A research community tackles the systemic flaws

By Judith Kimble
Henry Vilas Professor of Biochemistry, University of Wisconsin–Madison, and
Investigator, Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI)

As true at many institutions throughout the country, biomedical researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison have become deeply concerned about the systemic flaws threatening U.S. biomedical research. Yet they were not in agreement with some of the solutions proposed in the PNAS 2014 paper by Alberts, Kirschner, Tilghman and Varmus. We therefore generated a cross-campus effort to discuss possible solutions, culminating in a day-long workshop on April 11, 2015. A manuscript describing our workshop and its recommendations is in press at e-Life. So rather than going over the same ground, I thought it would be most useful in this blog to describe details of the process – most not included in that manuscript.

UW-Madison Workshop Timeline

Workshop leadership

  • The workshop co-organizers were Judith Kimble (HHMI Investigator, professor in Department of Biochemistry and author of this blog) and Marsha Mailick (Vice Chancellor for Research and Graduate Education, Director of the Waisman Center and professor in the School of Social Work and Department of Pediatrics). The fact that the two of us had very different connections on campus enriched the process. We shared a deep commitment to being inclusive — reaching out to all corners of biomedical research on campus: basic science through engineering and translation, molecular through social biosciences, including graduate students through staff scientists and faculty of all ranks. Marsha asked the UW-Madison Chancellor and Judith involved key national policy leaders from the beginning. Marsha and I began organizing this effort in late 2014 and brainstormed on many 7am phone calls throughout the process.
  • To prepare for the workshop, we recruited 16 “leaders” to run smaller and more prolonged pre-workshop sessions. The rationale for recruiting so many leaders was to empower a variety of people in this role and to include a diversity of career stages, research areas and campus locations. To begin, we spoke to many of our colleagues across campus in order to identify individuals with the qualities considered essential for this leadership role, which were being exceptionally thoughtful, independent, effective and collegial. Our campus is both broad and deep and we found 16 amazing individuals: one Ph.D student (Medical Physics), one postdoc (Biochemistry), four assistant professors (Genetics, Biochemistry, Biomedical Engineering, Wisconsin Institute of Discovery), one associate professor (Neuroscience) and nine full professors (Oncology, Zoology, Psychology, Bacteriology, Pediatrics, Medical Genetics, Cell and Regenerative Biology). All these leaders were already exceptionally busy: The assistant professors included two women up for tenure within the next year, both with small children. The full professors included deans, departmental chairs, training grant PIs and a study section chair. All of them cared deeply about the issues at hand and were committed to change.
  • We next selected four broad topics to focus on: Numbers in the Biomedical Workforce, Shape of the Biomedical Workplace, NIH Funding Mechanisms and NIH Peer Review. This selection was based in part on organization of 2014 PNAS article by Alberts et al and in part on discussions with senior leadership in various quarters of the campus. For each of these four topics, recommendations were requested of two types: those for actions at the national level and those for experiments that the University of Wisconsin could largely carry out on its own.
  • We then organized the 16 leaders into four leadership teams, one for each broad topic under discussion. The decision to have four leaders for each topic was made to accommodate busy schedules and to bring people from diverse backgrounds together to help forge new ideas.
  • The makeup of the leadership teams was weighted for specific topics. The team handling “Numbers in the Biomedical Workforce” were young (three Assistant Profs and one Ph. D. student), because the numbers issue is arguably affecting the young most acutely; the team handling “Shape of the Biomedical Workplace” was diverse (one postdoc, one Assistant Prof, one departmental chair and one dean; the teams working on NIH policy were more senior and had extensive experience with NIH and peer review.
  • Community building. Most of the co-organizers and leaders knew each other only distantly if at all at the beginning of this effort, but by the end, we had worked together intensively over a period of two months. During this process, we formed connections that were tremendously rewarding and should bring our biomedical research community closer in the future. This bonding was an unexpected benefit. It also extended beyond the leadership circle (see below).

Pre-workshop and workshop schedules

Our “workshop project” included: (1) a public launch about two months before the workshop; (2) a series of pre-workshop discussions to gather ideas and vet them; and (3) the workshop itself. Here are some specifics and what went on behind the scenes.

