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NIH’s Early Independence Grants for new graduates

The US National Institute of Health (NIH) has a new grant program called Early Independence Grants that allows graduates to assume lab responsibility directly after graduation.  Early Independence Grant recipients would be able to conduct their own research, set up their laboratory and hire staff.

Biotechniques has a good article on the program and discusses both the benefits and criticisms of early independence grants.  One paragraph of criticism implied in the article caught my attention however.   The article states that Cathee Phillips, the executive director of the National Postdoctoral Association is a critic of the Early Independence Grant program.  The article then goes on to state the position of the NPA which is that post doctoral trainees acquire competency in research, organizational and managerial skills when working under the direction of a mentor.  The impression one could get from reading this is that the NPA believes that being a post-doc is either the only way or the best way to get competency in research, organizational and managerial skills.  Such a position, if indeed held by the NPA, cannot possible be true for the following reasons:

First, the competency obtained during a post-doc is highly dependent on the mentor-postdoc interaction.  Not all lab mentors would agree to delegate responsibility to the post-docs in their lab.  Furthermore, even if they do delegate responsibility, there are often too many postdocs in a lab for all of them to get an ‘executive’ role.

Second, competency needed to run an independent lab could be gained prior to graduation with a PhD.  Students  have a myriad number of opportunities both before and during graduate school to gain any number of skills.  My experience, while still an undergraduate, involved at one point taking care of all lab experiments while the current graduate student and PI were out of the country.  In addition, the experience in my undergraduate career enabled me to train new graduate students while I was still an undergraduate.  Many people have similar experiences.

Third, the earlier a person starts practicing skills the earlier he or she will acquire competency.  The Early Independent Grant program starts a new graduate in practicing skills right after graduation thereby attaining competency faster than they would have had they done a postdoc.

The NPA, rather than criticizing the Early Independence program, should seek to provide more opportunities for researchers at any level to work independently.  People who are driven to science careers are usually driven by the desire to carry out specific ideas they have independently thought of.  The earlier they can start working on those ideas, the better off the research community will be.

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