Investing in the Future: NIGMS Strategic Plan for Biomedical and Behavioral Research Training

Blueprint for Implementation


Since we issued our strategic plan for research training in 2011, we have carefully considered how to implement the actions specified in the plan. Two key steps have been to match each action item with the driving need(s) behind it and to identify implementation activities.

This document is the result of that effort. It should be considered a blueprint, not a checklist, for optimizing the research training partnership between NIGMS and academia. As we proceed to address the action items, we will provide the scientific community and other stakeholders with detailed guidance and instructions, as well as opportunities for ongoing input and feedback.

Judith H. Greenberg, Ph.D.
Acting Director, NIGMS
February 2, 2012

Theme I: Research Training is a Responsibility Shared by NIH, Academic Institutions, Faculty and Trainees.

Action: Articulate more clearly NIGMS’ aims and expectations for high-quality research training.

NIGMS-sponsored research training occurs in a variety of academic settings through numerous competitive grant mechanisms. Excellent research training focuses on the development of student abilities through individualized planning and attentive implementation. Successful NIGMS-supported research training achieves the dual goals of equipping students for many kinds of employment opportunities as well as enhancing the diversity of the biomedical research workforce.

NIGMS will:

  • Expect mentors to not only recognize and channel talent, but also to use thoughtfully chosen activities to develop talent according to the background, interests and needs of each graduate student.
  • Expect institutions to continuously evaluate the effectiveness of their graduate-level research training.
  • Expect that individual mentors evaluate the progress of individual students continuously, such that after training, well-prepared students:
    • are curious, intelligent and creative;
    • are critical, rational thinkers, capable of organizing and analyzing data;
    • have a deep knowledge in a specific field but are conversant in related fields;
    • are able to formulate significant, testable scientific questions and are technically proficient;
    • have the capacity to listen effectively as well as to write and speak cogently;
    • are tolerant of ambiguity and resilient in the face of setbacks;
    • are able to work effectively with people who have different perspectives, priorities or intellectual approaches; and
    • know and follow the standards, responsibilities and culture of the scientific community.
  • Prioritize NIGMS support for programs that succeed in creating an environment in which students from widely varying backgrounds have an opportunity to complete Ph.D. training.

Action: Examine and adjust the allocation of NIGMS training resources across and within scientific areas and institutions.

The current practice of allocating slots to NIGMS-funded training programs builds on historical precedent, among other factors. Slot number is partly a function of the age of an awarded program: Older and broader programs generally have more slots than newer ones. Especially in the present, flat-budget funding climate, NIGMS must increase programmatic flexibility to support and establish new and growing areas of training, permit more equitable distribution of slots and allow for greater representation of institutions that obtain funding for training programs.

NIGMS will consider adopting these measures:

  • Set aside a pool of funds of the NIGMS NRSA training budget for new awards or for expanding smaller programs.
  • Employ various tools for slot allocation, such as:
    • restricting the number of training grant applications and/or awards per institution;
    • restricting the number of slots for any given program award;
    • examining slot distribution on a grant-by-grant basis;
    • synchronizing initial peer review of all training grant applications (or a subset thereof) from an institution to provide a more comprehensive overview of institutional programs and resources; and
    • conducting administrative site visits to assess overall institutional training program performance independently from the peer review of any specific competing application.

Action: Promote the identification and exchange of effective methods to continually improve all research training activities.

NIGMS believes that the best source of ideas about improving research training will come from the community itself. As research mentors work attentively with graduate students and postdoctoral fellows, they are best suited to identify opportunities for improvements in all research training, whether it is supported by research grants, by training grants or by teaching assistantships.

NIGMS will:

  • Consider innovation as a positive feature in training.
  • Regularly publicize innovative and improved methods for research training using a variety of communications channels, including but not limited to the Institute’s well-read blog, the Feedback Loop, as well as on a dedicated page on the NIGMS Web site.
  • Report annually to the National Advisory General Medical Sciences Council on innovations and other improvements in research training methods.
  • Partner with professional societies to support workshops on research training enhancement strategies to be held in conjunction with annual meetings.
  • Promote the dissemination of existing studies of research training and support the formal study of research training through funding opportunity announcements.
  • Hold annual or biennial meetings at NIH (or alternatively, regional meetings throughout the nation) on innovative approaches in research training, featuring discussions of training practices that are succeeding as determined by rigorous assessment.

