T H E   N I H    C A T A L Y S T      M A R C H   -  A P R I L   1999



by Fran Pollner

Plato concluded that knowledge meant searching for truths that are independent of the observer and could be taught to others. He acted on this . . . belief by founding the Academy, a shady gathering spot just outside the walls of Athens. . . . The Academy became so famous as a gathering place for intellectuals that it continued to operate for 900 years after Plato’s death. . . .

a Plato scholar, on the Internet

It worked for Plato, and it lasted 900 years. Now those who envision greater and lasting diversity in the biomedical research workforce are proposing an Academy for NIH. Unlike Plato’s singular Academy in ancient Athens, however, the NIH Academy would not stand alone in modern Bethesda but would have counterpart sites throughout the extramural research community.

At least that’s the idea of a committee formed to brainstorm strategies to enlarge the variety of faces of those who conduct research at the bench and the bedside. Indeed, a primary recommendation in the newly released Report and Recommendations of the Committee for Recruitment of a Diverse Workforce in Medical Research (or, more popularly, the Slavkin report, after committee chairman Harold Slavkin, NIDCR director) is "creating The NIH Academy."

In this issue of The NIH Catalyst, Deputy Director for Intramural Research Michael Gottesman elaborates on the concept and structure of the proposed Academy (see "Toward an NIH Academy"). He previewed the major points of the Slavkin report at the semiannual meeting in December of the Advisory Committee to the Director of NIH (ACD)—and made the case also for an NIH graduate school, which, if it were to be established, would be but one part of the NIH Academy. The doctoral degree it would confer would reflect the patient orientation of the training here.

At the ACD meeting, there was nary a contentious word about the NIH Academy from any of the distinguished panelists who constitute the NIH director’s outside advisory group. They were less uniformly sanguine over the prospect of an NIH graduate school.

Academy: Yes

The NIH Academy would enhance and choreograph what are now largely disconnected programs at NIH geared to the range of students from high school through the postdoctoral years. The programs are designed not only to intensify an existing fascination with biomedical research but also to open the field up to those for whom it might not otherwise be accessible.

In coordinating these programs within a formal structure, the NIH Academy would fulfill the Slavkin recommendation that it "serve as a nexus for recruiting and training a diverse population of students to pursue careers in the biomedical sciences," Gottesman said.

Summarizing the "critical elements" for the Academy’s success, Gottesman mentioned "intensive mentoring, personal attention in the lab, and, even more important, a residential facility" that would provide housing and meeting space for both educational and social activities, enabling "vertical mentoring" by more advanced students. The aim, he said, is "continuity" of experience from high school through college and into and beyond the graduate and postdoctoral years. Moreover, the programs implemented at NIH would also be disseminated to extramural sites—to truly change the complexion of the biomedical workforce across the country.

A salient feature of the Academy would be experiencing "real-world" problems in local communities, an important departure from the ivory-tower academic setting that would enable students to see the effect of their training in the real world. ACD members expressed particular satisfaction with this aspect of the Academy.

Graduate School: Maybe

Several, however, questioned the wisdom of the Academy’s including a formal degree-granting graduate school, an idea that has support among NIH leadership. The goals of an NIH graduate program, Gottesman said, would be to fill in those areas in which the country’s graduate education is flagging, to provide much-needed doctoral-level training for M.D.s and others in new and highly specialized areas of clinical and translational research. A formal graduate program within the Academy, he observed, would also "certainly enhance diversity during the very years when diversity tends to drop off."

ACD member Shirley Tilghman, professor of molecular biology at Princeton (N.J.) University, disputed the notion that there is a "national need for a new graduate school. There’s a need for new kinds of training, and that should be done at the postdoctoral, not the Ph.D., level," she contended. (Tilghman was chair of a National Research Council committee that last year concluded that there are more Ph.D.s in the life sciences in the United States than the U.S. job market can happily accommodate. The Tilghman report urged that "there be no further expansion in the size of existing graduate-education programs in the life sciences and no development of new programs, except under rare and special circumstances, such as a program to serve an emerging field or to encourage the education of members of underrepresented minority groups.")

Gottesman countered that one year of patient-oriented training would be "totally insufficient" in a field that is growing so rapidly, especially with new information pouring out of such efforts as the Human Genome Project. Moreover, he said, Ph.D.s with an interest in clinical research would be "greeted with delight" anywhere in the country.

ACD member Eric Kandel, professor of neurobiology and behavior at Columbia University in New York, suggested that an NIH graduate program in clinical investigation could serve as a national model. "Everyone acknowledges there is a crisis in clinical investigation, and for the first time, people are seeing clinical problems as relevant to basic research. NIH is uniquely positioned to provide leadership," Kandel said.

Eric Lander, professor of biology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Mass., said that there is "no excuse for an NIH grad school unless it’s distinctive."

That distinctiveness, said Marc Kirschner, professor and chair of cell biology at Harvard Medical School, Boston, could be demonstrated in a curriculum that featured such courses as pathophysiology, bioinformatics, and clinical problems.

To initiate a graduate program, Gottesman told the ACD, "we need your advice and local university input"—as well as "legislation enabling NIH to be a degree granter, state accreditation, a graduate dean, staff, and curriculum."

The NIH graduate school will be on the agenda at the next ACD meeting in June, at which time, Gottesman said later, a proposal will be presented to the panel. Meanwhile, consultations with outside experts are proceeding and an NIH-wide "town meeting" of people interested in contributing to a graduate program will be held in April or May. Date, time, and location will be forthcoming, Gottesman said.

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