions,
(7)   grades, publications and ease in completion of departmental requirements
(8)   feeling part of professional discipline
(9)   receipt of appropriate accolades
(10)  reasonable training length with appropriate funding
(11)  opportunities for teaching, grant writing, administrative , etc. workshops/experiences
b.      Institution –
(1)   number of students successfully trained
(2)   ability to provide financial support with the acquisition of relevant training grants
(3)   graduates who are successful in obtaining appropriate postdoctoral/employment opportunities
(4)   students/graduates  who received relevant awards
(5)   student publication records
(6)   ensuring that students are training in areas where there are needs and job opportunities
(7)   ensuring that students are able to form independent thoughts and translate those to activities, experiments or grant writing
c.       Society –
(1)   production of individuals who assume relevant positions that result in new discoveries, appropriate teaching positions and who are able to communicate science to the public and advocate for relevant issues that translate discoveries directly to the public
(2)   production of biomedical professionals follow ethical guidelines and avoid conflicts of interest
(3)   the number of trainees who return to academia to train the next generation of biomedical researchers
(4)   production of trainees who have a clear understanding of  how their work impacts society

2.       What can NIGMS do to encourage an optimal balance of breadth and depth in research training?

a.  require that research faculty have adequate training, expertise and productivity
b.  ensure that research faculty don’t extend training to unreasonable lengths
c.  ensure the provision of  adequate funding to conduct research training
d.  ensure that there is appropriate faculty oversight that encourages a committee type review of individual student
e.  create a summer internship/partnership with other Institutes at NIH to offer specialized training in new technology or techniques which may not be available at the home institution. 
f.  encourage partnerships between NIGMS grantees and scientists at NIH and other federal institutions. 

g.  have a larger presence at venues where faculty and students supported by their programs are present/presenting.

h.  where relevant, encourage multidisciplinary research endeavors

 3.      What can NIGMS do to encourage an appropriate balance between research productivity and successful outcomes for the mentor’s trainees?

a.  Ensure that each trainee has an appropriate committee that makes periodic review of the trainees progress
b.  Encourage institutions to reward faculty who demonstrate successful outcomes for trainees
c.  Ensure that faculty have the relevant background and expertise to successfully train students
d.  Provide support to cover at least 5 years (including summer) of tuition and stipend support, so that students can begin research training as soon as possible, and continue without breaks to take jobs outside the lab to subsist. 
e.  Ensure that advisors require graduate students to publish prior to graduation.
f.   Require that students receive training in other related areas that directly impact the profession, e.g., bioethics, conflicts of interest, grant writing, teaching, lab administration and management, computer technology, etc.

 4.      What can NIGMS do through its training programs to promote and encourage greater diversity in the biomedical research workforce?

a.  Continue and expand precollege programs at MSIs, especially those that have a record of producing underrepresented minorities who choose biomedical research careers.
b.  Reinstate undergraduate programs at HBCUs. These institutions still continue to produce a significant ratio of underrepresented minorities who seek and complete PhDs in the graduate.  Where infrastructure is lacking develop programs that will provide partnerships with RIUs, faculty exchanges, NIH loans of intellect and equipment to support student biomedical research training
c.  Increase support to community colleges through bridges programs and tactics described in 4.b.  
d.  Require that all faculty grantees demonstrate a diverse workforce in their laboratories. 
e.  Develop a bridge program where undergraduates are guaranteed entrance (and support) into a graduate program if they have participated in an NIGMS supported undergraduate training program and meet the graduate program requirements.
f.  Summer research programs have become sparse.   They should be re-implemented. 
g.  NIGMS must play a better role in monitoring the productivity of institutions that receive funds to support underrepresented minorities, but show a poor record in not only graduating these students, but require increased time to degree completion and graduate students lacking an appropriate  publication record.
h.  Develop programs to encourage trainees and mentors to utilize and/or develop courses in grantsmanship and alternative employment opportunities outside of academic/industrial research, e.g. teaching at smaller universities and colleges. Many such universities have an increasingly diverse student population and would benefit from a diverse faculty.
i.  Develop programs to encourage participation of post doctoral fellows and researchers of various backgrounds in scientific policy. This should include fellowships and grants which would allow individuals to apprentice in the science policy field.

