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NAS, NRSAs, NIH, APS

An Alphabet of Training

Every four years since the early 1970s, the National Academy of Sciences has convened a group of distinguished leaders in science to study training needs in health research. And every four years the group issues a report recommending specific numbers of the National Research Service Awards (NRSA) in various disciplines. It costs a lot of federal money and takes a lot of time on the part of some very busy people to develop these reports

The most recent report, issued in 1994, recommended increasing NRSAs for behavioral scientists (as well as for researchers in nursing, oral health, and health services) while holding level the awards for biomedical scientists. The report also recommended increasing the dollar amount of the NRSA stipends.

This year, the NAS has convened another distinguished panel to again study the nation’s health research training needs (see the roster of committee members on this page). The group includes Ellen Markman, Professor of Psychology at Stanford University, and John Kihlstrom, Editor of Psychological Science from the University of California, Berkeley.

APS is asking the 1998 committee to renew the previous report’s recommendations because the 1994 recommendations have not been implemented, or even seriously considered by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the major funder of the prestigious NRSAs.

Actually, that’s not completely true. NIH did implement the increase in stipend amounts, which is very good news. But NIH rejected the other recommendations, and in the process reinterpreted the 1994 recommendations and in essence told the NAS committee that the committee didn’t understand the enormous financial burden that increasing the number of NRSAs would place on the $11 billion budget of NIH. For the record, we’re talking in the neighborhood of a few million dollars a year to implement the increases for behavioral science NRSAs.

APS Executive Director Alan Kraut was invited as the sole representative of behavioral science organizations to meet with the current NAS committee to discuss NRSA training for behavioral science researchers. He told the committee that “NIH justifies a selective implementation of the 1994 recommendations by what I would characterize as a major misinterpretation of that report.”

“My reading of the report and my discussions with several NRC staff and members of that 1994 Committee was that … all of the recommendations from the 1994 report were balanced and costed out so that the recommendations of increasing stipend amounts were tied to both maintaining the number of basic biomedical trainees and increasing the number of trainees in various disciplinary areas,” said Kraut. However, according to Kraut, NIH’s written response to the 1994 report essentially says that the NAS committee “must have wanted stipends to come first, before increasing the number of awards in any area.” There is nothing in the 1994 report to justify this interpretation.

“Of course, if NIH didn’t want to fully implement the 1994 recommendations they certainly could have partially implemented them,” said Kraut. “But if they wanted to be true to the intent of the report, they should have carefully balanced any increase in stipend support with an increase in trainees.”

The problem is that NIH does not have a centralized training policy and it doesn’t have a system for considering the NAS recommendations in any broad way, said Kraut.

“I have discussed research training at many of the Institutes — with past and current Institute directors, with past and current research training program staff, and with budget officers,” Kraut told the NAS committee. “Never have I heard, at least at the Institute level, that your 1994 report was systematically studied with an eye toward how that Institute planned its research training activities. And this is true whether or not the number of trainees went up or down. We are delighted that some Institutes, NIMH for example, increased their number of behavioral trainees over the last few years. But the 1994 report seemed not to provide much of a role in that process, certainly not any a priori role. And there is little if any NIH-wide planning around research training needs, at least as far as disciplines and areas of emphasis go.”

“There is a mismatch between the level of recommendations of the 1994 Committee – which focused at the overall NIH level – and the level at which most substantive NIH research training decisions take place – the Institute level,” said Kraut. “This is what better explains the NIH decision to only increase stipends,” he added, because the increase could be done ” under the decentralized training structure that has 24 separate NIH Institutes, centers, and divisions. Your recommendation to increase the number of trainees would have taken a coordinated effort that both doesn’t exist and is not an NIH tradition.”

Kraut asked the NAS committee to renew the 1994 recommendations, and to make them more “NIH friendly.” One way to do that, suggested Kraut, is to specify the kinds of areas where behavioral science ought to be stimulated and encourage specific NIH institutes to support more behavioral science NRSAs. He also suggested that the NAS committee should encourage interdisciplinary training in behavioral science research, such as training cognitive scientists in neuroimaging techniques; behavioral geneticists in techniques of molecular genetics; or funding basic behavioral scientists to work in medical settings.

In addition, Kraut asked the NAS committee to “insist that the National Institute of General Medical Sciences (NIGMS) support behavioral research training.” NIGMS’s mission is largely to support basic research. “As far as I can tell, the Institute is not following that mandate in basic behavioral research training,” he said.

“This is not to say that NIH should be compelled to take the your recommendations, but only that there be a reasonable process in place to consider the recommendations in a way that hasn’t been done recently.”

Observer Vol.11, No.3 May/June, 1998

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