For years, postdoctoral scholars have complained that they receive too little help in making the crucial transition from trainee to independent investigator. Last week a new report by the National Academies suggested shoring up that support in ways that might benefit the entire biomedical community.
The report, from a panel chaired by Howard Hughes Medical Institute president Thomas Cech, asks the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to create individual awards and training grants for postdocs that would make them less dependent on their principal investigators. It recommends allowing foreign postdocs to apply for training awards that are currently open only to U.S. citizens and permanent residents. And it suggests limiting the length of postdoctoral training to 5 years, regardless of a postdoc's source of funding.
One recommendation that's already under consideration by NIH is to create starter grants for investigators who have a research idea but no preliminary findings to include in their proposal (Science, 25 June 2004, p. 1891). Such applications would be reviewed separately from the typical proposals, called R01s, submitted by established investigators. Another recommendation, also without a price tag, would require senior grant applicants to provide a detailed plan for mentoring their postdocs. That change would force "investigators to think about the careers of young researchers in their laboratory instead of just using them as scientific labor," says Cech.
Two of the panel's recommendations--waiving the citizenship requirement for the National Research Service Awards (NRSA) and other postdoctoral training awards, and shifting money from R01s into career development awards--could face significant opposition. "Making federal support available to those who are not U.S. citizens or permanent residents can be controversial," the report says about the NRSA program. "But ... those who would receive such training awards are likely already supported on research grants and are critical to advances in U.S. biomedical research."
The cost of implementing these recommendations could strain an NIH budget that is no longer growing rapidly. But NIH Director Elias Zerhouni seems willing to give them a try. "There's no wrong time to do the right thing," he says.