SMRB Continues Discussion of Pre-College Engagement in Biomedical Science

During its October 14 meeting, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Scientific Management Review Board (SMRB) continued its examination of the NIH grant review, award, and management process and its discussion of the evidence base for successful approaches for pre-college biomedical science programs designed to strengthen the biomedical workforce pipeline.

PEBS Working Group Discusses Preliminary Draft Report

Clyde Yancy, Northwestern University and chair of the SMRB’s Working Group on Pre-college Engagement in Biomedical Science (PEBS), presented the group’s draft report to date, including findings and recommendations. The NIH’s charge to the SMRB is for it to recommend ways to optimize NIH’s pre-college programs and initiatives that align with the agency’s mission and ensure a continued pipeline of biomedical science students and professionals. Additional aspects of the charge contain an examination of the evidence base, identification of the attributes, activities, and components of effective pre-college biomedical sciences programs, including the role and relative importance of teacher training programs; identification of the stages where NIH’s efforts could be applied most effectively, given finite resources; and definition of ways for NIH to improve the evidence base for effective programs in this area (see Update, July 28, 2014).

The PEBS Working Group’s general findings highlight the uneven distribution of well-trained science teachers and resources, lower academic and care expectations for under-represented minority students, discrepancies in rigor of science standards and quality of curriculum, and the controversial nature associated with efforts to change science standards and curriculums. The Working Group recognizes that these “issues will need to be addressed nationally by political and community leaders, policy makers, and other decision makers.”

Yancy reported that the emerging major points in the draft report include six findings with accompanying recommendations and identified opportunities related to NIH’s STEM programs:

    1. Limited opportunities for under-represented minority and low socio-economic (SES) students. Recommendations to date include:
      • Better target NIH-funded education and outreach to students from under-represented groups and their teachers.
      • Promulgate best practices of exemplar programs with a track record of directing under-represented minority students towards careers in biomedical science.
      • Utilize NIH enrichment programs as opportunities to enhance diversity.
    2. Outmoded workforce categories in the biomedical science enterprise. There is a need to cultivate cross-disciplinary science and opportunities for young people to bring new capabilities. Preliminary recommendations include:
      • Emphasize the wide range of current and future career options available to students.
      • Promote the cross-disciplinary nature of innovative biomedical science.
      • Use the work of the NIH Division of Biomedical Research Workforce Programs to inform the NIH’s STEM education programs in order to understand the composition of the current biomedical workforce, project future workforce needs, and identify emerging skills that should be fostered in K-12 education settings.
    3. Lack of coordination of governance and oversight of NIH’s pre-college activities. The agency supports a number of STEM programs targeted at K-12 students and teachers, but the efforts are “largely ad-hoc and uncoordinated.” An inventory of the agency’s pre-college activities found that the NIH supports 246 separate K-12 STEM activities; 41 percent of these activities involve students from under-represented minority groups. The preliminary recommendations include assigning an office and/or leader to provide governance and coordination whose functions should include:
      • Annual reports on NIH-supported programs to the NIH director, SMRB, and the Advisory Committee to the Director (ACD).
      • An annual inventory of active NIH pre-college STEM programs; development of the metrics needed to assess the effectiveness of already extant NIH STEM programs.
      • Provision of additional resources for those engaged in teaching or mentoring pre-college students.
      • Strong encouragement of all NIH-supported STEM programs in order to maximize the outreach to under-represented populations.
      • Identify best practices in pre-college engagement.
    4. Limited program evaluation. The NIH’s programs should aim to improve teacher preparedness and retention, equip students with cross-disciplinary skills, engage students’ interests in biomedical science careers, and/or give students, particularly under-represented populations, greater access to biomedical science learning opportunities. Preliminary recommendations and opportunities include:
      • Work with other federal agencies to build the evidence base for STEM education.
      • Establish systematic and comparable evaluation practices for NIH’s pre-college programs.
      • Identify appropriate metrics and outcome measures.
      • Work with other agencies to improve the collection of longitudinal, student-level data, especially as they relate to K-12 student exposure to biomedical and human health learning experiences and eventual career trajectories.
    5. Untapped potential of NIH’s research community. The Working Group’s preliminary recommendation:
      • Encourage and incentivize grantee institutions, researchers, and trainees to engage in pre-college students in biomedical research.
    6. Need for partnering with others. Utilizing the leverage of NIH, the varied entities in this space could improve the coordination of their collective efforts with the goal of complementing each other’s roles. This includes CoSTEM (Committee on Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math Education), which consists of 14 federal entities and are addressing five national goals, including: improving STEM instruction, increasing and sustaining youth and public engagement in STEM, and better serving groups historically under-represented in STEM fields. The preliminary recommendations include:
      • Build relationships with industry and nonprofits: Develop a Pre-College Biomedical Science Council with organizations that support pre-college programs and biomedical science outreach.
      • Leverage federal interagency efforts and assets, including working closely with Co-STEM; leveraging NIH’s resources to support government-wide efforts to improve STEM education and strengthen the evidence-base; partnering with the Department of Education and the National Science Foundation (NSF) to build and implement evaluation standards for NIH’s STEM programs; and partnering with NSF to improve data collection at the undergraduate and pre-college level that will be useful for biomedical workforce analysis.

According to Yancy, the PEBS working group’s next steps include exploring opportunities to work with CoSTEM organizations, refining the working group’s recommendations and findings, and drafting its report.  The SMRB is scheduled to vote on PEBS’ findings and recommendations at the December 15 meeting.

NIH Grant Review, Award, and Management Process

The SMRB Grant Review, Award, and Management Process (GRAMP) Working Group is charged with recommending ways to “further optimize the NIH’s process of reviewing, awarding, and managing grants in a way that maximizes the time researchers can devote to research while still maintaining proper oversight.” The SMRB is urged to consider how the agency can streamline the grant-making process and reduce the time from application to allocation of funding. In addition, NIH is interested in ways to reduce the administrative requirements for all entities involved in the review and management process.

To assist the Working Group in its deliberations, it heard presentations regarding the granting process at its sister federal research funding agencies, the National Science Foundation and the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA), and the funding processes used by the U.K. funding organizations.

A videocast of the SMRB meeting is available here.

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