Does Strong NIH Research Support Mean Strong Career Development Funding?

A team compares the rankings of institutions with the largest amount of NIH research support with the highest-ranking institutions when it comes to support for training and career development.

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Author | Jina Sawani

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Both mentorship and career development have been proven to increase the likelihood of a biomedical research trainee having a successful career. Less is known, however, about the impact of an academic institution on the training and career development support for its trainees. Also, research and training support may not necessarily go hand in hand, which is likely due to varying institutional priorities that may or may not proactively encourage trainees to seek their own independent support. 

A new research study from the University of Michigan and Rutgers University compares the rankings of institutions with the largest amount of research support from the National Institutes of Health, or NIH, with the highest-ranking institutions for NIH-acquired support for training and career development. The findings were recently published in JCI Insight, a journal published by the American Society for Clinical Investigation.

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"If you are a young researcher with a mentor who is well funded, your mentor might not consider it a priority to encourage you to write fellowship or career development grants," says study co-lead Santiago Schnell, Phil (Oxon), FRSC, interim chair of molecular and integrative physiology at Michigan Medicine. "The mentor is clearly important, but the mentee contributes his or her own share, while the department or research unit also plays a critical role in the promotion of a culture that values and celebrates training and career awards."

The study examined total research and other NIH grant dollars awarded to academic medical centers in the United States from 2010 to 2018. Schnell adds that the NIH, the top biomedical research funding agency in the country, provides up-and-coming researchers and research institutions with support for fellowships, training and career development awards, and assistance with fundamental, translational and clinical research. These are typically the so-called NIH 'T,' 'K' and 'F' type grants.

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In 2020 alone, the NIH budget for biomedical research support was $41.6 billion.

"Our study was designed to help us understand if the overall research or training for T, K and F types of support go hand in hand," says study co-lead Marisa Conte, MLIS, associate director of research and informatics at the University of Michigan's Taubman Health Sciences Library. "Our analysis showed that, when averaged over the entire 2010 to 2018-time period of our study, there was a strong correlation between training and total NIH research support for the top seven schools. This no longer persisted for the schools ranked eight through 14."  

The U-M Medical School is consistently ranked in the top five institutions when it comes to T, K and F grants, though its total NIH funding is ninth.

"The U-M Medical School has been a long-standing national leader in supporting the career development and training of its learners," says Bishr Omary, M.D., PhD, a member of the research team who is also the senior vice chancellor for academic affairs and research at Rutgers Biomedical and Health Sciences, as well as the past executive vice dean for research at Michigan Medicine. "We knew this about U-M when we began our analysis, but did not appreciate how varied research institutions are in fostering the environment that supports individual and institutional garnering of T, K and F grants."

When averaged over the entire 2010 to 2018-time period of our study, there was a strong correlation between training and total NIH research support for the top seven schools. This no longer persisted for the schools ranked eight through 14.
Marisa Conte, MLIS

The team found that although the top 14 ranked institutions in research funding included the same top 14 ranked institutions in T, K and F support, only five institutions showed identical rankings of the 14, total. The remaining nine institutions ranked higher or lower on average. 

"This was an interesting finding of the study," says Schnell. "If you are a trainee, you would benefit by training at one of these five 'super-star' institutions or at institutions where you are likely to learn how to secure your own independent funding."

Therefore, the team's study highlighted the fact that training institutions and the NIH can better serve trainees.

"Our findings may alert institutions that have a high rank gap in overall NIH funding compared with training support to consider committing more resources to early career investigators and trainees," notes Schnell. "And institutions can increase their long-term footprints and impact in biomedical research by developing programs that help trainees successfully secure NIH K, F or other non-federal career awards."

Another important observation from the team's analysis is that the percent of NIH support for T, K and F grants (when compared with overall NIH support for research) has not kept up with an increasing NIH budget. Through further enhancing their critical role in research training and career development by allocating additional funds that are at least proportionate to their overall research support, Conte says that the NIH can better assist up-and-coming scientists and clinical trainees in the long run. 

"Biomedical research is critically important work for a variety of reasons, including its fundamental role in overcoming human disease. We must allocate the necessary investments to support the training of future generations of our biomedical workforce."

Paper cited: "Trends in NIH-supported career development funding: implications for institutions, trainees, and the future research workforce," JCI Insight. DOI: 10.1172/jci.insight.142817

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