New NIH division director shares plans for the future

On 10 August, biologist Kay Lund became the inaugural director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Division of Biomedical Research Workforce Programs. The division, which is housed in the Office of Extramural Research in Bethesda, Maryland, was created in response to a recommendation in the 2012 report from the NIH Biomedical Research Workforce Working Group. The group had been tasked with looking into growing concerns about the diminishing academic job prospects and funding available to junior researchers hoping to establish independent research careers in the United States. One of the direst consequences of the dwindling job market has been the increasing lengths of time many scientists now spend languishing in what were originally intended as temporary training positions, with no certainty of one day landing a coveted permanent position in academia.

We’d like to determine what are the best policies, and research training and career development activities, to promote a productive and diverse workforce.

As the 2012 working group report acknowledged, “there are limits to NIH’s ability to control aspects of the training pipeline,” because it is not the only funder or policymaker in the arena. Even so, NIH is a major player in the conversation, and whatever precedents it sets, others may follow. Lund’s new role, which she takes after more than 30 years as a physiology professor at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, places her in a position to potentially make significant positive changes for the many scientists currently moving through the U.S. biomedical training system. The stakes—and expectations—are high.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity. 

Q: What attracted you to the position?

A: I’ve been a scientist my entire career, and I’ve loved it. Over the years, in addition to my research, I have engaged in many different training activities for younger scientists, both within and outside my institution. Some of these activities focused on future academic research careers, and others focused on science-related careers outside academia. I’ve also been on advisory committees for a number of institutional training grants. I was co-principal investigator (PI) for an Institutional Research and Academic Career Development Award program that funds postdocs to do bench research and to teach at partner schools that serve historically underrepresented groups.

Increasingly, I have realized that where my passion lies right now is in making sure that we maintain the pipeline of incredible young scientists with the skills to pursue many different careers in health and scientific discovery. It is essential to continue to support those scientists who wish to excel in research and academia, and also to ensure exposure to and training for other career paths.

I’ve also been really fortunate to have fantastic mentors throughout my career. They really set the tone that the best satisfaction you can get in science is to see your trainees succeed, and that’s my philosophy. When I saw this position advertised, it really resonated with me as an opportunity to provide leadership in a national conversation about where the scientific workforce is headed.

Q: Who are you working with in the division?

A: I have an incredible team with interrelated skills and a long collective background in science, policy, and evaluation. We have research training and career development specialists, including one who was formerly a bench scientist and NIH institute training officer and another who is an expert in science policy. We have a scientific workforce diversity officer who is a lawyer with experience developing policy and working with NIH institutes and centers to develop programs that aim to broaden access to biomedical research careers. We also have an economic analysis and modeling team, which includes people whose card-carrying research credentials are in the labor workforce and high-level economics.

Q: What do you hope your division will accomplish?

A: Our big, overarching goal is to better predict what is needed in a future biomedical research workforce to best fulfill the mission of NIH, promote health and discovery within and beyond the United States, and meet the career aspirations of young scientists. We’d like to determine what are the best policies and research training and career development activities to promote a productive and diverse workforce.

Before we can make recommendations for the future, we need to better understand the composition of today’s biomedical research workforce, and that’s where the analysis and modeling group really comes in. That part of the team is doing some very novel work, looking at and combining very large data sets, which will give us a much more complete view of the current state of the workforce. From that framework, we can move forward to try to better predict research training and career development activities that will meet the future workforce needs. In 1 year, 5 years, 10 years, what are the types of scientists we will need, from the perspective of the NIH mission but also that of trainees and employers within the United States and beyond?

An important goal is to reach out to different groups, including trainees, practicing scientists, funders, policymakers, and other stakeholders in the biomedical research enterprise such as professional organizations. There are certainly going to be differences of opinion, and it’s my job to ensure that I capture the input from different groups, assimilate it, and work with people here to evaluate what the best strategies are for moving forward.

Q: What are your plans for getting started?

To apply for these fellowships, predoctoral students write their own research proposals, which allows them to really do the scholarship behind putting together a research plan and to take ownership of that plan. Certainly, listening to the students, they want to write grants. This is part and parcel of training. Previously, not all of the institutes and centers at NIH offered those fellowships, but now all offer that opportunity.

Another recommendation of the biomedical research workforce report was to understand better how different types of support—including having an individual fellowship, being on an institutional training grant, or being supported on a PI’s research grant—track in terms of research productivity or future career path and success. We need to get additional data and establish the differences and similarities in outcomes before we can make recommendations about which funding mechanisms are best suited to particular trainees. There are strategies and evaluation tools in place right now to try to better track these outcomes. For example, we are currently comparing the immediate and longer-term career outcomes of applicants for the F30 and F31 fellowships who did or did not receive an award.

Q: What other topics do you hope to address?

A: Fewer M.D.s are going into research than in the past. There’s an increased age at which they acquire their own independent research funding, and probably also at which they first get into the training pipelines for research. I hope to gather more data about these trends. I will also explore with the community what we could do to encourage and enhance the ability of physician-scientists to engage in research, and we will consider new programs and paradigms that may facilitate their success in research. I’d really like to define some novel ways to encourage physician investigators to enter research at younger ages.

Q: What challenges do you expect to face?

A: On a personal level, I will have to come to terms with the fact that I’m not actively engaged in bench research right now. It is going to be very different, but I think I have a great team and a great opportunity to participate in research on training, career development, and workforce issues. I have a lot of people to help me settle in, and I’m really excited about the job.

Q: What do you envision for the division’s long-term future?

A: One of the roles of this division is to constantly evaluate outcomes and review policy for research and career development and training programs. It’s very unlikely that the biomedical workforce is going to stay static, and I hope to set the grounds so that this division will thrive and serve the mission of the NIH for a long time.

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