Rethinking Research Training, From Science

Threats to federal funding for science are pitting current research needs against the longer-term needs of training. Unless deliberate steps are taken, training may lose. In the following editorial, which appeared in the August 23, 1996, issue of the journal Science, APS Executive Director Alan Kraut urges the nation’s scientific leadership to look beyond the current budget crisis and adopt a new approach to research training. More than just a commitment of funds, Kraut makes the case that a national training strategy is needed to preserve the ability of future researchers to tackle the nation’s health, social, and economic problems. [This editorial is reprinted with permission from Science, August 23, 1996. Copyright 1996 American Association for the Advancement of Science.} The Editor

Mortgaging Science’s Future

Alan G. Kraut

Executive Director, American Psychological Society

The prospect of cutbacks in federal funding of research has provoked a strong and largely successful defense by the scientific community. However, our advocacy ‘has laid bare our priorities, and advancing the next generation of scientists is not among them. Unless we take deliberate steps to make sure money and mechanisms are available for training and supporting new investigators-even if that means less money for today’s investigators-we are in danger of mortgaging research’s future for our own current spending. Maybe nobody sets out to overlook training, but it is almost invariably an afterthought. When federal agency officials and science advocates take to Capitol Hill, they describe the excitement of the Human Genome Project, they show pictures of the brain at work, they offer a peek through the Hubble Space Telescope. Of course these things should be promoted, but so must the research training that gave us the scientists who mapped those genes, traced those brain mechanisms, and discovered those stars.

The scientists who grew up under the first federal training programs are now the leaders of the science establishment. More than anyone, they should be attuned to the need for a strong federal commitment to training. In their hearts, they know it. Federal agency heads have told me that there may not be enough researchers in the future to continue their agency’s mission in historically high-quality ways. However, that is not what they tell Congress. Research training, they tell me, is not what Congress wants to hear about.

By tailoring our message in this way, we put science on the same plane with every other special interest vying for a piece of the federal pie, and that’s not good enough. We need to speak for the next generation, tell Congress what their needs are, and convince Congress of the importance of those priorities, even if they don’t want to hear it.

It’s true, Congress does not want to fund more research training. “Now let me get this straight, Doctor,” they say. “Five NIH [National Institutes of Health] directors were just here begging for more money because only 15% of their approved grants are going to be funded this year. And you want me to do what? Add more people to that competition?” Not exactly. This is not about more money for established competitors. We must invest in the next few generations of scientists. They are the ones who will build on current research to find the cure for AIDS or Alzheimer’s, to prevent schizophrenia, or to create tomorrow’s miracle metals. We should be as excited about bringing the best new minds to bear on these issues as we are about any current accomplishment.

Blindly pumping money into existing training mechanisms is not the answer; money for training should not be used to augment current science with research assistants cast in our own image. To encourage talented people to work in areas of national importance and to move in promising directions, we need to rethink the nuts-and-bolts mechanisms in ways that recognize the needs of young investigators at different stages of their careers. To give one example, in my field, psychology, a new mechanism is allowing young Ph.D.’s to collect pilot data while learning how things work at NIH. Known as B/START (Behavioral Science Track Awards for Rapid Transition), these grants are designed to reverse the “graying” of the field and support new investigators in their transition to independent research, a difficult juncture in a scientist’s career.

We need to examine and reexamine such issues as mentoring; making training money portable so investigators can work in different settings; making multidisciplinary training deliberate; injecting new perspectives into training even where it is discipline specific; breaking down barriers between basic, clinical, and applied research; and many more. On a broader scale, we need to initiate with policymakers a new national training strategy, one that articulates a strong federal role in producing and supporting young researchers- for their sakes, not ours. It will not be easy:

Adopting a national training strategy may require something on the order of a culture change within science. However, if training continues to be a marginal consideration, we are virtually guaranteeing a future work force less qualified than what we have now. Both science and the nation deserve better.

Observer Vol.9, No.5 September, 1996

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