Courtesy of Carol L. Manahan
Recently, I attended a symposium called "Catalyzing Team Science," which gathered representatives from the institutes of the National Institutes of Health; it was sponsored by the Bioengineering Consortium (BECON), a senior interagency committee that focuses on bioengineering efforts at the NIH. This was the first time that BECON has invited a postdoctoral fellow to such a symposium (www.becon1.nih.gov/symposium2003.htm).
In contrast to other areas of science, such as physics, the biomedical fields have only recently begun taking advantage of the benefits of working collaboratively with colleagues from varied backgrounds. The NIH and many academic institutions have designed grants for individual principal investigators, and that makes collaborative efforts challenging. Because BECON crosses all NIH institutes and centers, the consortium is in a unique position to design policies that encourage team science. Meeting participants' identified barriers to collaborative research and heeding their recommendations to academic institutions and funding agencies could encourage more team research. The final recommendations stemmed from suggestions by individual working groups.
My group addressed academic assessment and rewards, such as promotions. I wanted BECON members to understand the need to create "safe and trusting" environments for young scientists to participate in team science. For example, institutions should give credit for participation and effort to a scientist who is not the principal investigator on the grant or first author on the manuscript. Our group recommended that all members of the research team be rewarded and receive counseling toward a career path. We also suggested that NIH streamline grants administration and develop a handbook of good practices to promote and assess team science.
Other working groups cautioned that team science could damage young scientists' careers. They also recommended that NIH simplify the paperwork, particularly the forms needed for the institutional review boards. At the end of the meeting, the members of BECON had not yet finalized procedures for disseminating the information, but they are preparing a report on the meeting findings.
Congratulations to BECON for including a young scientist in its program. I hope that this trend continues and expands to other national meetings. The newly formed National Postdoctoral Association (NPA) has been discussing postdoctoral issues with the NIH this past year, and this has given visibility to postdocs engaged in the debate. One of the NPA's goals is to get postdocs included in discussions regarding young scholars. A policy paper regarding postdocs, written by the NPA members, has been submitted to the Advisory Council to the director at the NIH. This document will give postdocs the opportunity to work with administrators at the NIH to evaluate policies regarding postdocs.
It is important that postdocs be allowed to participate in discussions regarding training and academic issues, and particularly on an issue such as team science, which could have such a dramatic impact on a young scientist's career. The postdoc environment is changing rapidly, so it is important to include postdocs in decision-making. The NPA is working toward this goal and hopes to form collaborations with other organizations. Let's work together to improve the postdoctoral experience.
Carol L. Manahan (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a postdoctoral fellow at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine and chair of the National Postdoctoral Association.