Action: Monitor and evaluate NIGMS’ training activities, and adjust as needed to achieve desired goals and outcomes.

Evaluation that uses systematic data collection and analysis is a critical tool for assessing program effectiveness. NIGMS uses assessments and evaluations to enhance program performance, improve decision-making and maintain responsible stewardship of public funds.

NIGMS will:

  • Develop an NIGMS-wide, performance-based framework to periodically evaluate all outputs, outcomes and metrics of all research training programs.
  • Develop better strategies to capture training-related data from internal and external sources, to enable more effective outcome analyses.
  • Use the results of evaluative outcomes to guide research training-related NIGMS funding decisions.

Theme II: Research Training Focuses on Student Development, Not Simply Selection of Talent.

Action: Strongly encourage the use of individual development plans (IDPs) on all NIGMS-sponsored training and research awards.

Action: Establish guidelines for, and strongly encourage, training plans for all R01s and other research grant applications that request support for graduate students or postdoctoral trainees.

These two actions address the same goal: better oversight and monitoring of the professional development of students and postdoctoral scholars supported with NIGMS funds. Importantly, as NIH considers these same issues in its agency-wide discussions of research and research training policy, NIGMS will contribute information to support those deliberations, as well as participate directly in the discussions.

NIGMS will:

  • Strongly encourage that all NIGMS grantees develop and maintain a mentoring plan that describes the professional development opportunities provided to graduate students and postdoctoral scholars supported by the grant.
  • Publicize to the scientific community and to other relevant NIGMS stakeholders the value and importance of a mentoring plan.
  • Remain in close collaboration with NIH leadership on parallel, agency-wide efforts to require mentoring plans.

Action: Encourage institutions and faculty to identify and adopt evidence-based practices so that students receive the mentorship necessary to develop essential career skills.

A wide variety of activities and resources currently exist to encourage and enable quality mentoring. For example, many national scientific societies provide mentoring workshops and have developed online and print resources. Many academic institutions are developing peer-mentoring programs for faculty and students as well as programs on how to mentor effectively.

NIGMS will:

  • Obtain feedback from the research training community about needs and gaps in mentoring support.
  • Communicate with institutional leadership about how they ensure quality mentoring for faculty and/or ensure that faculty develop good mentoring skills.

Action: Encourage institutions and their faculty to accelerate time to scientific independence for all trainees.

While it can be argued that graduate programs could shorten the average time required for trainees to complete graduate work by providing more attentive monitoring and mentoring, there are many countervailing forces in play. Biomedical research has become more interdisciplinary and quantitative, and there is a flood of new knowledge and techniques for trainees to grasp.

For developing implementation plans, NIGMS has assumed that the average age of entrance into doctoral programs has not significantly increased and that the primary reason for the increasing time to independence stems from time spent in postdoctoral training. Since NIH cannot directly influence the aggregate performance of the academic job market, NIGMS will focus its attention on establishing (or re-emphasizing) a number of principles/practices concerning the nature of the postdoctoral experience.

Although recipients of a graduate degree in the biomedical sciences constitute a quite diverse population, NIGMS focused its discussion of time to scientific independence on trainees who pursue academic research. The key metric to target is the average age at which a Ph.D. investigator gets his/her first NIH-funded R01 grant.

NIGMS will:

  • Continue to limit and enforce the 3-year duration of postdoctoral study with T- and F-mechanism training support (barring unusual circumstances to be examined on a case-by-case basis).
  • Promote the notion that postdoctoral training should not continue indefinitely and that most postdoctoral training employing R01 grant support also should not exceed 3 years (barring unusual circumstances to be examined on a case-by-case basis).
  • Promote the postdoctoral experience as a period that is circumscribed within a finite time limit followed by formal employment.
  • Require that all postdoctoral positions supported by NIGMS funds have IDPs that include a well-considered end-of-training target.
  • Encourage research-intensive institutions to establish an office to oversee postdoctoral training and employment issues.

Theme III: Breadth and Flexibility Enable Research Training to Keep Pace with the Opportunities and Demands of Contemporary Science and Provide the Foundation for a Variety of Scientific Career Paths.

Action: Promote inclusion of a variety of perspectives, backgrounds and approaches among faculty and trainees.

