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The next generation: what will it take to keep them in research?

The next generation: what will it take to keep them in research?

Posted on August 27, 2014 by Marie A. Bernard, Deputy Director, National Institute on Aging. See Marie A. Bernard's full profile

Earlier this month, I spent a week with NIA’s 2014 Butler-Williams Scholars Program (formerly the NIA Summer Institute on Aging Research). These early career researchers from diverse backgrounds come to Bethesda from all over the country. They learn about the best of our science—aging biology, behavioral and social research, neuroscience, geriatrics and clinical gerontology, and health disparities. Perhaps even more importantly, they learn about grantsmanship, share challenges, and make new connections. It’s something that the NIA has been doing for decades: bringing bright, promising scientists to residential programs to grow their skills and encourage them to stay the course. What an honor it was to meet this year’s class. And what fun!

In the foreground, Dr. Marie A. Bernard speaks with two women. Across the room, a group of Scholars and NIH staff are visible having another conversation. Conference room seats, tables, and projection screens are visible.

Changing trends in what researchers consider important

Reflecting on my time with the Scholars, I’ve been thinking a lot about what is important to early career researchers these days. (The NIH pays a lot of attention to this, too. We have to know these things in order to get the right people in the research training pipeline, and to convince them to stay in research.) And, you know, what early career researchers want today is different than what was important to me when I was at that stage. Not that one set of values is better than another… it’s just very different.

I try to keep these differences in mind when I mentor. If you are a young investigator, see if these reflect your thinking. If you’re a mentor, you may also be encountering some of these. They have impacted my assumptions. What are your thoughts?

Here’s what I’ve noticed:

Today’s researchers have different expectations about quality of life.

I’m pleased to see young researchers taking vacations and making time for family. We all know that time out of the lab—and sleep!—are critical to a sustained, creative endeavor like science.

Early in my career, there were years in which I didn’t take any time off. Like others of my generation, I didn't make the time for a vacation. And, I’m not sure that my work or my health were the better for it.

Today’s early career scientists expect and demand time off for family and personal pursuits. If we want to keep them in science, we have to not only allow for this, but to accept it.

They are interested in different topics.

Big data, high through-put screening, wearable or implantable devices that deliver health interventions, harnessing the power of social media for clinical trials recruitment and implementation… the young researchers I’m interacting with have big ideas that will remake research and medicine. I hope you’re listening to what they have to say, as I am.

A smaller proportion of clinicians may be pursuing research careers.

This blog has previously published information about the precipitous drop in certain kinds of career development (K) applications from individuals with MD degrees. It’s something that seriously concerns us. Our multidisciplinary research teams need physician-scientists because their different experiences generate different perspectives. These perspectives from clinical experience are vital to the continuing relevance of our research to the health of older Americans. Sadly, changing conditions may mean that our current programs no longer serve emerging physician-scientists as well as we might want. Certainly the Physician-Scientist Workforce committee recently recommended that we rethink what NIH is doing for these scholars. Incentives may not be aligned in a way that encourages physicians to pursue research, given other responsibilities and pressures for productivity.

How can NIA do more to address these issues? I hope you’ll let me know by commenting below.

The NIA Office of Special Populations leads our flagship Butler-Williams Scholars program.

In the past, I’ve been very involved in the Butler-Williams program. With the completion of this year’s effort, I am happily passing the torch to Carl V. Hill, NIA’s new director of the Office of Special Populations. I will continue to work with the team that he will now lead, as the program continues to evolve to meet the changing needs of young scientists.  Read more about the great plans he has in mind for our diversity and health disparities programs. And, as a reminder, the application period for the 2015 Butler-Williams Scholars Program will open in the first quarter of calendar year 2015, so keep an eye out for that opportunity.


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Posted by Young Investigator on Aug 27, 2014 - 1:17 pm

My idea is that NIH should require R01 or higher level grants to include a minimum of one junior investigator on the application. I believe this would help because part of my struggle as an early career person is that senior investigators don't want to risk putting a newby on their grant applications. For example, I developed a concept and tested it for my dissertation. A professor I was working with subsequently wrote an R01 with the results but was told not to list me on the grant application as a co-investigator because I was too junior and it would not help the team get the grant to have someone like me as a co-investigator. I was instead listed as a consultant which does not help me cover my salary in my soft-money funded position. If the NIH had a policy requiring all R01 or larger budget grants to include a junior investigator, this would help stimulate many more opportunities for us. It would require review panels to take more seriously the inclusion of highly qualified but junior level investigators where as currently senior investigators worry that junior level investigators will not read as strongly on grant applications.

Posted by Michelle on Aug 27, 2014 - 1:49 pm

I cannot speak for all MDs regarding the drop in K-awards, but personally the problem is the 75% time requirement. In addition to this not being feasible for my Dept, I would not want to spend so much time away from clinical medicine. The GEMSSTAR is a wonderful way to remedy the problem, but it is one grant once a year.

Posted by Georgiana on Aug 28, 2014 - 1:43 am

Thank you for your insights, Dr. Bernard. As a young investigator (and Butler-Williams alumnus), these resonate with me. I might add that the changes in academia in terms of publication expectations, the funding climate, and the job market in recent decades also impact our career goals and trajectories.

Posted by Martine Extermann on Sep 01, 2014 - 11:04 am

I would relay Michelle's comment. When I was a junior investigator, I could not apply for a K award because the 75% research commitment had little support from my organization. For program leaders, balancing 75% shifts in clinical activities requires huge program adjustments, hires etc..., which are not easy in today's RVU conscious world.They don't have the soft money or personel to buffer such shifts. Maybe a mechanism that would support 50% time commitment would work better.

Posted by Amber Brooks on Sep 04, 2014 - 12:56 pm

As an aspiring physician scientist and a mother of a small child with antoher on the way, quality of life, i.e, spending time with my spouse and family are paramount. I am fortunate to be apart of a department and institution that value family. I was very encouraged by Dr. Cynthia Boyd, one of the guest lectures at the B-W Scholars program; she is a great example of a physician scientist who has managed to find the right balance between her research and family goals.