5.       Recognizing that students have different career goals and interests, should NIGMS encourage greater flexibility in training and if so, how?

a.  NIGMS should consider funding MD programs where students will be expected to enter research.  For example, the ASM would promote a physician infectious disease program.  To ensure the research component, a medical student would be required to take a year off, within the 4 year period and enter an NIH infectious disease research lab for the purpose of engaging in research.  This could be applied to other disciplines as well.  In other words, an MD/PhD is very long, costly and daunting to many minorities who really desire the MD degree.  Furthermore, PhD graduates are having difficulties in finding jobs after a reasonable postdoctoral period.  The latter scenario discourages some pipeline minorities from continuing to choose biomedical research careers.
b. NIGMS might consider developing specific M.S. research degrees.  These positions are needed to support PhD’s work and be attractive to those who don’t wish to spend long years in PhD training programs.  A funded program could be highly competitive and include a year of intense research experience at the NIH or other research intensive lab.
c. Explore training in science policy by providing internships or fellowships for such, as well as providing fellowships for teaching . Fellowships may also include industrial fellowships because if students go into industry, the benefits are still reaped by the general public.

 6.       What should NIGMS do to ensure that institutions monitor, measure, and continuously improve the quality of their training efforts?

a.  NIGMS should provide a standardized template for all schools to track/monitor training efforts.  
b.  NIGMS should require yearly reviews of trainee progress and allow for interventions and re-assignments. Make this report an integral component of the yearly progress report. 
c.  NIGMS should lead an effort to reduce the time that it takes to receive a PhD in the biomedical sciences.  The time is getting longer and longer to receive a PhD and the postdoctoral positions share the same lengthy time.  Unless this is reversed, fewer and fewer students will choose to pursue biomedical research careers.  Data are available to show that the numbers of white males seeking these degrees have significantly decreased and anecdotal observations are showing that women and underrepresented minorities are beginning to follow this path.d.  NIGMS should be more aggressive in ensuring that Pis are, indeed, appropriately training graduate students and postdocs in the minimal time that is required and that they aren’t being used as technicians and other positions that have been depleted due to declining funding opportunities.

7.      Do you have other comments or recommendations regarding NIGMS-sponsored training?

Yes.  NIGMS might consider hosting two kinds of meetings. 

The first would bring together representatives from other government agencies (NSF, NASA, DOE, DOD, etc.) academe and private organizations (funding and professional organizations) to identify best practices in increasing the participation of underrepresented minorities in the sciences.  Some academic institutions have been very successful in training underrepresented minorities either at the graduate level or at the undergraduate level.  Given what is known about the basic academic prerequisites for ensuring success in biomedical PhD programs and careers, a focus on STEM preparation would be beneficial.  In fact, anecdotal studies have demonstrated that individuals who have strong backgrounds in the physical sciences tend to be better academically prepared to pursue biomedical science careers.  Representation from academe should include Pis who’ve had success (not necessarily program planners and recruitment personnel) and individuals from HBCUs and HSIs who’ve played significant roles in feeding the pipeline.  The latter may not necessarily be engaged in research, but be those who have played significant roles in preparing students for the pipeline.  Missing from this meeting should be academic research types who know science, but have no experience in the topic under consideration.

The second meeting should bring together a carefully selected group of research scientists to address the issue of the increasing time to degree completion and the impact that it is having on recruitment and retention of ALL students into the biomedical sciences, and on the vitality of our scientific enterprise.  Topics should also cover the increasing times for postdoc completion.  Participants should carefully consider that while current research projects are much more sophisticated than they were decades ago, the technology to answer related questions are simultaneously as sophisticated and provide quick and more accurate results.  It’s clear that the increasing life span means that individuals work longer and this has a direct impact on academic and other job opportunities for recent trainees.  Furthermore, discussions should also center on what universities can do to develop unique positions for long-term tenured faculty, within the academic structure, to allow for emerging biomedical scientists to assume tenure and tenure track positions. 

Finally, an overview of what happens in other countries to ensure that emerging scientists have opportunities to be successful during their most productive years should be presented.  The latter will offer significant insight into why such countries are beginning to exceed this country’s productivity in research discoveries and why they continue to have ample numbers of their citizens pursuing research careers.

Thank you for the opportunity to comment.


Ruth L. Berkleman, M.D., Chair, Public and Scientific Affairs Board
Marian Johnson-Thompson, Ph.D.
Chair, Committee on Microbiological Issues Impacting Minorities
Gail H. Cassell, Ph.D., Chair, Committee on Biomedical Research