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Symposium - Policy and Funding Models for Graduate Students and Post-Doctoral Fellows

Conference Day: 
Day 3 - November 9th 2018
Takeaways and recommendations: 

Policy and Funding Models for Graduate Students and Postdoctoral Fellows

Organized by: University of Toronto, Helen Lasthiokis

Speakers: Alejandro Adem, CEO and Scientific Director, Mitacs Inc.; Dr. Martha Crago

Vice-Principal, Research and Innovation, McGill University; Bonnie Le, Ph.D., Banting Postdoctoral Fellow, Rotman School of Management, University of Toronto; P. Kay Lund, PhD., Director of the Division of Biomedical Research Workforce, NIH Extramural Research Training Officer in the Office of Extramural Research, Office of the Director, National Institutes of Health

Moderator: Vivek Goel, Vice President, Research and Innovation, University of Toronto and Professor in the Institute of Health Policy, Management and Evaluation, Dalla Lana School of Public Health

Takeaways and recommendations:

National Institutes of Health (NIH) Policy and Funding Models

  • 3% of the operating budget of the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) goes to training; 2% goes to career development.

  • The NIH covers a range of programs: from graduate and clinical training to post-doctoral clinical residency to early career.

  • NIH has increased stipends for graduate students and for post docs every year and has secured funding to do this over the next few years.

  • Full-time research is a prerequisite for training awards and fellowships, but up to 25% of students’ time can be spent doing things that they can get paid for, which helps to alleviate the cost of living and enhance career development.

NIH National Research Service (NRSA) Awards

  • These program awards ensure highly trained scientists are available to address the nation’s needs.

  • There are two types of NRSA Awards:

    • Institutional training programs (T series): Award institution training for grad students and/or postdocs, including clinicians. It must have a program director and experienced faculty.

    • F-32 is for postdoc fellows.

  • Currently available only to US citizens.

  • NRSA Awards have led to three times the number of postdocs than grad students being funded on a single research project grant.

  • It can be difficult to determine impact on the career of recipients because they are often listed on more than one grant.

  • Over the past 20 years, pre-doctoral fellowships have increased more than 300%; in comparison, postdoc fellowships have decreased 36.4%.

  • Postdoc fellowships have a significant positive impact on subsequent independent NIH support, but have decreased by almost one-third. It is not clear why the NIH has decreased the number of fellowships.

  • The major exit point from the biomedical research workforce in the US is the postdoctoral to faculty transition, especially among women and other under-represented groups.

NRSA Award Recommendations

  • Continue to increase stipends and benefits.

  • Create more opportunities to transition to independence.

  • Extend the current three-year postdoctoral limit for clinicians to four years.

  • Enhance and promote intern and experiential learning opportunities (“externships”) to facilitate career development in other labs, institutions and agencies in areas of communications, policy and industry.

  • Promote the ability of pre- and postdocs to receive entrepreneurial training so they have the skills to work in either academia or industry.

  • Data science, computational science, rigor and reproducibility need to be incorporated into all NIH training and fellowship programs.

NIH Career Development (K) Awards

  • K awards promote successful independent careers (i.e., tenure-track) through mentored training.

  • Many of these awards have a significant impact on receipt of independent NIH R01 awards

  • There is a greater impact for women and under-represented groups with K awards.

  • The R00 award promotes earlier independence; but cannot evaluate it because it’s not reviewed.

  • K awards delay the time to trainee’s first R01 for some K awardees.

  • Some extramural institutions only accept applications from candidates with an R00.

  • Varied levels of salary with these awards; need to make merit-based.

  • It is difficult for a physician to commit 75% of their time to research; 50% is a more realistic target.

  • Trainees should have more than one mentor – ideally outside the department.

The Canadian landscape

  • There are three key frameworks for funding models in Canada:

    • Direct awards to trainees

    • Training grants or programs awarded to institutions to award to trainees

    • Support for trainees received through their supervisor’s research grants

  • Postdoctoral enrollment in Canada has increased 50% in 15 years, with most of that growth happening over the past decade (Statistics Canada).

