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NCI Updates Training Programs to Support Cancer Researchers of the Future

, by Dr. Oliver Bogler

Oliver Bogler, Ph.D.

Director, Center for Cancer Training

Credit: National Cancer Institute

As the cancer research enterprise continues to grow, NCI steps forward to show its commitment to better supporting cancer researchers of the future and meeting the needs of the cancer training workforce. In this blog, Dr. Bogler lays out important changes to NCI’s training programs. If you are a research mentor reading this, please share this blog post with your trainees.

NCI has a long-standing commitment to training a strong and dynamic workforce of cancer researchers. To advance this goal, NCI's Center for Cancer Training (CCT) offers a broad array of training and career development opportunities to help ensure the future vitality of the cancer research enterprise. 

NCI is also committed to refining its training programs to meet the evolving needs of 21st century cancer science. This commitment includes listening to the extramural community and learning about ways we can strengthen established training programs and develop new programs to meet emerging needs. 

This process prompted NCI to modify its programs to better address the needs of the research community and the real-world challenges of training the next generation of cancer researchers. The changes to training programs we present in this blog post include:

  • increased flexibility for surgeon-scientists under the K08 career development program,
  • changes to stimulate greater inclusion and innovation within the T32 grant program for institutional research training, and
  • details of a new NCI program, the Early-Stage Surgeon-Scientist Program, to encourage surgeon-scientists to pursue careers in cancer science.

K08 Clinical Scientist Program

NCI has long supported the career development of clinically trained research scientists through the K08 Mentored Clinical Scientist Research Career Development Award. This award provides support and "protected time" for postdoctoral and nontenured clinician-scientists early in their careers in basic, translational, and patient-oriented cancer research.  

In recent years, NCI received valuable feedback that the level of time commitment—the minimum percent of effort required by researchers receiving K08 awards—posed a hardship for surgeon-scientists. We learned that the percent effort requirement discouraged surgeon-scientists from pursuing a K08 award, which can serve as a stepping stone to an academic career in cancer research. 

NCI published a request for information (RFI) to learn more about the hardship created by the percent-effort requirement for K08 awards. The RFI produced a vibrant response, which strongly favored reducing the minimum percent effort required for surgeon-scientists. The feedback emphasized that surgeons need to spend considerable time in the operating room to develop and maintain their clinical skills, making it difficult to devote three-quarters of their effort to research and career development. 

To address this challenge, NCI updated its guidance (NOT-CA-21-054) on the minimum percent effort required for surgeon-scientists applying to this program. The surgeon-scientists may now request a minimum of 50% effort (6 person-months) instead of the 75% minimum effort (9 person-months) required by other applicants. We expect this flexibility will attract more surgeon-scientists to apply for NCI K08 awards, which is part of NCI’s broad effort to support clinician investigators.

Institutional Research Training Grants

NCI’s CCT is also reviewing training requirements across all of our career development, fellowship, and institutional training awards. This review led NCI to revise its requirements for the Ruth L. Kirschstein National Research Service Award (NRSA) Institutional Research Training Grant (T32). The T32 program provides grants to institutions to develop or enhance cancer research training opportunities for pre- and postdoctoral fellows. 

In the past, institutions were required to have at least three postdoc positions for each predoc position in programs receiving T32 support. NCI learned that, for some disciplines and institutions, the mandated ratio discouraged institutions from developing programs that advance the goals of the T32 program. We also learned that the ratio was a barrier for disciplines with short postdoc periods, as well as for institutions with strong graduate schools but few postdocs. Since NCI’s goals are to promote both innovation and inclusion, we removed the requirement that T32 programs have a specific ratio of postdoc and predoc positions. 

Our revised requirements now specify that NCI will support predoctoral only, postdoctoral only, and combined predoctoral and postdoctoral T32 training programs. We are confident that this change will allow institutions to advance creative, well-designed, and impactful T32 training opportunities that prepare cancer investigators in a broader set of disciplines that benefit a wider community. 

Early-Stage Surgeon-Scientists

Since the 1980s, physician-scientists have decreased from 4.7% of the biomedical research workforce to 1.5%. These individuals make unique contributions to the fight against cancer, thanks to their deep understanding of both the clinical aspects and underlying biology of the disease. 

To reverse this decline, NCI is formulating an Early-Stage Surgeon-Scientist Program (ESSP), designed as a developmental program for early investigator surgeon-scientists focused on cancer-related disease and basic and translational research. 

ESSP will bring together surgeon-scientists from across the United States to establish cohorts that will train together. Through a competitive process, NCI will select ESSP participants from the extramural community and the intramural NCI Center for Cancer Research. Applicants must submit a request for an NCI administrative supplement to support their ESSP application. Working through an existing P30 Cancer Center or a U54 Comprehensive Partnerships to Advance Cancer Health Equity (CPACHE) site, applicants must submit a request for an NCI administrative supplement to support their ESSP application. NCI intramural surgeon-scientists may also apply to participate in the program. Details about the ESSP eligibility requirements and application instructions are available in the NIH Guide (NOT-CA-21-100).

Together, these changes will foster the vitality of NCI-supported cancer training programs and help train talented future generations of cancer researchers. At NCI's Center for Cancer Training, we value your thoughts on these and other programs we support. Please send your comments and feedback to NCICCT@mail.nih.gov.

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