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Who Wants to Be a Biostatistician (or Environmental Statistician, or Social Science Statistician, or …)?

1 June 2010 2,326 views One Comment
This column highlights research activities that may be of interest to ASA members. These brief articles include information about new research solicitations and the federal budget for statistics. Comments or suggestions for future articles may be sent to ASA Research and Graduate Education Manager Keith Crank at keith@amstat.org.


Keith Crank has a BS in mathematics education and an MS in mathematics from Michigan State University and a PhD in statistics from Purdue University. Prior to joining the ASA as research and graduate education manager, he was a program officer at the National Science Foundation, primarily in the probability program.

In April, I visited the National Institutes of Health (NIH) with Sastry Pantula, ASA president; Sally Morton, a past president of the ASA; and Steve Pierson, ASA director of science policy. We met with Jeremy Berg, director of the National Institute of General Medical Sciences (NIGMS), to talk about funding for training biostatisticians.

We are pushing NIGMS to find ways to fund some of our master’s students. There is interest, but the current guidelines make it difficult. (Funding is definitely possible to retrain people with an MD, but it isn’t clear whether this can be extended to people with a PhD in another discipline.)

We also are pushing for more PhD training grants in biostatistics. NIGMS would like to see more submissions of proposals for biostatistics training grants. They recognize the demand in this area (by the ease of finding jobs without going through multiple postdocs), but they cannot fund proposals they do not receive.

Although our focus was on training, we also raised concerns about the visibility of statistics as a collaborative discipline (not just a consulting or data analysis discipline) and about inappropriate reviews of statistics proposals by reviewers without an appropriate statistical background.

Before our meeting at NIGMS, we met with program directors at the National Institute of Mental Health. These were primarily people who fund neuroscience research and recognize the need to get more biostatisticians involved. They also realize biostatisticians are in demand and getting them to change their biomedical area of research is a losing battle. So, they are very interested in training new researchers.

Opportunities for students and postdocs are generally provided through the Ruth Kirschstein programs, which include institutional training grants for students and individual grants for postdocs. These are available through all the institutes at NIH. They are restricted to U.S. citizens, noncitizen nationals, and permanent residents. As mentioned previously, NIGMS would like to receive more proposals for training PhD students in biostatistics.

Funding Resources
Interagency Modeling and Analysis Group
Includes program directors from many federal agencies (including NIH and NSF)

    Biomedical Information Science and Technology Initiative
    Provides links to funding announcements dealing with bioinformatics and computation

      StatFund
      Identifies NIH funding opportunities for statistical methodology and provides a list of grants that have been made in statistical methodology

      For those whose research careers are established, but who may be looking to do something different, NIH provides opportunities for quantitative scientists (including statisticians) to redirect their research toward biomedical issues. This is done through their Mentored Quantitative Research Development Award (K25). These awards offer the opportunity for researchers to spend 3–5 years studying and doing research in a biomedical area and provide funding for both research activities and salary. They are restricted to U.S. citizens, noncitizen nationals, and permanent residents and require a mentor who is willing to assist in the development and execution of the research plan.

      The National Science Foundation’s (NSF) Division of Mathematical Sciences has a similar, but less generous, program for mathematical scientists who want to learn an area of application. The Interdisciplinary Grants in the Mathematical Sciences program provides up to $100,000 for training in another scientific discipline. These awards are for just one year, but they are not restricted to biomedical areas and do not have the citizenship restrictions that the NIH awards have.

      There are lots of opportunities available for research funding from NIH and NSF. To learn more about the opportunities at NIH, I invite you to attend a session I organized for JSM 2010 in Vancouver, British Columbia. The session will meet at 8:30 a.m. on August 4. The panelists are Michelle Dunn, Shawn Drew, and Denise Wiesch from NIH and Jeremy Taylor from the University of Michigan Biostatistics Department. I hope to see you there.

      To contact me, send an email to keith@amstat.org. Questions or comments about this article, as well as suggestions for future articles, are always welcome.

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