AERA Q&A—NICHD’s Brett Miller Discusses How NICHD Supports Education Research
AERA Q&A—NICHD’s Brett Miller Discusses How NICHD Supports Education Research

January 2018

The following Q&A is one in an occasional series of conversations with policy and opinion leaders with an interest in and commitment to education research.

Brett Miller is a program director at the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD), where he oversees literacy and related learning disabilities. Before joining NICHD, Miller was an associate research scientist at the Institute of Education Sciences (IES). He can be reached at

Q. Tell us about your current role at NICHD and what inspired you to be involved in education research as part of the federal government.

A. I oversee and manage NICHD’s research investments in literacy and related learning disabilities. The Reading, Writing and Related Learning Disabilities’ research portfolio aligns with NICHD’s foundation in human development by taking a life-course perspective on literacy, and instantiates this through its support of basic and translational/intervention research and training.

As a program director, I am fortunate to be able to work closely with my colleagues at NICHD with complementary programs in language development, math and science learning, and social and emotional development, among a range of other scientific domains. These efforts reflect the growing transdisciplinary nature of the research and training opportunities available.

I am extremely fortunate to serve as a program director at NICHD and to have the opportunity to transition to this role relatively early in my career. I have been inspired and fascinated by individuals’ ability to learn language, reading, and writing. In government, I found a unique opportunity to bridge my interests in educational research with the transdisciplinary potential of working for a public health organization with the long-term goal of facilitating and leading positive change at the individual to societal levels through research and its implementation. 

Q. Could you describe some opportunities NICHD provides to explore education research?

A. NICHD has a wide range of funding opportunities for investigators and trainees. Most individuals involved in educational research apply under the parent or unsolicited funding opportunity announcements. These announcements indicate NICHD’s interests in supporting research that aligns with defined research areas and priorities. They typically vary in the years and level of support available, and therefore have direct implications for the types of science that are most appropriate for any funding call.

In addition, NICHD releases targeted calls for research that highlight the institute’s research interest in a particular domain. One highly relevant example is the Education and Health call for research. NICHD also provides opportunities for individuals to pursue additional training and mentorship in areas of science that align with our mission. These opportunities include graduate and postdoctoral fellowships and career development awards.

Q. What overall advice would you provide to scholars applying for NICHD grants?

A. I would emphasize that it is particularly important for individuals to reach out and discuss their research or training plans with a program official well before applying. As normal practice, I would encourage this to ensure that your topic, plans, and goals align well with the goals of NICHD and so that you can utilize the opportunity to get feedback on your research and/or training aims. Program officials can assist in identifying alternative options or paths to pursuing your goals that may be available through NICHD, and can help you avoid common (and not-so-common) pitfalls in the application process. In short, we are here to help.

Now, though, it is pertinent for investigators to reach out before applying, whether you are a seasoned investigator or a new applicant. Change in the clinical trial policies at the NIH have immediate ramifications for individuals pursuing research with human subjects. It is now important to identify early whether your research would qualify as a clinical trial, before preparing your application. I would strongly encourage any applicants proposing research or training involving human subjects to contact their program officials to learn how to make this assessment.

Q. What are some of the findings from the NICHD research projects that you’ve been involved with that have made connections between health, child development, and education in unexpected ways?

A. To start, I would like to highlight that journal publications resulting from NIH-sponsored research are available free of charge to interested parties via PubMed. This policy began in 2008 and now, with the passing of almost a decade, represents a substantial body of work.

Regarding specific findings, I would like to highlight here the research on struggling preadolescent-to-adult learners. At NICHD, this broad population has been targeted through several funding opportunities, including ones prior to my arrival. From a research, practice, and policy position, the work as a group importantly highlights both the needs and the continuing challenges of improving literacy skills in individuals who have shown minimal progress with potentially efficacious instruction over multiple years.

The broader set of work has helped provide an additional highlight to the need to emphasize early intervention to avoid potential literacy problems later in childhood and beyond, as well as the need to develop more intensive interventions that continue over years—not weeks or months—to enhance learning and to move us closer to closing the achievement gap for these learners.

For adult struggling learners, the cross-agency nature of the work (with the former National Institute for Literacy [NIFL], IES, and the U.S. Department of Education) allowed NIFL to sponsor a National Academies report on struggling adolescent and adult learners. For me, one key takeaway is the need to view literacy learning in the context of lifelong learning and to identify and align systems to support learners’ engagement in literate activities throughout their lifetime.

Q. We have been hearing about changes to the NIH clinical trials policy. How will these changes affect education researchers?

A. These changes will have immediate impact regarding how investigators apply to NICHD for support for research or training. Effective January 25, individuals will need to determine whether their project constitutes a clinical trial [CT], per NIH guidelines. They will need to identify whether their plans constitute a CT to accurately choose an appropriate funding opportunity announcement [FOA]. To assist in this determination, NIH posts case studies that investigators may utilize to assist them in this determination.

Relevant NIH FOAs have been updated over the past several months to indicate whether they will accept CTs. Specifically, the three FOA options are clinical trials, clinical trials optional, and clinical trial not allowed. These FOA changes were necessary, in part because the application packets themselves now have different components depending upon this choice, with specific human subject and clinical trial information required for CT applications.

Importantly, various other changes have occurred that have direct implications postsubmission. For example, NIH updated the review criteria for applications to align with the CT policy. Individuals involved in CT activities on funded projects must complete Good Clinical Practice training as part of the award; funded CTs must register and report outcomes via; and multisite projects involving nonexempt human subjects must utilize a single IRB. Needless to say, change is afoot.

Q. Can you describe some of the ways that NICHD works with IES and the National Science Foundation (NSF) on education topics?

A. Education research is inherently a cross-agency endeavor. At NICHD, program staff regularly interact both formally and informally with colleagues at IES and NSF. On the formal side, recent activities include a workshop focused on the intersection of education and disability. For this workshop, we worked closely with partners in the National Center for Special Education Research at IES and the Office of Special Education Programs at the U.S. Department of Education. The workshop examined the intersection of disability and education inclusive of any learners who could obtain a disability designation under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (2004). It also motivated a currently in-process special topic call in AERA Open.

Another recent example involves a workshop hosted by the White House Office of Science Technology and Policy (OSTP) in 2015 focused on neuroscience and learning, which was collaboratively organized by OSTP, NSF, IES, and NICHD.

Finally, and probably most importantly, we strive to have regular informal interaction and dialogue about interests, goals, and research directions being pursued by our respective agencies. This ongoing dialogue is critical to identifying opportunities for collaboration and co-funding, and to better serve our extramural community.  

Q. What emerging areas of research do you think need more attention for study or may be currently underrepresented at NICHD?

A. In the literacy portfolio, we highlight the need to focus on individuals at higher risk for difficulties or disabilities that impact reading and writing acquisition and proficiency. This focus is highlighted in the NICHD Child Development and Behavior’s Branch’s priorities under the reading, writing, and mathematics topic. Here, we highlight the need for research to foundationally inform our understanding of risk, develop novel and more effective approaches to identify individuals at risk early, and enhance the efficacy of interventions for poor responders across the life course.

This focus on individuals with more significant literacy difficulties aligns with our broader emphasis on populations that have been historically underrepresented in research, with the broad goal being to bring data to bear to inform practice with the diversity of today’s and tomorrow’s learners.

Information about priority areas for other portfolios at NICHD are also available at our branch websites.

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