Tenure Panel Gets First-Year Report Card

by Celia Hooper

NIH's new Central Tenure Committee recently completed its first year of life-and the first data on tenure decisions are in, along with mixed reactions from the scientists that the group evaluates and serves.

"We haven't lived with the new tenuring system long enough to see if it produces a better product" than the old system, says Mark Boguski, a NLM investigator recently tenured by the Central Tenure Committee (CTC). "The real test will be not just whether the system is fair at the front end but whether at the back end it produces a scientist with a better post-tenure track record than before."

Actually, the idea for the committee was hatched for rather different reasons in the 1980s, under NIH Director James Wyngaarden, says CTC's executive secretary, Richard G. Wyatt. The goal of forming the new tenure committee, according to Wyatt, was to bring the expertise of senior scientists into major decisions at NIH. As is the case at universities, tenure at NIH accords a scientist permanence and independent responsibility for laboratory research decisions, staff, and resources. But NIH tenure goes further, actually providing scientists with the resources to conduct the research without obliging them to apply for grants, as their extramural colleagues must do.

Richard G. Wyatt

Under the old system, intramural staff researchers were nominated for tenure by lab and branch chiefs, then reviewed by their institute, center, or division's (ICD's) promotion and tenure committee. If their scientific director (SD) selected them as tenure candidates, their packets of credentials were presented to the Board of Scientific Directors-a group composed of the SDs for all institutes that meets biweekly with the deputy director for intramural research (DDIR). The SDs discussed each candidate's merits and voted for or against recommending that the DDIR grant tenure to the candidate. The DDIR almost invariably approved the candidates that the SDs recommended. About 95% of the candidates brought to the SDs were recommended.

Data from CTC's first 14 months support the proposition that the new committee is no tea party. Of the 28 scientists whose cases were reviewed, 21-75%-were recommended for tenure. Although the percentage of canidates tenured by the CTC has gone up slightly in the past few months, the new system appears to be tougher. Wyatt says the reasons may in part relate to lack of familiarity with the new system and a new emphasis on distinguishing between independent scientists, who may be granted tenure, and staff or collaborative scientists, who may be granted permanence but not tenure.

The most conspicuous change in the system is that the final packets of credentials no longer go to the SDs, but instead to a 15-member panel of scientists selected to serve on the CTC by the DDIR. Many of the other changes in the new system are not universal or substantive, but are refinements intended to make tenure policies more uniform among the various institutes and understandable to everyone. "The members of the lab I work in have less anxiety than before with respect to the tenuring system," says Pat Becerra, who is at the start of NEI's tenure track. "Before, the tenuring system was an unknown. ... Now we all know where we stand."

To make sure the new system is widely understood, DDIR Michael Gottesman has met with groups of postdocs and junior scientists to explain the new system and answer questions. And at each step in the new system-starting with intramural postdocs just entering NIH for training- there is an emphasis on letting everyone know their career status and what NIH offers them and expects from them. For example, all scientists placed on the tenure track now receive letters congratulating them on their new status and describing the resources that will be at their disposal during the six years that they have to establish themselves as independent scientists on the tenure track.

One key difference in the system is only beginning to come into play-a new emphasis on outside recruitment to the tenure track. When NIH switched from the old system to the new one, each institute was allowed to nominate intramural scientists for "grandfathering" onto the tenure track based on evidence of high-quality, independent research. Around 180 intramural scientists were placed on the tenure track under the grandfather clause. Currently, however, the only scientists being added to the tenure track are those selected as the top candidates in rigorous, nationally advertised searches for the positions.

Some fellows and trainees erroneously believe that this emphasis on outside recruitment means they do not have a crack at the tenure track after their allotted five years as postdocs in the intramural program. "What is worrisome is the fellows who have this view that there will not be a chance to make a life here at NIH if you come in as a postdoc," says NCI's Elise Kohn, recently tenured by CTC. "We are starting to see an exodus of outstanding postdocs leaving for opportunities elsewhere and grave concern among postdocs about coming here."

Although it is likely that in the future, a smaller percentage of scientists tenured at NIH will have been trained here, doing a postdoc stint at NIH is not the kiss of death for one's intramural tenure prospects. "By virtue of the size and excellence of our training programs, many of the best young investigators in this country are coming out of our labs and clinics," says DDIR Gottesman. "It would be a travesty if we didn't snap up the best of our own for the tenure-track." Gottesman gives intramural postdocs information on new tenure track positions by advertising them on his electronic bulletin board a few weeks before the ads appear in journals like Science. NHLBI's SD, Edward Korn, says his institute has capitalized on the new system to snare some excellent postdocs for tenure-track positions. "The tenure-track policy provides more opportunities for NIH postdocs than the previous policy in that NIH postdocs now can and do compete for the many positions outside their own laboratory rather than just the few or none that might arise within their own lab." Korn says that of the five nationally advertised tenure-track positions NHLBI has filled in the past year, three went to postdocs from other institutes who were unknown to NHLBI's search committee before they applied, and one went to a postdoc in another NHLBI lab who was previously unknown to the lab that selected him.

