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Vol. LVIII, No. 12
June 16, 2006

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Pioneer Awards Allow 'Off-Road' Exploration
NIH Roadmap in Gear for 3rd Year

On the front page...

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."

“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
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 Awards."

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."

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