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Summer 2005 Vol. 5 No. 2

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©Photodisc A State of Independence
For New Investigators

Help Wanted: Postdocs and early-career biomedical investigators for U.S. scientific enterprise. Few opportunities to do your own work. Limited access to research funds for original projects. Training to last more than 10 years. Mentoring from top scientists hit or miss.

Such an ad would entice few people, but it describes some key challenges facing postdocs and new scientists in biomedical research. Their autonomy and creativity frequently take a back seat in systems often marked by conventionality. The National Institutes of Health should promote their independence by giving them more resources and opportunities, says a new report from the National Research Council.

NIH alone cannot transform the status quo, however. Other stakeholders -- including university administrators and professional societies -- must share the responsibility, the report says.

Postdoctoral training should be temporary, the report emphasizes. NIH and other institutions should limit the time individuals work as postdoctoral researchers to five years total -- regardless of the type of award or grant they work under.

Most biomedical postdocs are paid through "R01" research grants that are made to principal investigators (PIs). So, trainees are often required to focus on the work of others, a pattern that may stifle their creativity, the report says. NIH should move some of the postdoctoral support from R01 grants to training grants and individual awards that aid postdocs more directly. To complement its Ruth L. Kirschstein National Research Service Awards, NIH also should create a new independent-research award that allows postdocs to control their own projects under the mentorship of senior investigators. Additionally, the agency should improve data collection on the progress of all postdocs, and consider the training history of PIs.

To help postdocs move into jobs as independent researchers, NIH should replace its collection of "K22" career-transition award programs with a more effective, agencywide grant program. The recommended program would help new investigators jump-start their careers and encourage them to pursue fresh ideas, the report says.

Landing grants for novel projects can be difficult. Currently, R01 grant applications require candidates to submit preliminary data predicting the success of their proposals. Early-career researchers often have not had the resources to obtain such data. NIH should create a "New Investigator R01" award that would ask for a discussion of previous experience instead of preliminary data, the report says. And the agency should provide funding opportunities for researchers who are not on the tenure track and whose job security typically depends on external grants.   -- Vanee Vines

Bridges to Independence: Fostering the Independence of New Investigators in Biomedical Research. Committee on Bridges to Independence: Identifying Opportunities for and Challenges to Fostering the Independence of Young Investigators in the Life Sciences, Board on Life Sciences, Division on Earth and Life Studies (2005, approx. 138 pp.; ISBN 0-309-09626-X; available from National Academies Press, tel. 1-800-624-6242; $33.00 plus $4.50 shipping for single copies).

The committee was chaired by Thomas R. Cech, president, Howard Hughes Medical Institute, Chevy Chase, Md., and distinguished professor of chemistry and biochemistry, University of Colorado, Boulder. The study was sponsored by the National Institutes of Health.

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Copyright 2005 by the National Academy of Sciences