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Shepherding, But No Sheepskin
NIH Shelves Graduate School Plan, Will Bolster Training Instead

By Rich McManus

On the Front Page...

A few days after a lively discussion June 3 with his advisory committee to the director (ACD) about the pros and cons of establishing a degree-granting graduate school here, NIH director Dr. Harold Varmus dropped the initiative in favor of a host of measures to improve the quality and range of graduate student and postgraduate training on campus.


"Our feeling is that we can achieve many and perhaps all of the goals that led to considering creation of an NIH Graduate School without seeking degree-granting authority," said Dr. Michael Gottesman, NIH deputy director for intramural research, in an interview July 23.

Though a May 24 town meeting on the subject of starting a grad school here had included more enthusiasm than disdain, and though the ACD offered a 12-3 straw vote (with some notable abstentions) June 3 in favor of continuing with a plan to create the school, Varmus quietly tabled the effort, which would have required legislative authority, just a few days after the meeting. Gottesman, who had presented the grad school plan at the last two ACD meetings, and at the May town meeting, stated that both he and Varmus did not want to continue with a potentially divisive project; they admit having been swayed by reasoned opposition to the idea of starting an accredited school. "We really were listening," Gottesman said, when people spoke out against the plan.

"Harold was impressed by the arguments of the people who thought we shouldn't continue with the plan, and particularly by those who argued that it wouldn't be good for NIH," Gottesman continued. "He hasn't changed his mind about the importance of having graduate students at NIH, though. The faculty here, particularly the new ones, are very keen on attracting graduate students to NIH."

There are currently 145 graduate students in various stages of training on campus, and formal arrangements are in place with four major universities whose students are working toward their degrees here, Gottesman said. He foresees a day when such partnerships are more numerous, and more structured.

"We have gotten together a group of senior faculty who are interested in the topic of graduate education," Gottesman explained, "including Bill Eaton (an NIDDK intramural scientist who publicly opposed the school idea at the May meeting), to consult with us on how to proceed. We want to do this in a way that makes most people comfortable." The group has discussed the four extant university ties — to Duke, George Washington, Maryland and Johns Hopkins — and how to cultivate more relationships. Three goals are already agreed upon: the need to appoint a dean of graduate students, the need for a place for students to meet socially and academically, and the need for a faculty to teach, advise students (as part of onsite thesis committees), and design novel curricula. Further, another town meeting has been scheduled for Wednesday, Sept. 15 at 4:30 p.m. in Masur Auditorium, Bldg. 10. "We want to hear from the current graduate students about what NIH needs to do to improve graduate-level education," Gottesman said. "Anyone interested in hearing from the students is welcome."

In the next few months, interested potential faculty here will decide how to pursue alliances with universities, and craft studies that take advantage of NIH's expertise in areas where there are acute national needs, for example in bioinformatics, clinical research, genomics, animal behavior, and addressing health disparities in minority populations, as well as training more minority scientists. "This is the prime goal of the program," Gottesman declared. "NIH, I think, can do a lot."

The decision not to grant Ph.D. degrees does not change in any way plans for an NIH Academy (an entity whose structure is still under discussion and whose goal is to address health care disparities by emphasizing recruitment and training of disadvantaged students and underrepresented minorities), Gottesman pointed out; his deputy Dr. Arlyn Garcia-Perez, with Levon Parker of NINDS, cochairs a working group on that subject. The group is defining the Academy's goals and critical elements, and will begin to make recommendations in the fall, Gottesman said. He said there have been discussions already about where a social/academic center should be on campus, but that nothing is conclusive.

"We have agreed that it should be located near the center of campus, and that it should be easily accessible to students," he said. "It's not yet clear how we will achieve that, though."

He also feels strongly that there should be some kind of student housing or dormitory for students, particularly for younger trainees. But that goal remains distant.

Gottesman said intramural reaction to the decision not to pursue a formal graduate school has been typically poised: "People aren't terribly disappointed with the decision — they tend to be quite practical about this. People around here are quite mature and pragmatic about decisions like this. We didn't want a divisive issue among the faculty."

On the upside, not seeking formal accreditation gives NIH more leeway and control in designing curricula, and choosing students, he said. "We think we can fashion partnerships that will meet most of the goals of the (original formal) program."

He concluded, "We haven't given up the idea of having a very good graduate program at NIH, and also improving the quality of postgraduate education. We think the two go hand-in-hand."

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