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Able to pursue open-ended research without relentless grant deadlines, some scientists who work directly for the National Institutes of Health joke that NIH stands for "nerds in heaven." But the main NIH campus in Bethesda, Maryland, and its other intramural research sites are also known as stodgy places where the scientific management, mostly white men, tends to stay in place for decades. Now, NIH is aiming to shake up its intramural program, the largest collection of biomedical researchers in the world, by imposing term limits on midlevel leadership positions.
Starting next year, the 272 lab and branch chiefs who oversee NIH's intramural research will be limited to 12-year terms. The policy, now being refined by the directors of NIH's 23 institutes with in-house science programs, means up to half of the chiefs will turn over in the next 5 years, says Michael Gottesman, NIH's deputy director for intramural research. "We see this as an opportunity for diversity in the leadership at NIH, especially gender and ethnic diversity," says Hannah Valantine, NIH's chief officer for scientific workforce diversity.
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The changes are roiling the campus, with some grumbling they will have little impact and others questioning whether good leaders should automatically be replaced. "The appointment of more women … could be a plus, but the ‘coin of the realm’ still remains scientific excellence and productivity," says Malcolm Martin, who has headed a lab at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases for 37 years.
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At most institutes, NIH's intramural lab and branch chiefs oversee several labs or groups. Although they don't control researchers' budgets directly, they handle administrative matters, mentoring, and recruitment. Chiefs overseeing clinical studies and shared facilities hold even more sway. "These are fiefdoms where [chiefs have] power...
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