NIH’s recent request for information (RFI) related to post-doctoral training (Re-envisioning U.S. Postdoctoral Research Training and Career Progression within the Biomedical Research Enterprise) naturally attracted interest from many early career scientists. In response, Research!America hosted a webinar about how to respond to a federal agency RFI. Our guest speaker was Dr. Yvette Seger, Director of Science Policy at Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology (FASEB). Many members of the National Science Policy Network (NSPN) were in attendance.
Grace Steward is a biomedical engineering PhD candidate at Johns Hopkins University, where her dissertation research focuses on human behavior and decision-making in relation to psychiatric disorders. She first became interested in science policy during her undergraduate studies and has been involved in many science policy projects and organizations throughout her graduate career. She is currently a member of the NSPN advocacy committee and was one the leaders involved in writing NSPN’s comment on the NIH’s RFI concerning post-doc training and careers.
We were interested to learn what it was like for Grace to respond to the RFI and whether she had advice for others interested in getting involved in federal policy.
Interview has been edited for clarity and length.
How did you hear about the NIH RFI and were you familiar with RFIs before writing this comment?
“This past fall, I was able to do a science policy fellowship with FASEB. I got to work with Dr. Yvette Seger, who you know because Research!America had her come in recently [for a webinar on RFI comments], for about three months. (Note: Yvette and her colleague lead the public policy course available to Research!America’s Micrograntees). While I was doing that, one of the things that I became familiar with was their process of developing comments, and how they have their finger on the pulse of what’s going on in the federal agencies related to science and on the Hill. Under their tutelage, I constructed a response to the final recommendations that came out of a NIH working group. So, with that experience, I knew that this postdoc RFI was coming out, and I brought it to the [NSPN] advocacy chair as something that maybe we want to do.”
Were there any resources that were helpful for writing your RFI comment?
“For writing, we used collaborative and web-based writing platforms, like Google Docs and Google Jam Board, to source multiple comments and ideas from the whole NSPN group. For understanding the problem, we looked at the Survey of Earned Doctorates from NSF’s National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics, where you can see that the population the NIH is interested in. Those in biomedical sciences have been the only group to drop in their postdoctoral rate in the past 10 years. Also, the National Postdoc Association, which published its own comment, had a lot of good resources.”
As an early career researcher, how did writing the RFI comment differ in comparison to your typical academic writing?
“NIH is putting out the RFI because they realize there’s a problem — so they’re really looking for solutions. Being able to speak about potential solutions or ideas is something that’s different than my science writing, where it’s usually more cut-and-dried. This is more process-oriented and it’s such a short statement. Also, being mindful that your audience is doing stakeholder engagement and looking for this information, you also want to be respectful of their time, thank them, and say that you’re looking forward to more stakeholder engagement. Also, consider their background as well, because it’s a very specific tailored audience instead of a wider field audience.”
What motivated you to write this RFI comment?
“I think it’s my experience in graduate school at the PhD-level at an R1 university and seeing that we had some really amazing postdocs come through who wanted to be excellent professors, but also some people who were not able to go that path because of the [low] compensation or because they had already really put their lives on hold for their postdoctoral position. I think it is important, not only to continue having these people in the academic research system, but to also incentivize them and support them to be in this system.”
“If we’re wondering where all the postdocs are going, I don’t think it’s a head-scratcher; there are lots of positions in industry that can facilitate a lifestyle for these young professionals that are in their 30s, and have had to put off family life, vacation, and even sometimes medical expenses.”
What are the outcomes that you hope for regarding this RFI?
“To broaden the NIH’s perspective on what a postdoctoral training program could look like. We cited a couple of programs, like the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratories which has an excellent postdoc program that compensates people well, but also allows specific time for professional development, and leads to a potential career position at the lab. That’s a great format where there’s a specific value added of doing the postdoc and a clear path to a more stable position. I hope this RFI is going to solidify [an understanding of] the problems and help develop what a solution could potentially look like from the NIH perspective.”
Has writing this response influenced your thoughts on whether or not to write more RFI comments in the future?
“I’m going to submit my own individual comments for the RFI on Improving NRSA Fellowships (NIH’s Ruth L. Kirschstein National Research Service Award), as organizing a larger group response takes a lot of time. I’m looking forward to continuing a career in science policy after I graduate, but currently I need to focus on finishing my [PhD] research.”
How did you handle writing a single comment that is representative of a large organization with various perspectives?
“We ended up forming our own working group and had our own meetings about once every couple of weeks. We worked through an agenda: ideas this week, drafts this weekend, comments from other committee members, and now that we have this final document, we’re looking for potential approval or any final tweaks. It was really making sure that anyone who was interested in participating could have their voice heard. Also, making sure we had multiple co-authors from different backgrounds who could bring different ideas.”
What are your post-PhD career aspirations and has writing this RFI comment influenced them?
“I’m very interested in higher education policy, research policy, and also sponsoring research and research project management for psychiatric disorders and mood disorders. I’m keeping my mind open, though. It’s not hard for me to get passionate about a project if there are values that I can get behind and believe in. Overall, I’m definitely interested in government-related work and more public health-related research, and focusing on data gathering, report writing, and recommendation writing.”
How do you balance your science policy work with your PhD workload?
“For my fellowship, I actually took a three month leave of absence from my PhD program — but I also made sure to tell my advisor early on in my PhD that I was very interested in science policy and wanted to do an internship; I was communicating that expectation upfront and as early as possible.”
“It really is a prioritization and balancing game. I spent a lot more time working with NSPN in the evening, away from what I’m usually doing (lab stuff) — but it was also at a time where I was doing more data analysis and my lab responsibilities were a bit lower. Now that they’ve ramped up again, I have been focusing on that more. It’s like taking a temperature; what do I have time for and what’s on my plate.”
In what other ways do you think graduate students can get involved in advocacy?
“I think it’s easier than people realize. It just takes bandwidth, which I know not a ton of us have. So, find groups like NSPN where people are willing to lead these projects — where all you have to do is show up for an hour and offer your input. The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy recently held listening sessions about open science.”
“Also just staying on top of whatever is the major funding organization for your field, whether that’s NSF, NIH, or something else, usually they have blogs and will publish high-level items of interest that you might not normally pay attention to, so stay plugged in there. If you have a professional group (or science society), you can look there as well.”
“And whenever something really tickles your fancy just do that one thing — you don’t have to do all of them! You just don’t have time; you are still graduate students first.”