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Supporting the Cancer Research Workforce

NCI develops and supports a cadre of exceptional scientists from a variety of disciplines across the career continuum, from high school students just starting to explore a career path to well-established cancer investigators. Having a community of researchers from diverse backgrounds and at all levels of expertise strengthens cancer research and its translation to patient care.

NCI offers a number of training opportunities at NCI offices and laboratories in Maryland (intramural) and funding mechanisms to support individuals and research teams (extramural) as they pursue new discoveries and technologies to overcome cancer. Scientists can apply for training, career development, and mentored research awards.

Training the Next Generation of Cancer Researchers

NCI supports the training of students and early-career scientists, ranging from the high school level through the postdoctoral years and beyond. NCI fellowships are available in fields as diverse as cancer prevention, behavioral sciences, epidemiology, genetics, immunotherapy, and technology transfer.

NCI promotes diversity in the cancer research workforce through several programs, including the Continuing Umbrella of Research Experiences (CURE) and Partnerships to Advance Cancer Health Equity (PACHE) programs.

Increasing Investment in Early-Stage Investigators

Scientists embarking on independent careers can face challenges that impede their success and make it difficult to remain in research. To address this issue, NCI supports early-stage investigators (ESIs) in many ways.

The Method to Extend Research in Time (MERIT) Award provides up to 7 years of support to certain investigators who have their first R01 grant compared with 5 years of support for the traditional R01 grant. The MERIT Award offers investigators more stability to launch their careers, enables creativity and innovation, and provides a longer amount of time during which they can apply to renew their current grant and/or apply for new grants.

NCI is supporting more early-stage investigators than in the past with the goal of ensuring a robust pipeline of future cancer research leaders.

Supporting Established Investigators

NCI continues to support scientists who have an established record of productivity through a variety of funding mechanisms.

A large portion of NCI’s budget funds investigator-initiated research proposals that have undergone a rigorous peer-review process. This funding, through the R01 and similar mechanisms (including the R23, R29, R37, DP2, and RF1), provides support to highly skilled scientists, working in their areas of expertise, who have submitted encouraging preliminary data. Much of the progress we have made against cancer to date had its origins in investigator-initiated research.

The institute also provides support through collaborative funding mechanisms, such as the Translational Research Program’s Specialized Programs of Research Excellence (SPORE) grants and Cancer Moonshot funding. Most awards made from NCI’s research project grant pool are awarded to established investigators following a rigorous peer-review process.

Ensuring Workforce Diversity and Inclusion

NCI gathers data and monitors trends on the age, gender, career stage, and race/ethnicity of the NCI-funded workforce. These data are used to identify factors that impede workforce diversity and inform the development of policies and programs to attracts, support, and retain a diverse workforce.

For example, an analysis of principal investigators from nine age groups applying for and receiving NCI R01 awards from fiscal year 1990 to fiscal year 2016 found that the NCI “R01 workforce” had expanded and aged over this time period. The aging of the R01 workforce reflected an increase in time between finishing a Ph.D. and applying for and receiving an R01, and a drop in retention of investigators beyond their first R01 award. Data of this type will help NCI identify ways to help scientists begin and sustain careers in the NCI R01 workforce.

NCI is also committed to ending structural racism in biomedical research and making the cancer research community more equitable and inclusive. The research enterprise is strengthened when the intellect and talent of people with diverse perspectives, backgrounds, and skill sets are applied to complex biomedical problems.

NCI initiated an equity and inclusion program to enhance the research we support and conduct in cancer disparities, ensure diversity of thought and background in the cancer research workforce, and promote an inclusive and equitable community within NCI.

NCI will soon share initial results of an analysis on grant funding by gender, race, and ethnicity. The data collected will be used to develop informed strategies and approaches that sustain, invigorate, and diversify the cancer research workforce. These efforts advance NCI’s goal of maintaining a robust pipeline of cancer scientists to provide future leadership in basic, translational, and clinical research.