The National Institutes of Health revised their early stage investigator, or ESI, policy on Friday to allow those working on previously granted extensions to request more time as an ESI, due to COVID-19 or other “life events”.
Before the policy adjustment, many women said they were denied extension requests related to the pandemic because they had already been granted extensions due to childbirth. This raised questions about the NIH’s stated commitment to supporting women in science, particularly women who run university labs as Principal Investigators (PIs).
“The community has recently given a lot of attention to early stage investigator extension (ESI) requests. And we certainly understand why, ”said Mike Lauer, NIH deputy director for extramural research, in an announcement regarding the change. “The experience of the COVID-19 public health emergency has shown that the effects of the pandemic on careers and life in general could continue for years. This fact prompted us to review our approach to granting ESI extension requests. “
In doing so, said Lauer, “we would like to clarify an FAQ stating that the NIH will not approve ESI extensions requested during a previous extension period. We understand that life does not unfold sequentially, which is why the FAQs have been revised to allow those already on an extension to request an additional extension if circumstances require.
As of Friday morning, a petition criticizing the NIH’s long-standing policy against extensions on extensions had already gathered more than 400 signatures. The “additional burden of a global pandemic has been shown by several studies to have a disproportionate impact on women with young children,” the petition says. “Nonetheless, new NPs who have requested ESI status extensions due to COVID-related disruptions have been advised by the NIH that previous extensions granted due to childbirth make them ineligible for the same amount of extension related to COVID. COVID. “
Such a policy, the petition continues, “discriminates against the very group of people who have been hit hardest by COVID (women with young children), precisely at the point in their careers when the NIH is allegedly trying to control them. retain in academia. (novice investigators).
Peri Kurshan, assistant professor of neuroscience and genetics at Yeshiva University’s Albert Einstein College of Medicine, who wrote the petition, said about a quarter of the signatories said they were directly affected by the policy of longtime NIH, as it was.
“It happened to me. I had already obtained an extension for the delivery, for the birth of my children, several years ago, ”Kurshan said. “And I understood that this expansion was a real expansion, meaning it was a hiatus, then a reboot” during Kurshan’s time as an ESI.
Yet when Kurshan requested a three-month extension of his ESI status due to the complete shutdown of his lab in early 2020, plus six more months to make up for an additional year of reduced-capacity operation, the NIH only granted Kurshan. only three months.
No clear reason was given at first, which led Kurshan to question why he was denied an arguably common sense request: Kurshan has only had his own lab for two years, one of which during COVID. -19, so she hasn’t had years of data to analyze or other means to significantly advance her research during the shutdown. When she was finally able to return to her lab, the social distancing requirements meant less contact time with her interns, among other practical challenges.
Asking around – including calling on a more experienced colleague with NIH contacts – Kurshan confirmed that the refusal was linked to an ongoing NIH policy preventing WISEs from requesting extensions if they were already working on a job. extended period. It turns out that the extra six months she wanted, to make up for lost time in 2020-21, would have been outside of her original extension, which ends next year.
Of course, Kurshan could never have predicted that a global pandemic would shut down her lab in 2020 when she requested a one-year extension of the CSE upon the birth of each of her children, who are now 5 and 8. years. Adding insult to injury, it has been shown time and time again that the pandemic has disproportionately disrupted the working lives of women with caregiving responsibilities, including those in academia.
Plus, Kurshan said, granting those extension requests would have been easy, or at least costly, for the NIH. That’s because ESI extension requests are not about funding, or at least not about research dollars.
Why do IPs covet ESI status, then? One of the main advantages is that ESI applications that score well in the grant review process are given priority for funding. Indeed, the NIH knows that it is difficult to obtain a major grant, especially a first major grant, and that the consequences of not obtaining one early in your career are serious. Usually this includes not getting a tenure.
“They really should have pivoted faster to understand how bad this is a policy and how it goes against their stated goals,” Kurshan said of the NIH on Friday, ahead of the announcement. change. “If anything changes, it will only be thanks to a huge campaign of pressure. It shouldn’t be that way.
Natalie Farny, assistant professor of biology and biotechnology at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, was also denied an NIH pandemic-related ESI extension request due to a previous extension related to childbirth. The NIH wrote to her in April to say that she could not have eight more months as an ISE for one of two reasons: that it was not “in accordance with the approvable grounds for the extensions, including including family care, disability or illness, required clinical training, active duty military service, etc. The policy states that life events that would warrant an extension must have occurred within the initial 10-year window of CSE eligibility.
In contrast, Farny said, she is still considered an early career researcher by the National Science Foundation, which offers NIH-like benefits to those starting independent research. Indeed, the NIH considers researchers to be ESI for 10 years after obtaining their doctorate, while the NSF generally defines researchers at the beginning of their careers as assistant professors or equivalent of that rank.
In that sense, the NSF might not be faced with so many pandemic-related status extension requests, as most institutions have already extended the tenure of their assistant professors by six months, a year or more due to of COVID-19.
“If your institution defines you as eligible, if you hold a tenure-track position or an equivalent position and you have not yet received one of these early career scholarships, then you are eligible” for the benefits of Career start offered by the NSF, Farny said. “It doesn’t matter how long ago you graduated. “
At this point, Kurshan’s petition also wonders if the way the NIH calculates ESI status is still valid, given that so many university scientists now spend years and years in postdoctoral positions before getting the appointments leading tenure which makes them able to leverage their ESI status in the first place (postdocs and temporary faculty cannot apply for most major independent research grants, from NIH or elsewhere). A 2020 survey of post-docs by Nature, for example, found that 48 percent of those surveyed had worked for more than three years as a post-doctoral fellow. And the faculty hiring freeze that many institutions adopted during the pandemic will certainly not help those numbers.
Kurshan, who spent eight years working as a post-doctoral fellow after earning his doctorate. in 2010, said that beyond “myopia” and the discriminatory nature of denying COVID-related extensions to caregivers, there remains “the larger question of how ESI status is determined.”
NIH’s ESI status “is tied to archaic methods,” she said, adding that the proof lies in the number of people who need extensions in the first place.