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In the many conversations NIH director Dr. Elias
Zerhouni held with some of the top minds about the future of medical
research, he heard several themes constantly. One in particular,
however, seemed to echo from almost every corner: To really transform
the field, the most creative scientists must feel free to.color
outside the lines.
Nearly 3 years later, the people charged to implement the agency's
strategy for the 21st century are making sure NIH's future directions
are not limited to the tried and true. The NIH Roadmap is crafted
not only to uphold the conventional, but also as an "off-road vehicle," a
way to escape the well-traveled paths of the traditional model
of research and explore "high-risk" science. It follows then that
one of the Roadmap's most successful ventures so far — the
NIH Director's Pioneer Award program — was "born to be wild."
According to NIGMS's Dr. Judith Greenberg, the awards "are designed
to support individual scientists of exceptional creativity who
propose pioneering approaches to major challenges in biomedical
research. The program was developed in response to the perception
that the NIH peer review system tends to be conservative and that
as a result NIH only funds 'safe science.' The Pioneer Awards complement
the more traditional NIH grant mechanisms and enable NIH to diversify
its portfolio to support exceptionally innovative research." Greenberg
is principal leader of the implementation group for the Roadmap's
high-risk research initiative, which oversees the Pioneer process.
The Pioneer Award program, first announced in January 2004, offers
$500,000 per year for up to 5 years to select scientists deemed
to have the extraordinary potential to make a significant impact
in medical research. Nine awards were presented in 2004; 13 were
given in 2005. Between 5 and 10 will be announced later this year.
"Traditional funding mechanisms do not give researchers the freedom
to take significant risks and explore areas outside of their scientific
comfort zone," said Dr. Chad Mirkin, a nanobiology expert at Northwestern
University and one of nine scientists who won the first Pioneer
Awards in 2004. "The Pioneer Award is a significant traunch of
funding, with few creativity-inhibiting programmatic limitations,
that allowed us to take our nanotechnology research in directions
we ordinarily would not have pursued. [A traunch is a financial
term meaning one of many influxes of cash that is part of a single
round of investment.] These include the development of new and
powerful diagnostic and therapeutic tools for debilitating diseases
such as Alzheimer's disease, HIV and many forms of cancer."
Another winner of the inaugural Pioneers, Dr. Sunney Xie of Harvard
University, added, "I am most grateful to the NIH Director's Pioneer
Award that has allowed me and my group to pursue high-risk and
high-stakes research endeavors. With the NDPA support, we recently
succeeded in two first-of-kind experiments monitoring the birth
of individual protein molecules in a living cell, which has generated
broad interests in the scientific community."
Overall, reception of the new award program from those outside NIH
has been encouraging, noted Greenberg. "The research community has
responded in a very positive way, as measured both by the number
and quality of applications and by the enthusiasm of the scientists
who have participated in the review of the applications. Importantly,
the program demonstrates to the community that NIH is serious about
supporting highly innovative, high-risk science. In addition, the
institutes at NIH have been so pleased with the program that many
have contributed their own funds — beyond what the Roadmap
provides — in order to fund more Pioneer Awards. The success
of the program has also stimulated some ICs to consider creating
their own versions of high-innovation grants, modeled on the Pioneer
|“NIH should do so much more of this...the Pioneer Awards
make it so much fun to be a grant reviewer — 5 pages
of some of the most creative science imaginable.”
— Dr. Ben Barres of Stanford University
Dr. Ben Barres of Stanford University, who served on the 2005
team that reviewed Pioneer applications and met with finalists,
couldn't praise the Pioneers process enough.
"NIH should do so much more of this," he advised. "The truth is,
nobody ever wants to serve on a study section. You get to read
through 25 pages of the most arcane, the most deadly stuff. But
the Pioneer Awards make it so much fun to be a grant reviewer — 5
pages of some of the most creative science imaginable."
What sets the Pioneers apart is the pain-free process, he explained. "The
most important thing this does is it makes scientists sit down
and think — think deeply and critically and creatively. NIH
says, 'Tell us in 5 pages what you would do if you could do anything
you wanted — no holds barred, no strings attached. Tell us
the most high-risk, high-impact project you can think of, and we're
going to enable you to do it'...NIH should do everything this way.
This is NIH at its best."
As with anything new and untried, the early Pioneer prototype
had its share of wrinkles. One criticism was that the first awards
did not identify any high-risk research conducted by women or underrepresented
minorities. Award organizers recognized the problem: For some reason,
very few scientists from those two populations had applied. For
the Pioneer Awards' sophomore year — 2005 — organizers
made a special effort to encourage women and minority scientists
to submit applications. The pool of submissions broadened considerably,
and the awards reflected that.
Several others in the research community voiced different concerns
about the Pioneers: that the new program would deflect resources
away from the traditional research-funding mechanism, or that the
awards wouldn't be able to find the novel science they were created
to fund. Over time, however, the Pioneer program has won over many
of its detractors.
In a recent note to Zerhouni, Dr. Jeffrey R. Balser of Vanderbilt
Medical Center, a reviewer in both 2004 and 2005, gave the enthusiastic
testimonial of a critic-turned-convert.
"Through participating in the awards process last year as a reviewer,
from the first round all the way through the 3 days of finalist
interviews at the NIH, I have moved from a position of healthy
skepticism to that of a true 'believer,'" wrote Balser. "My initial
concern with the Pioneer program was that it would never be possible
to identify the true 'geniuses' from among the many talented investigators
across the country. I worried that we would have trouble identifying
the select candidates capable of providing an acceptable return
on investment. These concerns, as the early successes now confirm,
were simply unfounded. In fact, what we now recognize is that the
pool of talented individuals with imaginative, yet workable, breakthrough
ideas is boundless.
"Our challenge at the finalist stage last summer was not to look
for deserving awardees," continued Balser's note, "but rather to
parse among a large group of extraordinarily compelling opportunities,
and to affirm the real commitment of those in whom we would recommend
you invest. To be in the room as these extraordinary individuals,
one by one, made their case with such passion and brilliance was
a Thanksgiving feast for those who love science. It is also worth
noting that again and again they thanked us for (finally) providing
a means to explore their ideas outside the 'confining limitations' of
the R01 funding mechanism."
Each year the application process has been tweaked for maximum
efficiency and minimum red tape. The 2006 Pioneer winners will
be announced on Sept. 19, complete with a symposium featuring last
year's recipients. A call for 2007 applicants will also go out
later in fall.
"It may well be that in the process of reviewing the success of
the Pioneer Awards, we will learn something about the nature of
scientific progress," Balser concluded. "It is possible that we
tend to mislabel the most difficult science as 'high-risk' science,
as the latter term implies a certain degree of luck will be needed
to succeed. In the hands of a Pioneer awardee, what we may learn
is that luck is diminished, and that the most difficult problems
are, more often than we wish to acknowledge, tractable to those
exceptional individuals with an unusual complement of imagination,
ingenuity and sheer persistence."