By Jeffery Head
I sincerely hope that by the time you read this, any fears that our economy will plunge head first over the looming “fiscal cliff” will have become entirely irrelevant. Even as the number of days until we reach the deadline drops into single digits, the media and employees of the NICHD alike are optimistic that an immediate resolution to the crisis is imminent. This sentiment, however, is tempered by lingering suspicions that simply avoiding the cliff will not actually mend the emerging rift in our political climate. As one PI poignantly noted, “It seems like we are in a situation where a budget agreement will be hurried through at the last minute, meaning the real problem of passing from crisis to crisis will remain.”
If the political stalemate does persist and the unthinkable were to actually happen, Dr. Brant Weinstein, director of the Program on the Genomics of Differentiation, has expressed great confidence that the current budget proposal set forth by Dr. Constantine Stratakis, the scientific director, would absorb any potential impact a sequestration might have on our budget. Thanks to the collective efforts of the NICHD directors, measures like streamlined maintenance contracts and increased resource sharing would help to ensure that the burden of any further cuts would not land too squarely on the shoulders of one area of the institute.
Yet, even with these measures in place, data from the past five years reveals that as belts are tightened the positions most highly at risk are those of the trainees, which includes postbacs, postdocs, graduate students, and technical IRTAs. Since 2009, the number of full-time employee (FTE) positions at the NICHD has only dropped from 615 to 6051, while since 2007 the number of trainee positions fell from 425 to barely above 3002. Perhaps the most disappointing part of this emerging trend is that it in no way reflects the genuine attitudes of PIs and administrators towards the benefits of hiring trainees.
Training programs at the NICHD are widely regarded as unique opportunities to mentor young and aspiring professionals during the critical transitions in their careers. Unfortunately though, slowly receding budgets have forced many PIs to lean towards the long-term training of FTEs at the expense of hiring a greater number of trainees with fewer years of experience. Dr. Henry Levin, who has supported over 20 postbacs since 1996 and is one of the program’s biggest proponents, pointed out that although trainees often make significant contributions to the direction of his research, it is typically a safer decision to invest in the more permanent positions of FTEs and postdocs.
Despite the overwhelmingly positive attitude towards trainees, it is difficult not to wonder how a potential scarcity of traineeships might eventually affect the decisions of young students to pursue advanced learning in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) subjects. While the solution to this problem will continue to be debated at the highest levels of science policy, it seems pertinent that we ask ourselves what we at the NICHD can do in the immediate future to keep bright young minds interested in science research, or at the very least science literacy.
Clues as to which direction to take in addressing this issue can be gained from those at the NIH who have been charged with fostering interest in science research at the national level. In the beginning of December, the Advisory Committee to the Director (ACD) released its plan to sustain the future of biomedical research in the U.S. (http://www.nih.gov/news/health/dec2012/od-07.htm). Several of the ACD’s initiatives placed a strong emphasis on the need to build and strengthen mentoring opportunities available to undergrads, postdocs, and the underprivileged.
As individuals and even as an institute there is little we can do in the immediate future to add decimal places to our budget. So while we may not be able to create new trainee positions in the current fiscal climate, we as a community can strengthen existing mentoring opportunities by guiding our trainees to retain an inquisitive mindset. We can strive to teach our trainees to view any disease or complex problem as a puzzle whose solution simply has yet to be discovered, and by doing so we can hope to reinforce an appreciation for the importance of science research in the young minds we influence.
Needless to say, this is a far cry from a permanent solution to a problem that must be addressed at the national level. But at a time when scientific funding is at stake, we should make any contribution we can to ensure that scientific training is of high quality, helping future generations of scientists and citizens understand that basic science and biomedical research are fundamental in driving innovation in the U.S.
- Department of Health and Human Services, National Institutes of Health, FY 2013 Budget (http://www.nichd.nih.gov/about/budget/CJ/Documents/CJ_NICHD_2013.pdf)
- Personal communications with Deputy Director of Liaison & Training Brenda Hanning