David J. Clark, who has been in his tenure-track position at NIDDK for just a couple of months, says his case proves that intramural fellows can make it to the tenure track. Clark was selected through a national search as the best candidate for a tenure-track position within the institute in which he was trained, but in a different lab. "It is now more difficult for intramural fellows to get a tenure-track job at the NIH, but I believe that the new system is fairer and will help to raise the quality of research at NIH," says Clark, who chose the NIH position over several outside offers.

Once scientists make it to the tenure track, their work is cut out for them. In the course of the next six years, the tenure-track investigator must build up a portfolio of research that impresses a series of judges, starting with the lab or branch chief and the institute's Board of Scientific Counselors (BSC)-the panel of outside scientists that convenes at NIH every three to four years to review all tenured and tenure-track investigators. If, based on these evaluations, the scientist is kept on the tenure track, in six-or perhaps fewer-years, his or her credentials will be passed to the institute's tenure and review committee, which will solicit letters from outside reviewers and weigh these along with the BSC review and the candidate's publications and other scientific achievements. The ICD tenure committee makes a recommendation to the institute's SD, and if the recommendation is that the candidate should be tenured, the SD and the candidate's lab or section chief send the candidate's packet to CTC. Two regular CTC members plus one ad hoc member are generally assigned to review the case. At the CTC meeting, the SD and the lab chief present the candidate's credentials to the entire CTC and then leave before the committee's discussion.

"Some people say [the CTC review] is too rigorous," says Igor Dawid, an NICHD scientist who serves on CTC. "It is definitely quite rigorous. ... Those who are assigned to the cases are preparing quite carefully and people do take [the review discussions] very seriously," Dawid says. "The process is supposed to take a half hour per case, but it almost always takes longer." CTC reviews two cases per meeting, with meetings called as often as there are candidates. In addition to the 15 regular members of CTC, numerous other tenured scientists have lent their specialized expertise as ad hoc members. Ad hoc members are invited to stay for the entire meeting and are welcome to participate in discussion of both cases under review, but they do not vote. At least eight eligible CTC members must vote on a case, and CTC members from a candidate's institute are not eligible to vote.

Now the burning question has become, What is CTC really looking for? "People don't know what it takes to make it at NIH anymore," says one recently tenured scientist. Kohn says her recipe for success would include "one part perseverance, one part persistence, one part creativity- or more." Kohn would also include "independence and productivity-but not just publications. _ You need to be able to prove that you will be able to sustain the momentum in your line of investigation with direction and focus." Thus far, teaching and patents have not been decisive factors in cases CTC has seen, Dawid says. Wyatt says that BSC reviews, SD evaluations, and outside letters are all important and that CTC's emphasis when it looks at publications is on the quality of a few key publications rather than sheer numbers. Dawid's recommendation to people on the tenure track is simple and unsurprising: "Do some good work and publish it."

One of the main reasons people have been turned down for tenure by CTC is weak evidence of scientific independence from mentors. The emphasis on this criterion is new. Under the old system, Wyatt notes, there was a fuzzy line between permanent, collaborative scientists and true tenured scientists with independent resources. The Board of SDs "did not have to resolve the issue of independence fully in every case," Wyatt says. Dawid notes that teasing out the issue of independence can be very tough in instances where the work requires extensive collaboration or where a mentor's achievements loom large. "In such cases, it is more important to bring to bear other evidence of independence and originality," such as outside letters and invitations to speak at international meetings, he says.

Boguski says he was confident as his case came before CTC, even though, as an investigator in the National Center for Biotechnology Information, his achievements were made in front of a computer screen rather than at a lab bench. "From what I hear, there was a good, in-depth discussion of what it means to be an independent scientist at NIH, and how someone like me fits in." Boguski attributes his success to traditional measures of achievement. "I know what I've done, the journals where I've published. I felt good about my record," says Boguski, who also received competing job offers from other institutions. One bonus of the new system for Boguski was that CTC reviewed his resources and made recommendations to his SD on appropriate levels of support for his research. "They did a careful job of evaluating me, and once they decided I was worthy, of seeing that there were adequate resources for me to do my job."

