How the NLM Extramural Programs Division Advances Key Scientific Initiatives in Bioinformatics and Data Science

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Guest post by Meryl Sufian, PhD, Chief Program Officer, NIH National Library of Medicine (NLM) Division of Extramural Programs.

This month marks my second year as Chief Program Officer in the Division of Extramural Programs (EP) here at NLM. In these two years, EP has further aligned with the goals detailed in our strategic planning efforts to engage the scientific community via the development of focused scientific initiatives. The purpose of these initiatives is to guide and stimulate research in the fields of biomedical informatics and data science through the development and publication of Notices of Funding Opportunities (NOFOs), formerly referred to as Funding Opportunities Announcements (FOAs).

The mission of EP is to provide grants for research projects, resources, and career development in the fields of biomedical informatics and data science. To make this happen, a lot goes on behind the scenes. We maintain effective stewardship of the extramural budget, develop NOFOs that advance the science, conduct peer reviews of grant applications, provide oversight of compliance with NIH policy, and provide guidance to extramural researchers.

These activities take place within the framework of the NLM Strategic Plan, specifically:

Goal 1: Accelerate discovery and advance health by providing the tools for data-driven research
Objective 1.2: Advance research and development in biomedical informatics and data science
Goal 3: Build a workforce for data-driven research and health
Objective 3.1: Expand and enhance research training for biomedical informatics and data science
Objective 3.3: Increase workforce diversity

NOFOs advance science by addressing scientific gaps and facilitating the investigation of new scientific directions. There are several approaches that EP uses to develop NOFOs, including literature reviews based on journal articles and other scholarly publications; conducting portfolio analyses of already funded NIH/NLM grants; attending conferences and other scientific meetings; developing and holding workshops on promising topics; and pitching ideas at our internal Scientific Roundtable meetings. All new NOFOs must receive concept clearance and input from the NLM Board of Regents prior to publication.

In addition to renewing our existing NOFOs, NLM recently issued two initiatives that employed different methods to inform their development. The first, a Personal Health Informatics (PHI) funding announcement will promote new informatics and data science products to help individuals understand and improve their health through actionable insights. The PHI NOFO was developed using a portfolio analysis that examined use cases and research products as well as an assessment of peer review results from a previous related NOFO, a literature review, and the results of a February 2023 PHI workshop.

The second initiative is the NIH Summer Research and Education (R25) program, which is focused on increasing the diversity of the biomedical informatics and data science workforce. This program accomplishes this goal by offering short-term training to undergraduate and master’s degree students who are from groups that are underrepresented in these fields. The R25 program supports training and research at 12 academic institutions across the country that includes two historically black colleges or universities (HBCUs) and a Latino-serving institution.

The methods used to develop the R25 NOFO identified the gap in biomedical informatics and data science training created by the NLM University-based Predoctoral and Postdoctoral Biomedical Informatics and Data Science Research Training Program (T15), which is no longer accepting undergraduates for short-term training. In addition, there was a lack of sufficient diversity among the trainees in the T15 program.

Another consideration was National Science Foundation data that showed an overall lack of diversity in U.S. doctoral degrees awarded, especially in biomedical informatics and data science. The data demonstrated that it is in the transition from undergraduate to graduate studies that underrepresented science and engineering students leave the research enterprise. In addition, there is evidence that diverse teams working together and building on innovative ideas and distinct perspectives outperform homogenous teams.

Based on this analysis, the R25 program was created to complement the T15 program by creating a pipeline for undergraduate and master’s degree students from underrepresented groups in the biomedical and behavioral sciences to pursue training and careers in these critical areas.

I hope this inside look at the strategies that helped develop these initiatives provides an idea of how NLM EP is working to advance science while also ensuring racial and ethnic minorities and women are given the opportunity to pursue careers in biomedical informatics and data science.

Meryl Sufian, PhD

Chief Program Officer, Division of Extramural Programs, NLM

Dr. Sufian joined NLM in 2021 and most recently served as a Senior Science Advisor to the Director at the NIH Office of AIDS Research. Prior to this position, Dr. Sufian held various programmatic positions across NIH including as a Senior Program Director for the National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities and Program Director at the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences. Her first position at NIH was as a Program Director for the National Cancer Institute where she managed and provided oversight for the evaluation of research initiatives.

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