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Workshop Report: Moving the NIDCD Research Training Program Forward in Fiscally Constrained Times

August 29, 2012
National Institutes of Health, Executive Plaza North
Rockville, Md.

Background and Charge of Workshop

The NIDCD Research Training Program is composed of two constituent award vehicles:  

  • Individual and institutional (F- & T-series) Ruth L. Kirschstein National Research Service Awards (NRSAs)
  • Individual Research Career Development (K-series) Awards

Over the nearly quarter-century since its inception, the NIDCD has convened several workshops and working groups (1989, 1994, 1999, 2007, and 2011) that have examined and shaped its research training and career development enterprise. The most defining of these events in shaping the NIDCD NRSA Program was the 1999 workshop, which led to the following guiding principles and practices:

  • The individual fellowship is envisioned as the primary vehicle for supporting dissertation-stage predoctoral and postdoctoral research training for Ph.D.-trained scientists.
  • Institutional training grants are envisioned as the primary vehicle for supporting the research training of the following groups:
    • Predissertation-stage Ph.D. students and new/recent postdoctoral fellows;
    • Postdoctoral fellows transitioning into research on deafness and other communication disorders from other fields;
    • Health professionals at the residency and clinical fellowship stage of training.
  • Implementation of an expedited, Institute-based fellowship review and funding process to enable earlier funding decisions and awards, and revision and resubmission (when appropriate, as per initial peer review) without skipping a submission round. (Implemented in 2001.)

Ongoing NIH and NIDCD budgetary constraints and changes in the scientific research education/training and employment landscapes have motivated the Institute to re-examine a few priority questions focusing on the respective roles of individual versus institutional training programs for predoctoral- and postdoctoral-level individuals across the scientific disciplines serving the NIDCD’s research mission. Nine accomplished, forward-thinking scientists, research mentors, and administrators, working both within the NIDCD scientific mission and beyond it, were convened in August 2012 to consider the following questions:

  1. What is the optimal balance for the NIDCD Research Training Program across individual fellowship (F30/F31 and F32) and institutional training grant (T32) NRSA support vehicles?
  2. What are the respective utilities of the individual F31 predoctoral and the F32 postdoctoral fellowship award mechanisms across the scientific disciplines serving the NIDCD research mission? 
  3. What two or three areas within the major scientific disciplines served by the NIDCD need—and are ripe for—stimulation of the research pipeline? 

The workshop was chaired by Barry W. Ache, Ph.D., of the University of Florida.

Workshop participants were focused on considering these questions in relation to the research training of non-clinician scientists, rather than on the unique challenges of nurturing clinician-investigators.

As background information to launch roundtable discussions of the principal questions, the NIDCD’s Daniel Sklare, Ph.D., and Janet Cyr, Ph.D., presented a historical view of the NIDCD NRSA program and data on outcomes of Institute-supported fellows and trainees.

The goal of the NRSA program is to prepare promising individuals to launch successful independent research careers. A key question, therefore, to guide the future course of the NIDCD NRSA program is: Are there differential rates of success between NIDCD individual fellows and institutional trainees with respect to subsequent research project grant (RPG) funding success? 

Over the last three fiscal years (FYs), the NIDCD has expended nearly twice its NRSA funding on institutional vs. individual research training. Approximately 62 percent of NRSA-supported individuals hold institutional traineeship appointments, while 38 percent hold individual fellowship awards. There has not been a consistent trend in the number of submitted fellowships over the last five years. However, over this period, there were nearly 50 percent fewer postdoctoral applications than predoctoral applications. 

Over the past five years, the NIDCD fellowship success rate has been fairly stable, at approximately 40 percent. A 2011 program evaluation demonstrated that the NIDCD’s expedited fellowship submission-to-award program is appropriately used by candidates resubmitting their fellowship applications, and continues to provide a valuable service to the extramural scientific community. Fifty-eight percent of resubmitted applications were rapidly turned around, and 69 percent of these were awarded.

Of NIDCD F31 awardees whose fellowships ended in FY1990-2009, 39 percent applied for an F32 or R03 award, and 55 percent of these were successful, with a 22 percent overall success rate (SR). Of our T32 predoctoral trainees whose appointments ended during the same period, 16 percent applied for an F32 or an R03 award, and 67 percent who applied were successful (11 percent overall SR).

Of NIDCD F32 awardees whose fellowship ended in FY 1990-2005, 47 percent applied for a subsequent NIH research project grant (RPG; predominantly R01 or R03 awards), and 70 percent of these were successful (33 percent overall SR). In contrast, only 32 percent of postdoctoral T32 trainees applied for a subsequent RPG, and, of those, 54 percent were successful (17 percent overall SR).

Of FY 2009-2011 NIDCD Early Stage Investigators (ESIs), it is notable that 41 percent had a previous NIDCD R03 award; 22 percent had a previous F32 award; 22 percent held a previous T32 postdoctoral traineeship; and 8 percent had both a postdoctoral T32 appointment and an F32 award.

