When I started down the academic research path twenty-two years ago, the long-term career goals for a graduate student in science were to obtain a degree, become an expert within a given research area, run his/her own lab, and obtain tenure. For today’s scientific researcher that path has changed. The archaic notion of the lone academic researcher has evolved into the concept of multidisciplinary teams of researchers conducting translational scientific research: overall, a much more logical and sustainable approach to understanding disease and patient care.
Unfortunately, as the translational team science movement started taking off, the national economy went into a recession and the available funding for health research not only did not keep pace with the cost of research but actually fell. I saw many of my junior faculty colleagues struggling, as I was, to be part of a research team, yet still show independence to compete for the scarcity of grant funding. Sadly, I also saw many of these individuals leave science.
As with any major culture shift, engaging the critical pieces–in this case, academic institutions, government agencies, and investigators–can be painfully slow, thus wreaking havoc in the system until equilibrium is again established. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) recognized this situation and in 2006 started with a new funding mechanism: the Clinical and Translational Science Award (CTSA). According to NIH, this award is to “support research teams to collaborate to tackle common problems that no one organization can overcome alone. Program goals include accelerating laboratory discoveries into new treatments for patients, training the next generation of clinical and translational researchers, and engaging communities in clinical research efforts.”
Indiana University received a CTSA in 2008. One of the signature programs they established was the Project Development Team (PDT) Program, described in a recent Academic Medicine article. The PDT Program consists of eight multidisciplinary teams, each comprised of seasoned researchers and other program liaisons who assist investigators in developing ideas/hypotheses into well-designed translational research projects. The teams are located throughout the state at all academic partner campuses (i.e., Indiana University, Bloomington; Purdue University, West Lafayette; University of Notre Dame, South Bend; and Indiana University – Purdue University, Indianapolis.
I began as the program manager for the PDTs in 2008 and, over the past six years, have watched this program assist investigators from all levels. In that role, I could see the impact the teams were having on junior investigators in particular. The dedicated members of the PDTs work hard to assist junior faculty in achieving external funding support within a four-year period to help them stay on track for obtaining tenure. The key has been connecting the investigators to vital research resources and collaborators to build successful research teams.
Overall, I think the PDT program is helping to establish the new scientific equilibrium in addition to helping young investigators advance their research careers. Unfortunately, we cannot go back and help the young faculty who lost their research careers during the scientific transition, but we can share this new process that we hope can support the current junior faculty in their career goals.