For the past 30 years, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) has awarded institutional training grants and fellowships that come with a major proviso: for U.S. citizens and permanent residents only. But that is about to change. NIH is quietly launching a training program for the 2004-05 academic year that will be open to all, regardless of citizenship. The agency is now reviewing the first set of proposals for the $6 million initiative and expects to select about a dozen institutions for 5-year awards of up to $600,000 a year.

The impetus for the new program, called "Training for a New Interdisciplinary Research Workforce," came from a strategic plan (the Roadmap) drawn up by NIH Director Elias Zerhouni after his arrival in Bethesda 2 years ago. "It grew out of the concepts in the Roadmap, which was to rethink everything NIH is doing and be as inclusive as possible," says Wendy Liffers of the policy shop at the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research. As its name implies, the program is aimed at increasing the number of scientists trained in interdisciplinary research. "If somebody came to the United States already steeped in this approach, then we want to give them a way to continue it here," says Terry Bishop of the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, which will run the competition.

NIH grantees have always been able to support foreign students and postdocs through their research grants; indeed, foreign-born students are now a majority in some fields. But the agency's primary means of training undergraduates, graduate students, and postdocs--called the National Research Service Award program--is restricted to domestic students under a 1974 law. "Legislators generally feel that training dollars should stay at home," explains one congressional aide familiar with the various NIH funding mechanisms.

To avoid running afoul of that law, NIH will combine research and training in the new program ( grants.nih.gov/grants/guide/rfa-files/RFA-RM-04-015.html). Foreign students will be supported by research funds and domestic students by training money, although both will receive the same kind of training. "Scientifically, it doesn't matter, of course," says Bishop. NIH will, however, create a hybrid accounting system to track how many of each are being served. "Congress likes to know how many dollars we spend on training, and we thought that they might ask," Bishop adds.

NIH officials say they will be monitoring the new program carefully. "We are doing it as a pilot, and I don't know how long it will last," says Walter Schaffer, head of NIH extramural training programs. "But everybody seems to think that it's an idea worth trying."

Reposted with permission from Science News, 14 May 2004