Notes from the NIH Regional Grant Seminar

I spent the day at the NIH Regional Grant Seminar in Indianapolis, and it has been a mix of useful stuff and other things that are too beginner-y for me. Not like I am some kind of NIH expert, but because of the great public service provided by the blogworld via e.g. Drugmonkey and Physioprof and the mentorship of my senior colleagues and advocates, I am already pretty clued in to the basics of the NIH operational model, so sessions describing how peer review happens and what is the job of a PO vs. an SRO aren't all that useful to me in particular. The most interesting part for me is to get to ask questions of the people who are usually just names on policy documents or the internet, and see what kind of a response they have to my and others' questions. Dr. Sally Rockey has had some good sessions and engages fully in each answer she gives.

Something I hope to probe more about tomorrow is the NIH's projected path towards putting their "money where their mouth is" about improving the pipeline issues created by our country's current model for grad school and postdoctoral training, something that this blogosphere is very familiar with. It's clear that they can tell there is a problem, and the data illustrate the problems in various ways:

  • abysmal representation of African Americans in the investigator pool, both as applicants and as funded
  • loss of women PIs at the R01 renewal stage (as described in this paper by Pohlhaus et al)
  • huge reliance on postdoctoral "trainees"--who aren't really getting a training experience towards becoming independent--as research staff on R grants

A dissatisfying element is a tendency to invoke the "well, we can't mandate that institutions do X or Y" about things that it would be HARD to do (like, politically or financially hard)--even though, clearly, NIH and government policy DO mandate plenty of things about how institutions need to operate in order to get their money (ORI, IRB, IACUC). I totally understand that it is their job to toe the line and keep on message; but it seems like a very convenient reason why some things "can't" be changed in ways that might address the diversity issues.

For example, employee-style benefits including family coverage health insurance and family leave for graduate students and postdocs are "allowable costs" on F and T grants; but NIH's official position is that it can only be covered by these grants IF other graduate students and postdocs at the institution get the same options. I know there are plenty of institutions that do NOT provide adequate coverage of these things for any of their grad students or postdocs. At my own institution, I know that the family coverage purchasable by grad students is so expensive, and so poor with respect to cost-coverage ratio, that graduate students often have to put their children on Medicaid (which they easily qualify for!!). This is terrible! And what a barrier this puts up to anyone considering having children while in graduate school--especially women. It's not reasonable to assume that everyone in graduate school or postdoctoral training will have a partner who has a "better" job with "real" insurance. It really should be the responsibility of the training program to provide reasonable, livable coverage for cost-of-living, which in this country, includes health insurance. For postdocs, at many institutions (including mine) they get dropped from their benefits programs as soon as they obtain independent funding through e.g. a K99 or F32 award. What a disincentive to apply, yet putting trainees between a rock and a hard place since independent funding is their currency towards a faculty position, and it has a strong likelihood, again, of affecting trainees (especially women) with families who need to maintain their family insurance coverage.

These kinds of situations seem like a perfect opportunity for NIH to connect the dots between some of the various problems with the training process in the biomedical workforce, to not just allow but provide this coverage to any trainee who obtains funding regardless of what their institution does for others. For one, this would have an immediate impact on and incentive for graduate and postdoc trainees to apply for funding (and for PIs who care about this kind of thing to apply for training grants). For two, NIH could make it a part of the review criteria (either merit review or programmatic decision-making review) to evaluate trainee support at the institution (e.g. insurance subsidies, availability of family leave and benefits), and that institutions that provide poor support for their grad students and postdocs will get dinged for Environment and that this will factor into funding decisions. In principle, it would be cost-neutral, since those costs are already allowed to be budgeted into the "institutional allowance" amount (although, that amount isn't actually enough to cover 'real' insurance either; but it's closer than nothing). Maybe it would provide the nudge that institutions need to make them realize that these things actually do matter, both to the trainees and to NIH. NIH has the power to shift this paradigm, just like it did with new investigator funding rates--they just need to take it on.


4 thoughts on “Notes from the NIH Regional Grant Seminar

  1. Yeah that pretending their hands are tied schtick gets old once you appreciate those areas where they bring the hammer...

  2. Hm, I suspect we may be at the same institution. Unfortunately for postdocs, our stipend is too high to qualify for medicaid to cover our children. And even if they can afford a plan which is 25% of their montly stipend, there are roughly 20 benefits which are yanked when a postdoc goes on fellowship. With regard to retirement, the bar to qualify is so high that most postdocs aren't eligible to pay in until they've been at the institution 4-5 years because they are switching from employee to non-employee status and then don't meet the minimum salary requirement; I've spoken with one who wasn't eligible until after working there for 8 years. With our It's become a huge problem - we have about half the average national rate of postdocs on fellowship. Within the last 5 years have dropped from #9 on the best places to postdoc list to...well they don't list anything above #30. The institution is, frankly, losing a lot of money by not providing equitable benefits to postdocs on their PI's grant v. their own fellowship. These are areas where the NIH could help, but I'm not optimistic.

  3. My institution blessedly treats postdocs like staff, so we get all the health benefits of "normal" people from the get-go, and retirement benefits after one year. I have started mentioning this to potential postdocs who come interview here, because the monetary value of this treatment has got to be at least 25% of salary.

    NIH should simply mandate that postdocs get equitable benefits as secretaries at the same institution. Call it the Buffett Postdoc rule.

  4. It was great when I was an employed postdoc. Now I'm on an F and while it's prestigious and all that, I have no health insurance for my husband, who is in school. While family health insurance is offered, it costs the supplemental funds $750 a month plus our $150 a month contribution.

    Do the math on the $750 a month x 12 > $7850 supplemental funds available. Great if you wanted to pay more AND go to a conference. Or buy something..

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