The National Institutes of Health, a U.S. government agency that serves as the largest public funder of medical research in the world, announced a revised parental leave policy on Tuesday for researchers just embarking on their careers who intend to receive NIH funds.

Effective immediately, both male and female scientists are now automatically eligible to have their NIH early-stage investigator status –– granted in order to bolster the research of young scientists who have finished their training in the last decade –– extended by one year for each child they have during this 10-year period.

For more than two years, faculty in the School of Medicine and the Faculty of Arts and Sciences have lobbied the University to amend its parental leave policies, which at the time, only allowed faculty to take time off if they could prove that they were their child’s “primary caregiver.” Faculty couples within the University also had to split benefits between themselves.

In August, the University changed part of this policy. Faculty members now do not have to prove their spouse’s employment status to receive benefits if they take parental leave, and faculty couples are both eligible for parental relief.

The NIH’s new policy is another form of support for scientists who want to raise families without these researchers feeling as though they are compromising their careers.

“It takes a decade to build a good research career and that decade also happens to coincide with when it is most common that people are starting off and having families,” said Erica Spatz MED ’10, a clinical investigator at Yale’s Center for Outcomes Research and Evaluation. “It ends up to be inevitable that those two things are going to collide at some point.”

Lead investigators often rely on funding from institutions like the NIH to run their labs. Early-stage investigators, or ESIs, have a slight leg up in securing funds from this agency, which normally is a highly competitive process. Last year, the NIH only accepted 20 percent of proposals for its largest research grant, the R01, which provides funding up to $250,000 per year.

Research projects that are deemed meritorious by the NIH are given funding priority if they are spearheaded by an ESI, making it easier for these young investigators to pursue career-advancing work during their most formidable years as a researcher, according to Spatz.

Before the policy revision, early-career scientists could request an extension on their ESI status for a host of reasons that included medical issues and disabilities. All requests were reviewed on a case-by-case basis. Now, new parent-scientists are not required to go through this review process.

Though the NIH reported that nearly half of its extension requests were related to childbirth, many scientists still do not know that this policy exists.

“It is not very well known, so I think that a lot of people struggle in these early years –– their precious, precious years,” Spatz said. “The clock starts ticking when you join faculty, and you have 10 years as an early-stage investigator, and after those 10 years, you’re considered middle-career.”

Scientists who often rely on government funding for their salaries may delay starting families until they receive substantial support  –– a stable source of income –– from the NIH or from other peer institutions, according to Akiko Iwasaki, a professor of immunobiology at the School of Medicine.

“I waited until I had my first R01 to have my first child,” she wrote in an email to the News. “Every time I was pregnant, I submitted 2 or 3 R01 applications prior to birth-giving, so that I [had] some financial cushion to work with once the baby [was] born.”

For others, especially women, choosing to start a family still means potentially sacrificing advances to their careers. Many women instead wait to have children until their careers are more established.

“I think it’s really unfortunate that professional women have to make this decision between having a family and having a career, and women are getting older and older by the time they actually start having kids,” said Laine Taylor, a professor at the medical school. “While there’s no real problem with that, I think there is a cultural message that you can’t be enough if you wind up having a child.”

According to the NIH, the agency invests nearly $37.3 billion into U.S. medical research annually.

Marisa Peryer |marisa.peryer@yale.edu