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The Long Game: The CNS’ Investment in the NINDS/CNS Getch K12 Scholar Award

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In 2012, the Neurosurgeon Research Career Development Program (NRCDP) set a goal to grow a diverse corps of neurosurgeon scientists at institutions across the United States. The Congress of Neurological Surgeons (CNS) and the CNS Foundation became early partners in this effort by establishing the National Institutes of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS)/CNS Getch K12 Scholar Award, named in honor of the CNS Past President Christopher C. Getch, MD, FAANS, a respected neurosurgeon, friend and leader, who passed away unexpectedly soon after his presidency.

Having invested $500,000 to fund Getch Scholars alternate years since 2015, why is the CNS doubling down with a $1,200,000 pledge for the next five years to make the Getch K12 award annual?

According to the CNS Past President Ganesh Rao, MD, FAANS, who championed the CNS’s investment in the K12 Awards, “NRCDP is a major driver for improving neurosurgical patient care. Support for neurosurgical research is critical, particularly at the beginning of one’s career; the commitment to mentorship is unparalleled, and we are seeing increasingly diverse awardees. I am a firm believer that the K12 program will improve neurosurgery overall.”

New data from Emad N. Eskandar, MD, FAANS, director of the NRCDP, reveals that the program has successfully hit the three drivers mentioned by Dr. Rao. The result is a remarkable increase in overall grant support for neurosurgeons.

Protected Research is Linked to Subsequent Funding

The following data points demonstrate the continued success of K12 scholars:

  • From 2013 through 2017, the NRCDP supported thirteen scholars. Eleven out of the thirteen scholars received subsequent National Institutes of Health (NIH) funding for an overall success rate of 85%.
  • The second five-year cycle, 2018 through 2022, looks equally promising. During this period, the NRCDP supported sixteen scholars. Thus far, six have completed the program, and three have received additional substantive grants.
  • The number of years from a scholar’s initial NRCDP application until they obtained subsequent NIH funding also revealed success. Within five years, 50% of program alumni received NIH funding, and 85% received NIH funding within nine years.

According to 2017 winner Jennifer Strahle, MD, FAANS, “Winning a K12 award provided me with time and resources to complete the foundational hydrocephalus and iron metabolism experiments that laid the groundwork for my subsequent successful R01.”

While all K12 awards provide two years of protected research time, unique to the Getch award, the awardee may remain at their institution. Preserving this continuum of established relationships and research in their home laboratory is essential to the CNS.

Babacar Cisse, MD, of Weill Cornell Medical School and a 2018 winner of the NINDS/CNS Getch K12 Scholar Award, explained, “When I was hired by my chairman, we both agreed that I needed at least 50% of protected research time. The K12 solidified that agreement and extended it to 5 years.” Three years later, Dr. Cisse is about to publish his findings for the first time.

Diversity of Neurosurgeon Scientists is Just Beginning

The CNS shares the NIH goal to increase the diversity of all health care providers and, in particular, researchers. According to NRCDP data, the K12 program has seen critical areas of improvement since 2012:

  • In the first five years (2013-2017) of the NRCDP, two (15%) of the total thirteen scholars were women, and zero (0%) were underrepresented minorities.
  • In the second five years (since 2018), female scholars increased to three (20%) and underrepresented minorities increased to four (27%).

Sustainable Mentorship

Like all early-career neurosurgeons, mentorship and a community of colleagues are valuable to the K12 awardees. All awardees must attend the annual retreat hosted by the CNS for five years, and new awardees seek the guidance of the Advisory Committee and past K12 winners. Since awardees are committed to attending the retreat for five years, mentees naturally transition into mentors. One awardee responded, “the NRCDP K12 community represents an important community of mentors and colleagues with whom we can envision and affect future paradigm changes in the care of patients with neurological diseases.”

Galvanizing Investment

Compared to other surgical specialties — including orthoapedic surgery, otolaryngology and urology — neurosurgery saw a significant increase in grant funding from 2012 to 2021 (265%). One cannot help but marvel at the increased funding that has occurred since the inception of the NRCDP.

The CNS and the CNS Foundation are proud partners of the NIH, the Foundation for the National Institutes of Health, the NINDS and the NRCDP. The future for our specialty is bright.

Editor’s Note: We hope that you will share what you learn from our posts. We invite you to join the conversation on Twitter by following @Neurosurgery, @CNS_Update and @NINDSnews.

Alexander A. Khalessi, MD, MBA, FAANS
UC San Diego Medical Center
San Diego, Calif.