|Thank you for your responses to the first two desk-to-desks. Traditionally,
every autumn, the nation turns to thinking about learning. I want
to share some thoughts and concerns I have about how we are preparing
our emerging scientists.
Making it Work for Our Emerging Scientists
When I spoke to the Senate and House appropriations committees
earlier this year, I testified that “In times of constrained
budgets, the most important action NIH needs to take is to preserve
the ability of young scientists with fresh ideas to enter the competitive
world of NIH funding,” and I meant that most passionately.
We need to do more and do it quickly in order to preserve the continuity
of discovery the nation has come to rely upon to improve human health.
For some, the system is working well. The best and brightest are
reaching their full potential in solid, research careers. We have
the evidence in the number of competitive grant applications being
submitted. For others, the queue is backing up. For them, it is
taking longer to complete the Ph.D. The years under post-docs as
these individuals seek permanent positions have stretched. We do
not want them to become discouraged. We need new investigator programs
aimed at helping people move from training to independent research
careers that match the needs of today’s science.
NIH and the Next Generation: Some Concerns
are concerned about the rising age of those receiving their first
R01. Between 1980 and 2004 the average age of Ph.D. scientists earning
their first R01 award went from 37 to 42 years. However, the time
between securing a faculty position and gaining an R01 award has
stayed fairly constant over the past 25 years. The problem appears
to be largely the result of the ever-increasing age at which a researcher
receives his or her appointment as an assistant professor. For Ph.D.
scientists, it has risen from 34 in 1980 to 38.5 in 2004. Although
it is partly a reflection of the complex scientific environments
that researchers grapple with, the additional time it takes to train
a scientist is one key issue that must be addressed by NIH and the
institutions and principal investigators charged with training the
biomedical research workforce.
NIH is Taking Action
As we have learned from behavioral research, acknowledging a problem
is an important first step in developing remedies. After much discussion
and data-gathering, we have launched several new efforts, both NIH-wide
and within specific ICs. We rethought our approach to attracting,
training, and launching new scientists, armed for success, into
NIH Pathway to Independence Awards. We have introduced
a new model, one that bridges what we have seen as a most vulnerable
time in the career path. This January, NIH launched the new “Pathway
to Independence Award Program” (http://grants1.nih.gov/grants/new_investigators/index.htm.
NIH will issue between 150 and 200 awards for this program in its
initial year, beginning this fall. We expect to issue the same number
of awards each of the following five years. The Pathway to Independence
award features an initial 1-2 year mentored phase which allows investigators
to complete their supervised research work, publish results, and
search for an independent research position. The second, independent
phase, in years 3-5, provides awardees who secure an assistant professorship,
or equivalent position, significant research support including full
indirect costs that will allow them to establish their own research
program and successfully apply for an NIH Investigator-Initiated
(R01) grant. During the full five-year period, the NIH will provide
almost $400 million in support of the program.
This is a team effort. All NIH Institutes and Centers are participating
in this award program. The Pathway to Independence is a new bridge
that will support new investigators at precisely the point between
mentoring and independence where so many have fallen to the wayside.
The Pathway to Independence Awards are a major piece of a larger,
ongoing NIH effort to support new scientists as they transition
to research independence, and supplements efforts being made at
individual Institutes and Centers.
Additional IC-Specific Efforts. In addition, we
have asked each IC to develop proactive steps, specific to their
own field, to sustain promising new scientists.
For example, the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute
maintains a separate, higher R01 payline for new investigators,
as well as funding new investigators for all years requested. In
addition, applications from new investigators that are between 5
to 10 percentile points above the regular R01 payline may undergo
an expedited administrative review. NIEHS has begun
a pilot project to test the idea of a new-investigators R01 program
with grants based on experience rather than data (http://grants.nih.gov/grants/guide/rfa-files/RFA-ES-06-007.html).
This pilot includes additional financial support above normal R01
levels for equipment, resource development and career enhancement
activities, and recommends the establishment of an advisory committee
to provide comprehensive faculty development for the new investigator.
Today, the relative likelihood of funding has improved for new investigators
vs. established investigators.
The Center for Scientific Review Pilot. Time is
the enemy for investigators trying desperately to obtain their first
R01 before exhausting their start-up package, and currently all
applicants who need to revise must sit out a review cycle to amend
their applications. Therefore, NIH has piloted a new peer-review
work flow system that allows new investigators to receive their
critique promptly and allows them to re-apply within five months
instead of the typical nine months. The Center for Scientific Review
Pilot will allow new investigators to revise a grant application
that missed the funding cut-off and to submit that revision for
the next review cycle. The findings from this pilot will become
available during fiscal year 2007. If successful, we will be looking
at extending the program.
