For postdoctoral researchers in the biomedical sciences hoping to establish independent academic research careers, one crucial factor can make an enormous difference: whether they receive a training fellowship. That’s the conclusion of a recent National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) working paper, which finds that postdocs who receive a National Institutes of Health (NIH) Ruth L. Kirschstein National Research Service Award Individual Postdoctoral Fellowship, otherwise known as an F32, are several percentage points more likely to go on to win career-making NIH R01 research project grants than postdocs who don’t get the fellowship, even among those with similar proposal review scores.
The authors argue that the findings mean the fellowship program is working as intended and should be expanded to shepherd even more postdocs into independent careers, in line with the recommendation from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine report published earlier this month to increase by fivefold the number of such training grants available to both domestic and foreign postdocs. “The effect size [of these training grants] was much larger and more robust than we expected,” says study co-author Donna Ginther, a professor of economics at the University of Kansas in Lawrence who specializes in the scientific workforce. The F32 award, she and her co-authors conclude, is an important tool for keeping and promoting postdocs within the academic biomedical workforce. “Our report gives evidence to the NIH that that is money well-spent.”
Others, however, argue that the results highlight a problem: The F32 has become something of a kingmaker, deciding early on—and possibly based on biased judging—who will go on to a tenure-track career and who will eventually be forced out. Across all applicants, F32 awardees are 67% more likely to win an R01 than nonawardees.
“In effect, an applicant’s chance of becoming an independent investigator is reduced nearly in half if he/she is rejected for this award,” writes biologist David Levitt, a professor at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis who has studied postdoc career paths, in an e-mail to Science Careers. “This award has, I think, become a major filter for selecting those that will go on to become an independent investigator—irrespective of anything else.”
The report’s authors tallied data on 14,276 demographically similar scientists who applied for the highly competitive F32 award between 1996 and 2008. About 20% of those who won an F32 later received an R01 grant—long seen as the keystone of a sustainable independent biomedical research career—compared to only 12% of nonawardees. If an awardee and nonawardee had approximately the same score on their F32 proposals, the awardee was approximately 7 percentage points more likely to win a subsequent NIH research award of any kind, and was approximately 5 percentage points more likely to later win an R01.
A recent study of research funding in the Netherlands illustrates how such decisions can play out across scientists’ careers. The researchers investigate a phenomenon called the “Matthew effect”—named after the parable of the talents in the Gospel of Matthew—in which scientists’ early success begets later success. Looking at grant proposal review scores for one funding cycle, they found that researchers scoring just above the funding threshold accumulated more than twice as much research dollars over the next 8 years as those scoring just below the payline. In other words, despite nearly identical review scores, the study suggests, winners significantly outcompete losers for future funding and career success.
But Ginther argues that, while the F32 is extremely beneficial to postdocs, it is far from a make-or-break requirement for career success. “Many nonawardees go on to independent research,” she says, citing alternative non-NIH fellowship programs like the private Damon Runyon Fellowship Award for cancer researchers. “The F32 award provides a significant advantage for launching an independent research career, but it is not the case that if a researcher does not receive an award, their career is derailed.”
Lars Lefgren, a professor of economics at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, who has previously studied NIH training grant outcomes, says the NBER report is a useful policy evaluation of the effectiveness of the F32 grant, but it doesn’t adequately address why some postdocs succeed and others fail, despite earning similar review scores. “Do I believe their results are correct in the broad sense? Yes,” he says. “But it’s reasonable to question the values baked into the system.” Future studies would benefit from looking at whether underachieving postdocs working at large, prestigious institutions—“well-connected slouches,” as Lefgren calls them—have a leg-up in the F32 review process over more talented postdocs at smaller, less prominent labs.
Christopher Pickett, director of the nonprofit Rescuing Biomedical Research, agrees with that assessment. “Conscious or unconscious, prestige plays a role in reviewers’ decisions,” he says. Still, he agrees that the NBER report’s findings support the notion that NIH should significantly increase the number of F32 and similar training grants available to postdocs.
He’s also grateful to see more hard data on research funding and career outcomes for postdocs. “You can’t know if there’s a bias without data,” he says. “I’m heartened every time I see a study like this come out because it’s giving us more quantifiable data on the problem.”