In the long run, says Dawid, CTC's standards for tenure will emerge from the cases it reviews and will trickle down to the local tenure-review committees, "No one knows exactly what we're trying to evolve," says Dawid, but he anticipates that "a rather high and uniform set of standards will be applied." Korn, who has not yet taken a tenure candidate to CTC, strongly supports the tenure-track concept but says the feedback of information on tenure standards may not be as good as it used to be. "This is a loss to the scientific directors," Korn says. He notes that because the entire board of SDs is only informed when a tenure applicant is successful, there is limited or no feedback to other institutes, either on exciting science being done by the successful tenure candidates or, in the case of unsuccessful candidates, on what credentials are insufficient to achieve tenure.

One scientist who has just started the tenure track worries that, in the final analysis, the judgment of his credentials for tenure may be as political as the judgments on who would be "grandfathered" onto the tenure track. "The way things have gone as I've been through this makes me think it could still be a political process [in the tenure evaluation] at the end and may not involve totally objective criteria," the scientist says. "People have different perspectives on science. What is 'hot' changes dramatically. ... Let's say you recruit someone in to work on p53 today. That work might be relegated to specialized journals in five to 10 years," when the candidate comes up for tenure.

Although that scientist is optimistic that the new tenure system will be an improvement and that he will, ultimately, achieve tenure, he has been saddened by one change in his lab that he believes was caused by the new system. "Our lab used to fire like an engine; now you have a bunch of pistons-everyone is trying to be independent," he says. "I don't think this system fosters team work ... but rather creates a possessiveness and territoriality. People are less interactive and more guarded about what's theirs and what isn't."

Spiegel, who has had two people under him come up for tenure before the committee, is satisfied that, on the whole, the new CTC is doing a good job with "to-the-point, incisive, rigorous reviews." Korn sees the changes in the tenure system as necessary and important. Pointing to the many outstanding and productive scientists who were tenured at NIH under the old system, he says he is optimistic that the new system will be as good or better. "It's like any experiment - we have to wait and see."

Meanwhile one of NHLBI's tenure-track stars, Cynthia Dunbar, echoes her boss's guarded optimism. Dunbar's work has been going well and she hopes to be put up early for tenure. "I'm not losing sleep over it. I've got too many other things to worry about," she says of the tenure system she will be facing. "People have received more information than previously about how the system is supposed to work, and, in theory, the procedures are improved in terms of fairness and reproducibility from institute to institute, but only time will tell what the outcome will be."

Tenure-Track and Tenure-Appointments Process


The institute, center, or division (ICD) director, scientific director (SD), and lab or branch chief, in consultation with senior scientists in the ICD, determine the need for a new tenure-track position.


The SD establishes a search committee with concurrence of the ICD director and advertises for tenure-track candidates.


The search committee evaluates applications, including reference letters, invites promising candidates to campus for interviews and seminars, and recommends one to three candidates to the lab or branch chief, SD, and ICD director. The SD and the ICD director select one name and forward it to the deputy director for intramural research (DDIR) for approval. The DDIR reviews and approves the selection process and the candidate.


The SD and lab or branch chief, in consultation with the potential candidate, prepare and sign a Tenure Track Agreement. A copy is sent to the DDIR.


The candidate signs the Tenure Track Agreement and is appointed or converted to a tenure-track position, starting the tenure-track "clock."


Each year, the section or lab or branch chief prepares an oral and written performance evaluation of the candidate.


Approximately every three years, the Board of Scientific Counselors (BSC) reviews the candidate's performance and qualifications for tenure and decides whether the candidate should be continued in the tenure track, dropped from the track, or advanced for a tenure decision.


Before time elapses on the tenure-track clock, the SD and ICD director review the candidate and decide whether to propose the for tenure, continue the candidate in tenure track, or drop him or her from the track.


The candidate is informed in writing of the decisions of the BSC, lab or branch chief, SD, and ICD director.


If the candidate is advanced for consideration, an ICD Promotion and Tenure Review Committee is formed to solicit outside letters and assemble and review credentials. This committee, in concurrence with the SD and ICD director, makes a recommendation to the NIH Central Tenure Review Committee (CTC).


CTC reviews the candidate's credentials and makes a recommendation to the DDIR.


The DDIR makes a tenure decision.


The DDIR informs the SD of the decision. In turn, the SD informs the candidate, in writing, of the decision.


If the candidate is not approved for tenure or is dropped from tenure track, he or she has one year to wrap up work and find another job.

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