  • A public launch was used to describe the systemic flaws and details of our workshop project. Widely advertised, this 45 minute session introduced the leadership team for each topic and attracted an audience of about 100. We also launched a web site for the workshop on the same day. Importantly, the launch revealed substantial support from top university administrators, the Chancellor and the Vice Chancellor for Research and Graduate Education, both of whom spoke briefly.. Because such support lent a special gravitas to the process, we recommend that this support be made obvious at an early stage. It could be achieved in other ways. For example, a top administrator (e.g. Chancellor, President) could post a supporting statement on the workshop web site or in the institution’s newsletter.
  • The “pre-workshop sessions” were designed to maximize input and provide time for ideas to digest. Each was scheduled for 2 hours, and they spanned four weeks, with two different sessions held per week. The sessions were held at distinct sites to accommodate the size of our campus (3 miles long); different days so busy researchers might be free for at least one of them; and different times of the day to accommodate those with fixed schedules. Thus each week, we held one pre-workshop discussion on Tuesday from 2-4pm in a central campus building and the other on Thursday from 4-6pm in a Medical School building. I attended all these sessions: two each for four different topics, so eight in all. However the leadership teams took control of their individual topics and I mostly provided cohesion.
  • Each individual pre-workshop session provided time for a short presentation, followed by times for general and then trainee-specific discussions. A session began with a ~10 minute introduction to the topic, continued with ~80 minutes of general discussion and ended with 30 minutes reserved exclusively for trainees (students and postdocs). I was not allowed to attend these trainee-specific sessions, but learned that they were invaluable for generating frank discussions not heard when faculty were present. I strongly recommend including them. The introductory presentations focused on data highlighting key problems, and the sessions on NIH policies included a primer on kinds of grants available and the peer review process. These primers were especially useful for trainees.
  • After the pre-workshop sessions (month of March) and before the actual workshop on April 11, the organizers and leaders all met together to discuss the recommendations to put forward. Two such meetings were held separated by a week, both extremely useful. The first put ideas together and the second finalized them. As a co-organizer, I collated the initial recommendations and sent them to all leaders to get e-input from those unable to attend. I also collated the final set of recommendations and sent them to our outside guests so they would have a few days to think about what would be discussed at the workshop.
  • The actual workshop was attended by ~100 people, a number small enough for debate and large enough to accommodate the range of our research community. Registration was open but limited. Also in attendance were four invited guests: Bruce Alberts, Marc Kirschner, and Shirley Tilghman (three of the four authors of the Alberts et al., 2014 paper) and Jo Handelsman (White House Office of Science and Technology) plus several others not from UW-Madison. Of particular note, one of the organizers of an upcoming meeting on the same topic at the University of Michigan was in attendance, in order to help coordinate a national effort to find solutions.
  • The actual workshop consisted of three parts: (1) The evening before the workshop, the Chancellor gave a small dinner at her house to welcome outside guests and provide an informal setting for these guests and leaders to get to know each other and begin the debate. (2) The day of the workshop began with introductory remarks from the Chancellor. Then each outside guest gave a short talk (scheduled at 5 minutes but actually taking ~10 minutes each). Following these talks, each extremely useful, we held four 90-minute workshop sessions, one for each topic tackled in the pre-workshop discussions. These sessions included an ~15 minute summary of the topic with the recommendations being put forward; this was followed by ~75 minutes of discussion, when the outside guests and other workshop participants contributed to the general discussion. All four sessions were lively, sometimes heated and had to be cut off when time was up. After the fourth session, an organizer gave a brief summary of the day, overarching themes and steps forward. This was followed by a reception with wine and appetizers, a much needed break. (3) The same evening, a second small dinner was held to further discuss the themes emerging from the day. The dinner guests were selected for a variety of reasons: they included : (1) the outside guests mentioned above; 2) additional outside guests – including one of the organizers of an upcoming meeting on the same topic at the University of Michigan (UM) and an NRC staff member involved with a recently published postdoc report; (3) the Dean of the UW-Madison graduate school; (4) three representatives from UW-Madison who would be attending the UM meeting; (5) a student and postdoc who had been actively engaged throughout the process (but were not leaders); and one organizer. Although one might expect everyone to be exhausted after a full day of discussion, this final dinner was energizing and new ideas continued to emerge.

Important to the entire process:

  • Administrative help. The workshop was greatly aided by administrative help from Andrew Richards, who was chief of staff in the office of the Vice Chancellor for Research and Graduate Education. His help was essential for establishment of the workshop website, questionnaires and for arranging many, many details.
  • Advertisement. All events were advertised broadly for maximal participation, using email (lists of all labs with NIH funding on campus, lists of all postdocs, all PhD students, all department chairs), posters in departments with NIH funding and electronic posters on departmental monitors. Although attendance was good, certain groups did not engage.
  • Videotapes. Videotapes of the sessions at the workshop have been posted on our workshop web site, https://research.wisc.edu/biomedworkforce/. They are found under a tab on the home page called “April 11 Workshop”. The session 1 video includes remarks made by the Chancellor, co-organizers and three outside guests (Alberts, Kirschner and Tilghman) plus the 90 minute session on Numbers in the biomedical workforce. The session 2 video includes the 90 minute session on Shape of the biomedical workplace plus remarks made by the fourth outside guest, Jo Handelsman, who had travel issues and arrived late. The session 3 is just the 90 minute session, and the session 4 video includes the wrap up session.
  • Networking. This cross-campus effort galvanized considerable networking across the biomedical research community. A remarkable number and diversity of individuals voiced their views at the pre-workshop sessions. Administrators from the graduate school helped us with the facts and did so graciously; students and postdocs from across campus spoke in the open sessions as well as the trainee-specific sessions; and staff scientists worked together to help voice their concerns and advice as the debate promoted their career track as one possible solution. Senior faculty and institute directors provided seasoned advice, but also were attentive to the advice from younger colleagues.