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
"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
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."