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Discussion and Conclusions

The following summary of the workshop discussion points and conclusions is arranged by the three principal questions driving the workshop:

  1. What is the optimal balance for the NIDCD Research Training Program across individual fellowship and institutional training grant NRSA support vehicles?

    Significantly more predoctoral and postdoctoral individual fellows apply for and win subsequent research and research training funding than do institutional trainees.  Furthermore, many institutions, particularly smaller ones, lack the critical mass of funded research faculty to competitively apply for an institutional training grant. These factors, and the experience gained in grant writing, argue in favor of augmenting the NIDCD Individual Fellowship Program, relative to the T32 program—even at the expense of reducing the latter—in fiscally constrained times. 

    Institutional (T32) training grants do serve several valuable, even pivotal, functions within the NIH research training enterprise, including:
    • Serving as the programmatic “glue” to build training programs within academic research institutions.
    • Serving as hubs for galvanizing faculty research and research training collaborations, and for attracting promising individuals into the Institute’s scientific mission areas.
    • Driving diversity outreach.
    • Building junior faculty track records in mentored research training. 

    These strengths are most prominent for predoctoral research training.

    Postdoctoral NRSA support is limited to three years. Hence, a problem of T32-based training is that postdoctoral appointees have little incentive to write F32 applications if they are offered two to three years of NRSA support from T32 programs, particularly if they can obtain subsequent support from their sponsor’s/mentor’s research grant. Yet winning an F32 award facilitates subsequent success in competing for ESI R01 grant funding, given past trends.

    Workshop participants felt strongly that T32 postdoctoral trainees should be vigorously encouraged to submit follow-up F32 applications early in their tenure. The NIH peer review process should employ the transition success rate from T32 appointment to F32 award as a metric of the training program’s overall success in the review of renewal T32 applications. Furthermore, T32 program directors should consider the training grant as one- to two-year “starter support” for early-stage postdoctoral fellows, and strongly encourage them to write their own F32 applications (or K99/R00 or R03 applications, if appropriate).

    A few workshop participants favored investigating the acceptability and implications, as per NRSA policy, of restricting the period of support provided to T32 postdoctoral trainees to one to two years, unless they have submitted a follow-up F32, R03, or K99 application.

    Workshop participants favored decreasing the number of T32-based postdoctoral traineeship positions in favor of augmenting both the numbers of predoctoral T32-based traineeship positions and the F32 portfolio (see question 2) in the event that fiscal conditions cause substantive reductions to the Institute’s NRSA budget.
  1. What are the respective utilities of the individual F31 predoctoral and F32 postdoctoral fellowship award mechanisms across the scientific disciplines serving the NIDCD research mission?

    Both the F31 and F32 programs are important funding vehicles for furthering the research training mission of the Institute. It was generally agreed, however, that F32 fellows are more likely to remain in the scientific mission areas of the Institute; therefore, a higher return on investment will emerge from the F32 program than from the F31 program. F32 awards are a strong investment in nurturing budding independent scientists to become competitive for R01 funding.

    In general, workshop participants agreed that shifting support toward individual postdoctoral training, at the expense of individual predoctoral training, would be reasonable in fiscally constrained times, with the caveat that this policy be implemented in a scientific discipline-specific manner. A few disciplines pursuing research within the NIDCD scientific mission, most notably audiology and speech-language pathology, do not generally pursue postdoctoral research training. Thus, care must be taken to invest sufficiently in predoctoral training to serve the research training needs associated with such disciplines.
  1. What two or three areas within the major scientific disciplines served by the NIDCD need—and are ripe for—stimulation of the research pipeline?

    All disciplines working within the NIDCD scientific mission need more scientists trained in the skills necessary to rigorously phenotype genetically manipulated animals and genotyped human subjects. In particular, individuals trained in sophisticated electrophysiological techniques and in animal and human psychophysics are needed to allow rigorous phenotypic characterization. Across the Institute’s mission areas, there is also a compelling need for more scientists trained in computational biology. (The next generation of scientists will handle large volumes of data generated by rapid advances in genetic and imaging approaches to biomedicine.) Hearing research requires more scientists trained in neurogenetics and in the methods of classical anatomy to address fundamental questions using anatomical approaches.

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Recommendations

The following actions were recommended by workshop participants:

  • Institute scientific staff should reach out to the scientific community (e.g., through the NIH Guide for Grants and Contracts and presentations at scientific conferences and other widely attended gatherings) to encourage the submission of F32 applications.
  • Second-level NIDCD review and funding recommendations should consider F32 applications separately from F30 and F31 applications, with emphasis on augmenting the F32 portfolio.
  • T32 program directors should be encouraged to increase their diversity outreach, and to limit their postdoctoral trainee appointments to one to two years in appropriate cases, in favor of nurturing follow-up F32, K99/R00, or R03 applications from promising candidates.
  • In the event that fiscal conditions necessitate substantive reductions to the Institute’s NRSA budget, the number of T32-based postdoctoral traineeship positions should be decreased in favor of increasing the numbers of F32 awards and predoctoral T32 traineeship positions.

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