All of these pilots will undergo a rigorous evaluation to determine
if they meet the needs of the community, providing support for new
investigators and accelerating their successful move to research
Peer Review and Award. Currently, we encourage
new investigators to self-identify by checking a box on the face
page of their applications. New investigators so identified are
given special consideration at peer review and at the time of funding.
Peer reviewers are instructed to focus more on the proposed approach
than on the track record and to expect less preliminary information
than would be provided by an established investigator. At the time
of award, NIH Institutes and Centers give new investigators special
consideration when selecting applications for funding and some IC
provide longer periods of support.
Women in Science. On September 18 the National
Academies of Science issued an important report, Beyond Bias
and Barriers: Fulfilling the Dream of Women in Academic Science
and Engineering. The report may be found at: http://www.nationalacademies.org/morenews/20060918.html.
It is clear that we must take action. We have increased the pool
of talented women who choose to study science and engineering —
we must now focus our efforts on retaining and advancing them. As
we look to the future of science, we need to ensure we fulfill the
promise of 21st century science to improve the health and lives
of all people, and to remain competitive in the face of increasing
global science and engineering competition. This will require commitment
at every level of the scientific enterprise and commitment by every
individual to change the current culture. We cannot afford to lose
women from the scientific and engineering workforce since they are
such a significant scientific resource. NIH is studying the recommendations
from the report to find the best ways to be responsive to the needs
that have been identified in this ORWH-requested study.
An Office of Intramural Research task force at NIH is developing
a summary report, based on surveys sent to scientists who have worked
or who are working in NIH’s intramural labs, to determine,
in part, what within the system has or has not worked for or has
worked differently for women in our labs. We are developing concrete
strategies to address the “hurdle” issues that we will
share with the community.
Pioneer Awards Give New Opportunities
I introduced the Pioneer Awards three years ago. In September we
announced 13 new awardees, who will each receive $2.5 million in
direct costs over 5 years. They join the 22 previously awarded innovators.
This is a diverse group of forward-thinking investigators whose
work could break new ground in many areas of medical research. These
awards give them the intellectual freedom to pursue exciting new
research directions and opportunities in a range of scientific fields,
including computational biology, immunology, stem cell biology,
nanotechnology, and drug development. And reflecting the nature
of some of today’s most cutting-edge research, a number of
the projects have a strong interdisciplinary thread. We are freeing
proven scientists to follow their instincts to do some high-risk
research and start funding a different kind of science. We are also
breaking out of our own standard operating procedure with an important
experiment that could inform best future practices in promoting
Readiness for the Future
When Lewis Thomas was popularizing science a few decades ago, he
once wrote, “I cannot guess at the things we will need to
know from science to get through the time ahead, but I am willing
to make one prediction about the methods; we will not be able to
call the shots in advance. . . It does not work that way.”1
We may not be able to call all the shots in advance,
but if we do two things — hold to core principles that have
worked over a long time and expect the unpredictable — we
will be the best stewards of the nation’s trust.
We must protect our core mission and values, discovery and generation
of new knowledge to improve human health by understanding the needs
of today’s scientist. We need to continue to communicate proactively
and to focus on balancing the supply and demand for grants by making
needed and thoughtful adjustments, and we need to continue to promote
the NIH’s vision for the future which is medicine that is
increasingly predictive, personalized, pre-emptive and participatory.
With those basic tenets in place, we can expect the special serendipities,
the twists and turns and surprises of discovery while commanding
the stability of the ship. We need good scientists in stable positions,
with the creativity, intellect, and resources to assess and fill
the nation’s needs.
We need to be focused upon the time ahead. We need to find new
ways to challenge the old pipeline to encourage, support, nurture
and release a new generation of scientists ready for the surprising
discoveries of the future, because in times of constraints the greatest
risk is to stop taking risks!
Keep letting me know about your thoughts on any of these
newsletters and note our Research Results for the Public is growing
rapidly each month:
I invite you to share any comments you have with me, directly,
Elias A. Zerhouni, M.D., Director
National Institutes of Health
For information about NIH programs, useful health information,
and additional resources, see the NIH web site at www.nih.gov.
An archive of the Director's Newsletter is available at http://www.nih.gov/about/director/newsletter/archive.htm.
1. Lewis Thomas. Late Night Thoughts on Listening
to Mahler’s Ninth Symphony. New York: Penguin Books,