NIH on Diversity: First, make sure to feed the entrenched powers

Mar 08 2016 Published by under Academics, Fixing the NIH, NIH, Underrepresented Groups

I asked about your experiences with the transition from Master's programs to PhD granting programs because of the NIH Bridges to the Doctorate (R25) Program Announcement. PAR-16-109 has the goal:

... to support educational activities that enhance the diversity of the biomedical, behavioral and clinical research workforce. . ...To accomplish the stated over-arching goal, this FOA will support creative educational activities with a primary focus on Courses for Skills Development and Research Experiences.

Good stuff. Why is it needed?

Underrepresentation of certain groups in science, technology and engineering fields increases throughout the training stages. For example, students from certain racial and ethnic groups including, Blacks or African Americans, Hispanics or Latinos, American Indians or Alaska Natives, Native Hawaiians and other Pacific Islanders, currently comprise ~39% of the college age population (Census Bureau), but earn only ~17% of bachelor’s degrees and ~7% of the Ph.D.’s in the biological sciences (NSF, 2015). Active interventions are required to prevent the loss of talent at each level of educational advancement. For example, a report from the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology recommended support of programs to retain underrepresented undergraduate science, technology, engineering and math students as a means to effectively build a diverse and competitive scientific workforce (PCAST Report, 2012).

  [I actually took this blurb from the related PAR-16-118 because it had the links]

And how is this Bridges to the Doctorate supposed to work?

The Bridges to Doctorate Program is intended to provide these activities to master's level students to increase transition to and completion of PhDs in biomedical sciences. This program requires partnerships between master's degree-granting institutions with doctorate degree-granting institutions.

Emphasis added. Oh Boy.

God forbid we have a NIH program that doesn't ensure that in some way the rich, already heavily NIH-funded institutions get a piece of the action.

So what is it really supposed to be funding? Well first off you will note it is pretty substantial "Application budgets are limited to $300,000 direct costs per year.The maximum project period is 5 years". Better than a full-modular R01! (Some of y'all will also be happy to note that it only comes with 8% overhead.) It is not supposed to fully replace NRSA individual fellowships or training grants.

Research education programs may complement ongoing research training and education occurring at the applicant institution, but the proposed educational experiences must be distinct from those training and education programs currently receiving Federal support. R25 programs may augment institutional research training programs (e.g., T32, T90) but cannot be used to replace or circumvent Ruth L. Kirschstein National Research Service Award (NRSA) programs.

That is less than full support to prospective trainees to be bridged. So what are the funds for?

Salary support for program administration, namely, the PDs/PIs, program coordinator(s), or administrative/clerical support is limited to 30% of the total direct costs annually.

Nice.

Support for faculty from the doctoral institution serving as visiting lecturers, offering lectures and/or laboratory courses for skills development in areas in which expertise needs strengthening at the master’s institution;
Support for faculty from the master’s degree-granting institution for developing or implementing special academic developmental activities for skills development; and
Support for faculty/consultants/role models (including Bridges alumni) to present research seminars and workshops on communication skills, grant writing, and career development plans at the master’s degree institution(s).

Cha-ching! One element for the lesser-light Master's U, one element for the Ivory Tower faculty and one slippery slope that will mostly be the Ivory Tower faculty, I bet. Woot! Two to one for the Big Dogs!

Just look at this specific goal... who is going to be teaching this, can we ask? The folks from the R1 partner-U, that's who. Who can be paid directly, see above, for the effort.

1. Courses for Skills Development: For example, advanced courses in a specific discipline or research area, or specialized research techniques.

Oh White Man's R1 Professor's Burden!
Ahem.

Okay, now we get to the Master's level student who wishes to benefit. What is in it for her?

2. Research Experiences: For example, for graduate and medical, dental, nursing and other health professional students: to provide research experiences and related training not available through formal NIH training mechanisms; for postdoctorates, medical residents and faculty: to extend their skills, experiences, and knowledge base.

Yeah! Sounds great. Let's get to it.

Participants may be paid if specifically required for the proposed research education program and sufficiently justified.

"May". May? MAY???? Wtf!??? Okay if this is setting up unpaid undergraduate style "research experience" scams, I am not happy. At all. This better not be what occurs. Underrepresented folks are disproportionally unlikely to be able to financially afford such shenanigans. PAY THEM!

Applicants may request Bridges student participant support for up to 20 hours per week during the academic year, and up to 40 hours/week during the summer at a pay rate that is consistent with the institutional pay scale.

That's better. And the pivot of this program, if I can find anything at all to like about it. Master's students can start working in the presumably higher-falutin' laboratories of the R1 partner and do so for regular pay, hopefully commensurate with what that University is paying their doctoral graduate students.

So here's what annoys me about this. Sure, it looks good on the surface. But think about it. This is just another way for fabulously well funded R1 University faculty to get even more cheap labor that they don't have to pay for from their own grants. 20 hrs a week during the school year and 40 hrs a week during the summer? From a Master's level person bucking to get into a doctoral program?

Sign me the heck UP, sister.

Call me crazy but wouldn't it be better just to lard up the underrepresented-group-serving University with the cash? Wouldn't it be better to give them infrastructure grants, and buy the faculty out of teaching time to do more research? Wouldn't it be better to just fund a bunch more research grants to these faculty at URGSUs? (I just made that up).

Wouldn't it be better to fund PIs from those underrepresented groups at rates equal to good old straight whitey old men at the doctoral granting institution so that the URM "participants" (why aren't they trainees in the PAR?) would have somebody to look at and think maybe they can succeed too?

But no. We can't just hand over the cash to the URGSUs without giving the already-well-funded University their taste. The world might end if NIH did something silly like that.

5 responses so far

  • PaleoGould says:

    While I do appreciate your take on this, haven't you in the past several times advanced the position that teacher/researcher appointments are something of a scam? And isn't that precisely the argument that NIH bigwigs might advance for a scheme like this? "Oh well, if we want these master;s students to experience the BEST research, it's BETTER they go to places where faculty are full research appointments. More time, more experience, broader scopes of vertically ascending research what what"
    Basically, unless NIH accepts that scientist at masters granting institutions who do a fair amount of teaching can be productive, valuable members of the biomedical research community, situations like this are a entirely internally consistent outcome.
    Or, to put it another way, academic hierarchies always come back to bite us in the ass.

  • drugmonkey says:

    In the short term, obviously the participant benefits most from a paper with Dr Big. It's really hard not to like this idea. And I do like it.

    But in the larger picture, this is more of the blame-the-victim misdirection on the part of the NIH. Pipeline is bullshit if you aren't going to do anything about entrenched biases.

  • Dr24 says:

    Given that you've abandoned Twitter I assume the person posting here is an imposter.

  • drugmonkey says:

    I don't understand.

  • Microscientist says:

    I am a faculty member in a biomedical field at a Master's level institution. This really irks me. If we wanted to do this program, first we would have find the R1 partner. The nearest R1 to us is 3 hours away- most of our students come to us because of our location so doing research at the the R1 would be difficult at best. I'd much prefer another funding mechanism for my level of institution, since I'm limited almost exclusively to R15s, as we get hit for lack of resources if we apply for an R21 or better.
    Unless the goal of this is to set up the lab at the Master's U as essentially a satellite/contract lab to the R1 big shot. If there were stability of funding, I wouldn't be too opposed to this actually- but it would cause havoc with P+T determinations.

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