Thursday, March 5, 2009

NIH Intramural Program Long-term Research is Risky for Postdocs

Dr. Christine Kiefer is a post-doc in the Laboratory of Cellular and Developmental Biology at the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, NIH.

Last week I attended a briefing on"Getting more bang for our buck from the NIH intramural program" hosted by Faster Cures. The task force had several excellent recommendations for improving research within NIH and getting the intramural program (IRP) to tackle the "challenges of 21 st century medicine." Until a month ago, I was slaving away at the bench as part of the IRP scientific community, so the issues raised really resounded with me.

Recommendations that were on target:
  • The intramural (within NIH) and extramural (outside NIH) scientific communities should collaborate more. This will foster greater understanding among members of both groups and lets face it, more collaborations are always better when it comes to research.
  • Resources within NIH should be used to capacity (including: clinical center, vaccine research center, chemical genomics center etc.) These are multi-billion dollar investments that - if the IRP cannot make full use of - should be thrown open to the scientific community at large.
My main quibble was with their suggestion about changing the nature of IRP research:
  • The task force advises that scientists within the IRP (since they have the luxury of not competing for grants) should take on long-term, high-risk projects.
This sounds like a capital idea at first, but lets explore it further...

First, the bulk of hands-on research within the IRP is performed by post-doctoral trainees* (post-docs for short). The trainees are cheap labor, though one could argue that what they don't get monetarily, they make up for by getting trained at such an internationally renowned institution.

Second, by nature of the fact that these folks are "trainees", they are a transient population. IRP post-docs are usually appointed for a term no longer than 5 years. The idea being that they get trained (for a job) and they move on when that training is complete.

Third, the five years of a post-doc term is a short window for a post-doc to prove themselves by establishing a research problem, getting their research going, and - most importantly - publishing their findings. Most post-docs need a decent publishing record to land jobs as researchers and launch their own labs.

Given these facts, my question to the task force is:

If the IRP were to focus on long-term research, who will do the work?

Most post-docs already feel that after six years of grad school, five years as a post-doc is too much time spent training and not climbing a "real" career ladder. Asking them to take on a long-term project is (in my opinion) going to:
  1. Drive down (already low) morale and
  2. Drive the best minds away from training at NIH.
Moreover, long-term research may not have "favorable" outcomes. What happens then? If after working on something for seven years (like solving the structure of a protein complex; not at all inconceivable) the post-doc has nothing to show for their labor (read: publications), who will hire them?

What kind of career risks would post-docs be taking by agreeing to concentrate their efforts on long-term research projects? Would they even be willing to do that?

* The NIH IRP also benefits from the labor of post-baccalaureates, graduate students, clinical researchers and others.


  1. So its interesting that several years back, NIH eliminated many of the 'senior/staff scientist' positions. It seems now that they will have to add more of these types of positions if they expect long-term projects to boom.
    It seems long-term projects would also reduce the amount of researchers that work on projects alone (which leads to independence and learning of many more techniques). Post-docs will have to work in packs to get any publications, which leads to one person in each lab as a specialist in one particular technique. It could be effective to get projects done and a way to earn a good job in industry, but may not produce well rounded scientists equipped to run their own labs.

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  3. Anon- Good call. See some related stuff here:
    and here

  4. As a current postdoctoral trainee in the IRP, I have to echo FlyGal's concerns. Encouraging more long-term high-risk science within the IRP looks wonderful on paper, and FasterCures may be right on target that the IRP is the ideal resource to address these types of projects. As with all things, however, the devil is in the details.

    Would prospective trainees still consider working here knowing that the time and effort that should be spent working toward their next move to a "real job" could be severely limited by a more long-term and risky approach to research within the IRP? In the public and private sector, publications are perhaps the most important thing for a post-doc - particularly those looking to start their own lab or move into a supervisory or principal investigator position. Given the option, the talented and highly motivated post-docs that would normally jump at an opportunity to work within the IRP may instead chose to go to extramural or industrial positions in an effort to take full advantage of the time they have as trainees, making themselves a more attractive job candidate to future employers as well as a more worthy applicant in the eyes of grant reviewers.

    The IRP should exercise caution when considering this type of recommendation. The need to encourage high-risk research must be weighed against the potential negative effect this approach would have on the ability to actually do that research. A more balanced policy may be to strongly encourage IRP research programs to include a few *collaborative* long-term high-risk objectives within the lab's more conventional research aims. This would provide post-docs with the means to publish more frequently as well as promote a more collaborative environment within the IRP and hasten progress on more speculative projects.

  5. I like Anon's post as well. Funding more staff scientist positions would also create more long-term, good-paying jobs for post-docs, especially those who enjoy lab work but not managing people (and finances).