Overhauling Translational Training


In the scientific world, a lot of lip service has lately been paid to the idea that great (and hirable) scientists are more than assemblages of first-author papers and R01 grants. They must also be able to collaborate across disciplines, lead teams of colleagues, and carry their science out into the community. But old ideas (and ways) die hard, and a scientist’s publications and grant-writing success often matter more in a hiring decision than those other, less measurable skills.

And yet: A report recently issued by the U.S. National Academies’ Institute of Medicine (IOM) argues that, for scientists trained as part of a National Institutes of Health (NIH)-funded Clinical and Translational Science Award (CTSA program), it’s time to deemphasize publishing and grant winning and focus on instilling leadership, team science, community engagement, and entrepreneurship skills.

“The way I look at it, academiato value these skills more, because this is the future that we are building for big science, which is all collaborative.” —Joan Lakoski

Whether such changes produce trainees who are better able to succeed on the job market won’t be evident until several years from now—and we may never know unless NIH improves the career tracking of its trainees.

Training a new kind of scientist

NIH launched the CTSA program in 2006 to fund clinical and translational research hubs at institutions around the country, which are individually known as CTSAs. Over the past 7 years, the number of funded centers has grown to 61. CTSAs are funded for 5 years, with budgets ranging from $4 million to $23 million annually, depending on the size of the program and a particular CTSA’s goals. Last year, when NIH’s National Center for Research Resources was disbanded, the CTSA program migrated to the new National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences (NCATS).

CTSAs offer two kinds of training grants: the KL2 Mentored Clinical Research Scholar Program and the TL1 Clinical Research Training Program. KL2s are aimed at providing a structured research-training experience and up to 5 years of career support to newly minted clinical investigators. A KL2 scholar must hold a Ph.D., M.D., or equivalent clinical degrees, and have a tenure-track position. The award’s goal is to help scientists establish independent translational research programs at CTSA institutions. TL1s are aimed at graduate students and postdocs from Ph.D. or combined-degree programs who are looking to pursue clinical and translational research careers. In 2011, 501 scholars held KL2 awards and 469 trainees held TL1s.

After the report was released, NCATS director Christopher Austin pledged his support and said that, with the help of a working group, implementation of the recommendations will begin immediately.

Effects on employability

Terry envisions CTSA trainees as the eventual leaders of translational research in academia, industry, and government regulatory bodies. Far from narrowing their career prospects by focusing less on publications and grants, she argues, the changes will give CTSA trainees more options than their peers. “Our feeling is that we wouldn’t be creating people who wouldn’t fit elsewhere, but in fact who are well equipped to lead elsewhere.”

That view is shared by many of those who lead and work with CTSAs. Joan Lakoski, assistant vice chancellor for science education outreach, health sciences, at the University of Pittsburgh in Pennsylvania, and a professor of chemical biology in the university’s Clinical and Translational Science Institute, tells Science Careers that CTSAs can lead the charge in showing academia that demonstrated leadership, team science, and entrepreneurship skills are just as valuable as a publication record.

“The way I look at it, academia needs to value these skills more, because this is the future that we are building for big science, which is all collaborative,” she says. “I think, with respect to teaching our students about teams, I don’t yet think it’s integrated into graduate and medical and doctoral training programs as much as it should be. I think that we talk about it, but it’s the CTSAs that really are carrying this very important load for their institutions.”

Daniel Ford, who directs the Johns Hopkins Institute for Clinical and Translational Research in Baltimore, agrees. “I do think the academic community needs to be nudged to talk about what is the ultimate goal of being here, and it’s not necessarily the publications,” he says. But he does recognize the concern that by focusing on intangible skills that academia and industry historically haven’t valued much, CTSAs could be creating scientists who are highly talented yet difficult to employ.

For that reason, it’s especially important that NIH develop clear metrics to define what success means in a clinical-translational context, Ford says. Per IOM’s recommendations, it’s paramount that NIH come up with tangible metrics that quantify successful leadership and teamwork and incentivize acquiring and demonstrating those skills through grants and awards, he says.

Tracking success

Determining what effect IOM’s recommendations will have on a CTSA trainee’s employability—positive, negative, or neutral—could be tricky, though, because NCATS doesn’t currently track the career outcomes of its trainees in any organized fashion. Individual CTSAs might (or might not) keep track of the career trajectories of their trainees, says NCATS spokesperson Bobbi Gardner, but those records aren’t passed onto to NCATS.

That could change in the near future, though: One of the recommendations made last year by NIH’s Biomedical Research Workforce Working Group was for the agency to develop a system for tracking the career outcomes of all trainees who receive NIH funding. Those recommendations are still being implemented, and there’s no clear timeframe for when the system might come online. Even if the IOM recommendations are fully and effectively implemented, this timing could make it hard to assess the impact of the changes on trainees’ career outcomes—whether the skill set IOM is advocating create new research leaders or scientists who struggle for jobs in a marketplace that still values more traditional standards of success.

* TOP IMAGE: Daniel Gareau and Nathalie Burg are two NIH-funded trainees at The Rockefeller University Center for Clinical and Translational Science in New York City.

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