  • Approval on the number of grad students to support is given separately from funding approval, resulting in disparity. Furthermore, these decisions are assigned to different levels of government, creating the pressure we see now.

  • Budget 2018 has not acted on any of the Fundamental Science Review’s recommendations related to scholarship/fellowship programs or funding. Instead, government resolves to do more work to determine how best to support the next generation through scholarships and fellowships.

  • To date there’s been no consultation around this topic by the Canada Research Coordinating Committee.

  • Many academic organizations agree and are aligned with the Fundamental Science Review’s recommendations and have submitted their views as part of the current pre-budget consultations.

  • High residency and medical school debt can lead some graduates to decide against careers in research.

  • Canadian funding models for international grad students:

    • International grad students are only eligible for a subset of funding possibilities.

    • The opportunity to apply is valuable; it encourages self-direction at the early stage of the academic career.

    • Grant writing helps trainees think about how their research can have impact at a societal level.

    • Receiving funding allows for more self-directed research.

    • Banting Fellowships are available to international students.

Recommendations for Canada

  • The tri-council agencies should consider implementing a suite of postdoc and grad student support programs across the career span. This could include career development awards, like NIH K awards, that support mentored research toward independent research careers.

  • Create more joint programs between under-resourced institutions and research-intensive institutions so experience is gained by a diverse group of applicants.

  • Consolidate funding under one umbrella.

  • Look to Quebec – it has postdoc/grad student support programs that could be replicated federally.

  • The K awards are beneficial for career advancement, retention in research and diversity. There is a need to explore similarities and differences between NIH and Canadian models.

  • Consider programs designed to promote retention in residency (see New Institutional ‘Research in Residency’ R38 Program NOT-HL-18-639, followed by individual K38 award designed to promote retention in research NOT-HL-17-533).

  • Explore the feasibility of partnering more research intensive labs with less resourced/minority serving institutions. NIH’s Institutional Research & Career Development Awards (IRACDA) do this. A similar model in Canada is the joint St. Francis Xavier University/Dalhousie University Chemistry program.

  • Programs need to be evaluated on both metrics and impact.

  • Emphasize the value and importance of research, rather than focusing on how difficult it is.

  • Flexible funding makes it easier to design programs that support entrepreneurship.

  • For internships/entrepreneurial postdocs, build soft skills and project management training into the program. Offer these independently at campuses across Canada. This helps students learn industry culture and standards of behavior.

  • Data science should be part of Canada’s discussions on the need for soft skills.

  • Important to incorporate different types of trainings for different types of disciplines.

  • Look at how both funding and mentor support can do a better job at accelerating the time needed to complete a PhD.

  • Recognize that mentors and sponsors are different. Mentors are important but need someone ready to advocate for you—a sponsor—who is different from a mentor.

  • Enhance experiential learning opportunities, e.g.:

    • Provide students with experiential learning opportunities such as internships; bringing research to their place of work complements their theses.

    • NIH’s Broadening Experiences in Scientific Training (BEST program) gives grad students and postdocs experiences outside the lab.

    • Increase the value of grants to increase to sustain and support postdoc research.

    • MITACS make up a significant portion of internships for postdocs and grad students in Canada.

    • We need more research taking place in industry.

    • We need interdisciplinary research.

  • Identify and adapt fellowship best practices, such as:

    • Granting agencies should require transparency from supervisors about what they can/are prepared to offer to the student.

    • Student fellows should interview potential supervisors to determine the benefits of working with that particular supervisor. This will help prevent a dysfunctional research situation.

    • As a researcher, it’s important to have a “science family.” Portable fellowships earned entirely by the student carry the risk of students going into less than ideal research situations, i.e., an isolated situation away from a lab with other researchers.

    • Fellowship applications, both at the NIH and in Canada, should include a statement from the mentor on how they will support the student/postdoc to the next stage.