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Vol. LVIII, No. 3
February 10, 2006
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'Pathway to Independence' Awards
New Grants Seek More Scientists Early in Their Careers

In tight research-budget times, universities often reinvest in the tried-and-true, instead of taking chances on the bold-and-new. Such decisions give veteran scientists a huge advantage over fledgling investigators in the competition for resources. Hoping to help even the playing field a bit, NIH director Dr. Elias Zerhouni launched the "Pathway to Independence" Awards on Jan. 27. The new PI program is a unique grant mechanism designed to help make new postdoctoral scientists more attractive to academic research institutions that offer long-term commitments of scientific resources and funding.

"There's no doubt that we must invest in new scientists today as we see a very fast-expanding array of possible avenues of exploration in multiple methodologies and fields of research," said Zerhouni, announcing the grants. "If we expect to meet tomorrow's challenge, the most important thing we need to do is to maintain the momentum in creation of human capital for doing this research in the future."

As incoming NIH director in 2002, Zerhouni asked his advisory committee to the director to investigate what he saw as growing — and troubling — trends: an older age of scientists receiving their first independent awards, a lower percentage of investigators less than 35 years old (compared to 40 years ago), and increasing difficulty for new researchers who have no support to get funded early in their careers. If allowed to continue, Zerhouni explained, these tendencies would undoubtedly shortchange the research community of numerous novel ideas and innovations.

The PI grants will serve as a way to cut the apron strings between dependence and independence sooner. Under the new program, postdocs can move more quickly from working under the auspices — and grant funds — of seasoned scientists to working as principal investigators on their own.

In this first year of the program, NIH will issue between 150 and 200 grants, starting in the fall. A similar number of awards will be given out each year through 2011. NIH plans to devote nearly $400 million to the PI grants from 2006 to 2011. In the first couple of years of the grant, PI awardees would work in a mentored phase I to finish their supervised research projects, publish the results and job-hunt for an independent research post. By having a guaranteed NIH PI grant in hand, the awardees will be more likely to attract tenure-track offers from academic research institutions. During years 3 to 5 of the PI grant (phase II), the awardees would accept a permanent research position — an assistant professorship or equivalent, for example — to set up their own research program and win a traditional NIH funding award, an R01 investigator-initiated grant.

"What we've designed and built is basically a bridge," said Zerhouni, speaking from experience as a former new investigator. "This is a unique opportunity to allow highly promising postdoctoral scientists to receive both mentored and independent research support from the same award. We're committing to a 'K99/R00 award,' which is the last step from a dependent career to the first step in an independent career. More importantly, we want to make sure that whatever institution recruits them commits the necessary resources to do that innovative research, whether it's space, access to research resources or other support."

Another unique aspect of the grant is that it travels with the recipient. Phases I and II do not have to be done at the same place. In addition, the PI program is designed to identify the best and the brightest scientists in the world working at U.S. institutions. International postdocs qualify as long as they have visas allowing them to work at a U.S. institution and they secure a tenure post at a U.S. facility.

"What's also important is that the award be portable, freeing scientist[s] to negotiate at the best institution where they find the ability to conduct their research," Zerhouni said. "Hopefully this will allow innovation and encourage these new investigators to take chances and risks in new areas of research, and then compete in the R01 pool."
[This program] indicates our commitment to making sure that no matter what happens, talented people with new ideas — which are the core of our success — are supported, and that in the face of budget adjustments we do not jeopardize the seeds of the future.

NIH will not divert resources from its R01 program to fund its new PI award efforts, Zerhouni said. Other NIH efforts by individual ICs to ease the way for new investigators to gain their independence faster will also continue. A percentage of the budget of each institute and center will fund the new program. Awardees can receive up to $90,000 in each of the first 2 years, and between $175,000 and $250,000 in the 3-year independent phase.

"What we're really looking for is an institutional commitment to the career of the scientists," Zerhouni stressed, "and that the scientists do not have a dead-end job, but a real possibility of both the resources to conduct their research and institutional commitment to be successful in the long run.

"This is only one piece of a larger effort that we've undertaken to support new scientists," he concluded, noting that he has asked that special attention be given by IC councils to new investigators, and that the NIH Office of Extramural Research has launched a pilot program to shorten review time of grant applications by new investigators. "[This program] indicates our commitment to making sure that no matter what happens, talented people with new ideas — which are the core of our success — are supported, and that in the face of budget adjustments we do not jeopardize the seeds of the future. We must support them all the way."

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