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Dec 19, 2012

NIH Update: Too Much Is Not Enough

A surfeit of data and postdocs drive NIH’s new programs, but funding is uncertain.

NIH Update: Too Much Is Not Enough

New big data programs represent another example of NIH having to fund its priorities through existing funds rather than counting on more money. [© Orlando Florin Rosu - Fotolia.com]

  • NIH is counting on new programs to strengthen the nation’s biomedical research effort by addressing two major hurdles—the glut of data from next-generation sequencing, and the academic job squeeze that has too many biopharma postdocs chasing too few academic jobs.

    The agency will launch Big Data to Knowledge (BD2K), a program designed to facilitate broader use of biomed big data. As part of that program, NIH envisions creating proposed new big data “centers of excellence” that will combines agency funds and investigators from existing universities somewhat along the lines of the existing program to build biomedical computing infrastructure, focused on systems biology, image processing, biophysical modeling, biomedical ontologies, information integration, and tools for gene-phenotype and disease analysis.

    “The proposed Centers of Excellence will be modeled after the National Centers for Biomedical Computing, with modifications based on the experiences from this program,” NIH Principal Deputy Director Lawrence A. Tabak, D.D.S., Ph.D., told GEN. “Resources for the data and informatics initiatives, including the proposed Centers of Excellence, will be funded by a shared commitment from all of the NIH Institutes and Centers. The Common Fund will also contribute resources to this important work.”

    Other BD2K initiatives will entail improving data and software sharing policies, catalogs of research data, and data/metadata standards; developing methods of data analysis, software development and dissemination; and boosting training for big data professionals.

    Also on the big data front, NIH will also launch InfrastructurePlus, an adaptive environment designed to advance high-performance computing, as well as more agile hosting and storage, through modernization of the agency’s computer network.

    “The cost of the BD2K and InfrastructurePlus initiatives together is estimated at approximately $125 million a year via contributions from the Institutes and Centers,” Dr. Tabak said.

    The programs would be another example of NIH having to fund its priorities through existing funds rather than counting on more money, especially now as the agency, like other nondefense agencies, facing 8.2% across-the-board cuts if the federal government heads over the proverbial fiscal cliff. Even if it doesn’t, the required spending cut—$1.2 trillion over 10 years—may be enough to minimize new initiatives or, worse for NIH, ultimately sink them.

    Dr. Tabak noted that neither big data initiative will require the sort of reorganization NIH undertook a year ago, when it shifted funds and operations to launch the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences (NCATS) with a first-year budget of about $576.5 million.

  • Career Planning

    Beyond Big Data, NIH announced programs designed to enhance training of graduate students and postdocs. The agency plans to award grants for “innovative approaches” complementing traditional research training, and encourage trainees to adopt individual career development plans. The challenge of postdocs to land academic jobs has been the focus of two recent GEN articles, “Job Squeeze Vexes Postdocs” and “Secrets to Finding Academic Employment”.

    “The biomedical research workforce does not only consist of university researchers. Trainees should have options for pursuing a broad range of research jobs including jobs in industry, government, private foundations, etc., or entrepreneurial roles,” Sally J. Rockey, Ph.D., NIH’s deputy director of extramural research, told GEN.

    Dr. Rockey noted NIH also wants to add funds to two existing programs intended to accelerate independent research career development—the NIH Pathway to Independence Awards, and Early Independence Awards—as well as more closely track the careers of all NIH-supported grad students and postdocs through a “simple and comprehensive” system.

    “NIH proposes to create a functional unit to continue and update current workforce analyses,” Dr. Rockey said. “This group would also coordinate activities across NIH to provide a unified source of information/data on workforce issues and be the point of contact for NSF, AAMC [the Association of American Medical Colleges], BLS [the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics], and extramural researchers studying the workforce.”

    In addition, NIH said, it wants to promote a more diverse biomedical research workforce. To that end, the agency will launch Building Infrastructure Leading to Diversity (BUILD) to link undergrads with research mentors trained by faculty receiving agency support; establish a national network connecting students, postdocs, and faculty with mentors; hiring a chief diversity officer; and creating a “steering committee working group” to help ensure diversity remains a core consideration.

    Dr. Tabak said NIH would work with other agencies and programs with the same goal. In July, for example, President Obama announced a $1 billion STEM Master Teacher Corps to reward and retain the field’s top educators.

    NIH announced the new programs Dec. 7. They respond to recommendations made in June to NIH Director Francis S. Collins, M.D., Ph.D., by the 17-member Advisory Committee to the Director (ACD). Back then, an ACD working group issued a report urging higher pay for postdocs, a cap on the number of years NIH will support grad students, and more staff scientist positions funded by universities.


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