Excellent research training requires the participation and interaction of different types of people based on race, ethnicity and gender. However, research training diversity should be considered more broadly and holistically, to promote collaboration, team-building and leadership, as well as the development of interdisciplinary scientific expertise. Because significant cultural change may be needed for wide adoption of this philosophy, any implementation actions in this area require consultation with stakeholders, including trainees (for example, through focus groups).

NIGMS will:

  • Promote the importance of activities, programs and courses that enrich trainees’ skills in the business of science, laboratory- and people-management, and mentoring.
  • Sponsor workshops to identify best practices, curriculum development grants, and contracts for the development of specific courses.

Action: Encourage exposure to multiple career path options for graduate students and postdoctoral trainees.

Action: Increase collaboration with societies, professional associations and other organizations to build awareness of the breadth of scientific career options and opportunities.

These two action items speak to the need to increase awareness about multiple career paths for graduate students and postdoctoral scholars. NIGMS recognizes that professional societies and institutions already do a great deal toward furthering exposure of trainees to multiple career paths.

NIGMS will:

  • Identify and endorse existing high-quality resources that have been developed by professional societies and other organizations to promote a range of scientific careers.
  • Ensure that reviewers are aware of the multiple career paths open to well-trained scientists by developing and implementing educational sessions for reviewers at various levels.

Theme IV: Diversity is an Indispensable Component of Research Training Excellence, and it Must be Advanced Across the Entire Research Enterprise.

Action: Champion and articulate the societal benefits of a diverse biomedical and behavioral workforce that mirrors the diversity of the U.S. population.

NIGMS remains committed to biomedical workforce diversity that fosters innovation and enhances team creativity. By nature, however, diversity is an institutional rather than an individual quality.

NIGMS will:

  • Encourage grantee institutions to eliminate disparities in educational and research training outcomes associated with gender, race/ethnicity or other indicators of groups underrepresented in the biomedical and behavioral research workforce.
  • In concert with grantee institutions, assess progress toward meeting institutional diversity objectives.

Action: Establish and apply high standards for institutions to actively recruit, effectively mentor and diligently nurture students through the completion of their programs.

Current representation of members of certain racial and ethnic groups, as well as of people with disabilities, in predoctoral programs is far below their representation in the baccalaureate pool. Similarly, their representation in postdoctoral programs is much less than their representation in the pool of recent Ph.D.s. Successful recruiting and mentoring efforts directed toward underrepresented students must be proactive and go beyond what has been effective for represented students.

NIGMS will:

  • Expect institutions to nurture all students and postdoctoral scholars through the completion of their training, avoiding disparities by gender, race/ethnicity or disability status in completion rates or in other training outcomes (such as publications and subsequent appointments).

Action: Assure that potential trainees are evaluated in an unbiased and inclusive manner.

Because increasing diversity requires a collaborative effort among funding agencies, institutions, and trainees, continual emphasis on the value of diversity in training programs for people from backgrounds currently underrepresented in biomedical and behavioral research is paramount.

NIGMS will:

  • Examine existing review criteria and instructions, and develop guidance for applicants, reviewers and NIGMS staff to clearly articulate the NIGMS research training vision.
  • Convey to reviewers the importance and relevance of information from all sources (including letters of recommendation, research experience and interviews) rather than numerical credentials only (GRE scores) that are presented in application tables used to select students with potential to succeed Ph.D.-level biomedical research training.
  • Ensure consistency of NIGMS staff and reviewer compliance with the Institute’s review policies and practice.
  • Expand the competing-review site visit format to include a session with the principal investigators of all training programs, the dean of the institution and the reviewers to discuss training program interactions and the institutional support provided.

Action: Encourage institutions to examine their own demographic data on trainees.

Differential outcomes among trainees should serve as a warning sign for institutions to carefully assess the quality and effectiveness of their research training efforts. Toward eliminating, or at least significantly reducing, observed differences, institutional strategies should be trainee-focused.

NIGMS will:

  • Encourage that each NIGMS-supported training program analyze and assess its progress and effectiveness on a regular basis, separate from formal program reviews and evaluations conducted by NIGMS.
  • Expect that institutional self-assessments will include measurement of differential outcomes between trainee populations. If such differences are present, institutions should develop approaches and policies to address the disparities.
  • Expect that institutions will examine, in a systematic and data-supported way, the relationships between student characteristics and performance, along with program characteristics and effects, toward understanding the links between program practices and policies and outcomes.