From the Deputy Director for Intramural Research


Michael Gottesman
Gottesman image
Ari Helenius, the initial speaker at the first annual NIH Fellows Symposium on Oct. 12, pointed out that postdoctoral training was not only invented by the U.S. biomedical research community, it may be the single most important factor driving our nation's impressive achievements in biomedicine. Because the intramural program trains about 15% of the biomedical research fellows supported by NIH funds, we have a special responsibility to lead the way in perfecting the art of training fellows for productive and personally fulfilling careers.

Until recently, postdoctoral training was viewed simply as a time for doctoral recipients to work in a laboratory unencumbered by distractions such as teaching or administrative responsibilities. This is a transition period when the fellow learns how to formulate scientific hypotheses and design experiments without constant supervision. But now the period has also become a time for postdocs to consider whether they will pursue careers as independent researchers, as collaborative researchers, or as non-researchers in a science-based discipline. In the 1990s, this decision has become critical and for many, agonizing.

Although the number of jobs in the biotech industry has doubled over the past 15 years and the amount of research support from private foundations such as the Howard Hughes Medical Institute has also increased, NIH's current steady-state budget means that there is not nearly enough funding to provide independent research positions for all of the postdocs in the United States.

Because most fellows begin their training with hopes of becoming independent researchers, NIH's intramural program must make every effort to provide training that will allow our fellows to compete in a world where independent research positions and funds are increasingly scarce. The prime contributor to such success is exposure to a high-quality research program with a superb mentor who understands both the need to advise and the need to step back as the fellow achieves independence. Recent improvements in the review of intramural labs by our external Boards of Scientific Counselors and the addition of new outside recruits at the junior and senior levels should enhance an already outstanding intramural research program. And the new NIH Committee on Scientific Conduct and Ethics is developing mentorship guidelines based on the central premise that a postdoc is not simply a "pair of hands" in the lab, but has the right to expect training in solving biomedical problems and assistance in career development.

Other actions that we are taking will benefit postdocs headed for a wide variety of careers-be they collaborative or independent investigators in academia, government, or industry. We have established a five-year limit for postdoc training at NIH. Although not always appreciated by fellows, the purpose of this rule is to ensure that fellows are not exploited to meet programmatic needs at the expense of developing their own careers. Although a normal postdoc period may be only two to three years, adding a year or two more in some cases allows progress on more complex research problems and provides a period of increasing independence. For clinical research training and in rare cases in which a programmatic need is overriding, even up to three years beyond the five-year limit may be approved. However, longer periods of training are undesirable because they usually make it more difficult to find an acceptable job outside NIH.

At the same time, fellows must be made more aware of the possibilities outside academia. NIH's Office of Science Education is developing a career-placement service for fellows who may choose not to have grant-funded research careers. Fellows need to be educated about "nontraditional" career opportunities that use their training in fields such as technology transfer, science policy, teaching, scientific administration, and business.

The NIH Fellows Committee has also taken an active and effective role in developing programs for basic and clinical research fellows. The group has substantially added to the intellectual atmosphere at NIH by nominating speakers for the Wednesday Afternoon Lectures and arranging for speakers to spend time with trainees, by organizing a day-long Fellows' Symposium, by working with special interest groups to develop workshops, and by organizing a fellows' travel-award competition. I strongly endorse a recent proposal by fellows to bring in speakers who work in nontraditional, science-based disciplines to share information about their careers.

If history is any guide, today's NIH postdoctoral fellows represent a substantial proportion of the world's future scientific leadership. These fellows deserve the best training and career guidance that we can give. Toward that end, each mentor at NIH must exert every effort to help fellows in these difficult times, and, despite the temptation to become paralyzed by cynicism and despair, every fellow must play an active role in shaping his or her scientific future by performing the best possible research and seizing career opportunities as they arise.

Michael Gottesman
Deputy Director for Intramural Research

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