At Town Meeting
By Rich McManus
On the Front Page...
It took less than 15 minutes for NIH deputy director for intramural research Dr. Michael Gottesman and NIH director Dr. Harold Varmus to explain how the time is right for NIH to launch, perhaps as soon as a year from now, an NIH Graduate School that takes advantage of the strengths of the intramural programs, and NIH's ability to attract patients. It took another hour, however, at a special Town Meeting held May 24 in a packed Masur Auditorium, for the audience to digest the proposal, which has some formidable hurdles to clear, including the advisory committee to the director, the Department of Health and Human Services, Congress and the regional accrediting authority.
Judging from the applause meter, and the volume of comments offered from the floor, Varmus has support for his wish to establish a 5-year Ph.D. program initially for about 15 students per year consisting of tutorial coursework and electives with a special emphasis on the nature of disease processes in patients at the Clinical Center. But the proposal is not without opposition. A number of attendees warned that addition of a formal graduate school would water down pure research and change the identity of the institution. Dr. William Eaton, chief of NIDDK's Laboratory of Chemical Physics, read aloud from a letter he sent to Varmus warning that "academization" of the intramural program may result in the need for intramural scientists, heretofore free to follow their noses scientifically, to compete, eventually, for grants.
"I have felt since my arrival 6 years ago that this place could profit from having a more formalized system of graduate education," said Varmus. "Research profits by going hand in hand with educational programs. Students bring youthful flavor and dynamism, and raise the standard, even though they are newcomers to the field. NIH has a number of special qualities, including extensive clinical research, expertise in bioinformatics, technology development and instrumentation, and an abundance of physicists and chemists. A graduate program could harness the energies of these people."
Varmus said a critique of the intramural programs conducted prior to his arrival by the Cassell-Marks committee "undermined my interest in establishing a graduate program when I first came. They wanted to see such issues as review and tenure and other underlying problems taken care of first. Michael (Gottesman) is much to be credited for the changes that have occurred since then, and we feel the time is right for a special curriculum that takes advantage of our strengths. We are a very big faculty, in principle, and our view is that the negative feelings of a small number shouldn't inhibit those of us interested in seeing a graduate program established. It is hard to resist the temptation to go forward."
Gottesman noted that the idea of establishing a graduate school at NIH is not new; his predecessor as deputy director for intramural research, Dr. DeWitt Stetten, Jr., made a similar proposal about 25 years ago, but was opposed by local universities. Gottesman pointed out that NIH scientists have been involved in teaching since the 1950's, when researchers here, and later the Foundation for Advanced Education in the Sciences, established graduate-level courses that continue to this day. He said a recent survey found that NIH currently hosts 145 graduate students from 44 universities. "They're sort of isolated in individual labs," Gottesman noted. "They don't know one another." NIH also has formal agreements in graduate subspecialities with four universities: Johns Hopkins, George Washington, Maryland and Duke.
A graduate program working group composed of some 20 scientists ("I won't tell you their names," joked Gottesman), assisted by several scientific directors, developed the proposed curriculum (available on the Web at http://www1.od.nih.gov/oir/townmeeting.htm), and consultant graduate deans Roger Chalkley of Vanderbilt and John Perkins of the University of Texas, Southwestern also contributed.
Gottesman said, "The needs in graduate education correspond to strengths in the intramural programs, including bioinformatics, genomics and clinical research." He said the large and talented NIH faculty could pilot coursework unavailable in other U.S. grad schools, generate intellectual excitement, and be a boon to minority recruitment, as well as recruitment of top-rank tenure-track investigators.
Next came Q's and A's, which generated such lively discussion that, when cut off due to time limits, they continued into the punch-and-pretzel refreshment period in the Visitor Information Center. The vitality of the exchanges prompted Gottesman to observe, late in the proceedings, "What we're witnessing today is perhaps the first faculty meeting of our new graduate program."
NIDDK's Dr. Roland Owens charged that there was little in the draft proposal to prompt involvement by minorities, and argued that some coordination with extramural grants be made so that trainees would have funds available after their schooling days were over. Varmus answered that the NIH program's "insistence that every student get exposed to disease processes" would include ailments that disproportionately affect minorities. This exposure "is not common in graduate programs," he continued. He said the NIH Academy proposal, into which a graduate program would be folded, would include "a series of tools mentorships, dormitory experiences to foster the growth of minority students."
Many of the comments from the audience concerned identity, counseling, care and nurturing on such a large, diverse campus. Said one, "The great thing about a grad school is that great ideas come while you're sitting around having a beer with friends. What will give students a sense of community?" Answered Gottesman, "There would have to be some sort of student center." Added Varmus, "The students will be well cared-for. It's the postdocs who are starting to feel neglected."
Other comments were field-specific: "I don't see the physics in (the proposal) it looks like it was put together by a bunch of biologists." And, "Where are the behavioral and social sciences? I don't see any in the curriculum."
Voicing what was evidently the majority view, Dr. Story Landis, scientific director at NINDS, said, "This is one of my most favorite projects since coming to NIH. Teaching has always been the most stimulating part of my research." She advocated an advisory program that would assure intimate exchanges of scientific views by groups of three or four scientists who could give close personal attention to students' ideas.
In response to a question citing a National Research Council report recommending constraint of the number of graduate students, Varmus countered, "There are disciplines not being well-served by current graduate programs. The workforce is severely short of individuals properly trained in those disciplines."
Neither he nor Gottesman were buying the notion that a graduate school would irrevocably harm NIH. "I don't think we're trying to turn NIH into a university," Varmus said after Eaton finished reading his letter. "It's not desirable for every member of the senior staff to be involved in the graduate school." Said Gottesman, in response to worry that addition of students would necessarily dumb-down the level of science presented in campus lectures, for example, "We're very big. We're not going to change dramatically because of 75 or so graduate students." Varmus added that having to spend a few minutes carefully explaining the rationale and scientific underpinning of a project would certainly enhance rather than detract from campus lectures.
Gottesman said a poll conducted by NIH's Office of Education years ago indicated that a majority of potential faculty on campus were interested in the idea of a graduate program, and he also estimated that an initial faculty of some 50 scientists would be adequate. "I could reel off the names for you right now," he said. He also anticipated "no trouble" attracting an outstanding candidate to serve as dean of the school.
Clearly enlivened by the afternoon's debate, regardless of its eventual fruit, Gottesman seemed certain about at least one thing: "Maybe we ought to have more town meetings."
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