A road map for change

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Leshner’s big idea is that federal research agencies such as the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) should require grant applicants to provide evidence of quality teaching and mentoring in their proposals. The agencies should then use that information, he says, to determine who gets the money.

It’s what Sally Rockey, president of the Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research in Washington, D.C., and former head of NIH extramural research, calls “social engineering through the pocketbook.” In 2013 Rockey helped NIH launch its Broadening Experiences in Scientific Training (BEST) program, which made 17 awards to improve faculty mentoring skills and professional development training for students.

A former top official at both NSF and NIH, Leshner says such culture change won’t happen overnight. “We’re not totally naïve,” he says. Professional societies and higher education organizations also need to do their part, he says, citing efforts already underway by CGS and the Association of American Universities, which is also examining ways to improve undergraduate STEM education.

Change is possible if there is institutional buy-in, says panelist Keith Yamamoto, vice chancellor for science policy and strategy at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), which received one of NIH’s BEST awards. (NIH made only two rounds of 5-year awards and never intended BEST to be an ongoing initiative, but UCSF officials have pledged to continue the program after its NIH grant ends this year.)

Panel members say the increased emphasis on quality mentoring need not become another burden on faculty already struggling to meet the growing demands on their time. Leshner says it can even become a recruiting tool. “Schools like UCSF have shown that it’s doable,” he says, “and students might want to take note of institutions that have such programs when they are deciding where to go for graduate school.”

However, the overall impact on research productivity is less clear. “The message seems to be, ‘Keep doing everything you’re doing, but find ways to do it better,’” says a congressional staffer who was briefed on the report but is not authorized to speak on the record. “I don’t see how that is possible unless there’s less emphasis put on the amount of research being done.”

Yamamoto doesn’t agree. He says the key to a student-centered education is not for professors to do less research, but to do it in ways that focus on teaching students the skills and knowledge required to become a practicing scientist.

“Right now we have a flawed set of metrics,” he explains. “We place a priority on being first author in a prestigious journal. If we get rid of those metrics, we can move closer to the core competencies that students need to graduate. And remember, the goal is not to become famous, it’s to discover new knowledge.”

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