|T H E N I H C A T A L Y S T||N O V E M B E R D E C E M B E R 2004|
|F R O M||T H E||D E P U T Y||D I R E C T O R||F O R||I N T R A M U R A L||R E S E A R C H|
RESEARCH IN THE NIH INTRAMURAL
Our long-term goal is to rewrite the instructions to the BSC members so that they can help us support higher-risk, higher-impact research in the IRP. We want tenure-track review processes that do not penalize the most creative early career scientists.
Those of you who heard my keynote talk* at the NIH Research Festival know what my bottom line was: The greatest successes of the NIH intramural research program (IRP) in the past came from recruiting highly creative scientists and giving them the freedom and environment in which to explore important problems in biomedical research.
The future of the IRP (and the U.S. biomedical research effort overall) depends on ensuring that the current and next generations of IRP scientists have the freedom they need to be innovative.
In recent discussions with the NIH director, the Board of Scientific Directors (SDs), and the chairs of our Boards of Scientific Counselors (BSC), there was unanimous agreement that the IRP must continue to be a vital, creative research program, willing to take high scientific risks in hopes of enormous scientific payoffs.
Much time was spent at a retreat of the SDs this summer brainstorming ways to make it easier for our research staff to tackle difficult problems with no assurance of success. We identified three barriers that currently make adventurous research all too difficult in the IRP:
(1) The product-oriented nature of the review process by our BSCs
(2) The understandable conservatism of our scientists and scientific leadership at times of constrained resources
(3) A tenure-track system that may penalize highly innovative early career scientists whose research risks do not pay off
The SDs recommended that we address each of these problems in turn, through a series of discussions by their board and appropriate subcommittees, with follow-up when I meet in the spring with the BSC chairs. Our long-term goal is to rewrite the instructions to the BSC members so that they can help us support higher-risk, higher-impact research in the IRP. We want tenure-track review processes that do not penalize the most creative early career scientists.
I would like to stimulate discussion about our ideas thus far. The first idea relates to current BSC processes, which largely reward productssuch as discoveries, patents, and papers. The BSC could also help us identify highly creative projects that might take more time than usual but if brought to fruition would have very high impact. We could also meet with colleagues in academia and industry to get their tips on how to reward and encourage creativity.
The current primarily retrospective review that recognizes past successes is certainly a good way to encourage more innovative research. But we need also to add a way to evaluate innovative approaches and ideasexperiments that are brilliant in conceptionbut do not always result in traditionally successful outcomes. Successful outcome ought not be the only measure of the value of the research. This change would permit our most innovative scientists to continue to explore new ideas, even if they have not been particularly productive over a previous four-year period. We have students and postdoctoral fellows whose careers depend on some measureable scientific output; so, whatever else we do, we must continue to do enough "bread and butter" science to support these careers.
Another idea on the table is that the SDs themselves take more responsibility for recognizing and encouraging innovative research. This means making merit-based decisions about assignment of resources so that our most creative scientists are given the resources they need to conduct their research. Across-the-board approaches to resource allocation or limitation, although less likely to result in complaints from the scientific staff, may not be in the best interest of novel science.
In the matter of tenure-track constraints on innovation, a special subcommittee of SDs has been established to think about creating a climate for tenure-track investigators that is more conducive to taking chances.
As it now stands, at a period in their scientific careers when they are most likely to produce truly creative work, early career scientists are under the greatest pressure to achieve specific goals.** Striving to meet these goals may limit out-of-the-box thinking and research for some individuals.
Some ideas are percolating about how to avoid penalizing our tenure-track investigators who take scientific risks, but I would be interested to hear more from the entire NIH community.
The good news is that there is general agreement from NIH leaders and advisors who help oversee our research that the IRP is the best place to conduct high-risk, high-impact research; we now need to work together to develop policies and processes that embrace this goal.
*To hear the keynote address, go to the NIH videocast website; click on Past Events and then on special; from there, navigate to the September 28 event.
**See the criteria for tenure in the NIH Sourcebook.
Deputy Director for Intramural Research
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