News Release

Tuesday, October 5, 2021

NIH supports 106 grants featuring high-risk, high-reward research

The National Institutes of Health awarded 106 grants to support highly innovative and broadly impactful biomedical or behavioral research by exceptionally creative scientists through the Common Fund’s High-Risk, High-Reward Research program. Supported research this year includes understanding how long-term memory might be encoded in the shape of folded DNA in our neurons, mining data from unconventional sources to reveal social determinants of suicide, establishing new paradigms to address the functional consequences of health disparities in drug development, and looking at the impact of high school and collegiate athlete injuries on long-term health. The 106 awards total approximately $329 million over five years, pending availability of funds.

The High-Risk, High-Reward Research program catalyzes scientific discovery by supporting highly innovative research proposals that, due to their inherent risk, may struggle in the traditional peer-review process despite their transformative potential. Program applicants are encouraged to think “outside the box” and pursue trailblazing ideas in any area of research relevant to the NIH’s mission to advance knowledge and enhance health.

“The science put forward by this cohort is exceptionally novel and creative and is sure to push at the boundaries of what is known,” said NIH Director Francis S. Collins, M.D., Ph.D. “These visionary investigators come from a wide breadth of career stages and show that groundbreaking science can happen at any career level given the right opportunity.”

The High-Risk, High-Reward Research Program is part of the NIH Common Fund, which oversees programs that pursue major opportunities and gaps throughout the research enterprise that are of great importance to NIH and require collaboration across the agency to succeed. The High-Risk, High-Reward Research program manages the following four awards, including two awards aimed specifically to support researchers in the early stages of their careers:

  • The NIH Director’s Pioneer Award, established in 2004, challenges investigators at all career levels to pursue new research directions and develop groundbreaking, high-impact approaches to a broad area of biomedical, behavioral, or social science.
  • The NIH Director’s New Innovator Award, established in 2007, supports unusually innovative research from early career investigators who are within 10 years of their final degree or clinical residency and have not yet received a research project grant or equivalent NIH grant.
  • The NIH Director’s Transformative Research Award, established in 2009, promotes cross-cutting, interdisciplinary approaches and is open to individuals and teams of investigators who propose research that could potentially create or challenge existing paradigms.
  • The NIH Director’s Early Independence Award, established in 2011, provides an opportunity to support exceptional junior scientists who have recently received their doctoral degree or completed their medical residency to skip traditional post-doctoral training and move immediately into independent research positions.

Unique to this year was the addition of two special-focus areas:

  • Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS) – The Common Fund and National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS) partnered to support the Accelerating Leading-edge Science in ALS (ALS2) initiative as an opportunity to support ALS research through several Transformative Research Awards, including one award with support from National Institute of General Medical Sciences (NIGMS). The initiative aims to dramatically advance the understanding of what triggers and drives the rapid progression of ALS.
  • COVID-19 – Due to the public health emergency, the Transformative Research Award and Early Independence Award issued additional funding opportunities for COVID-19-related research on the prevention of, preparation for, or response to coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 using funds provided through the CARES Act.

NIH issued 10 Pioneer awards64 New Innovator awards19 Transformative Research awards (10 general, four ALS-related, and five COVID-19-related), and 13 Early Independence awards for 2021. Funding for the awards comes from the NIH Common Fund, NIGMS, National Institute of Mental Health, and the NINDS.

About the NIH Common Fund: The NIH Common Fund encourages collaboration and supports a series of exceptionally high-impact, trans-NIH programs. Common Fund programs are managed by the Office of Strategic Coordination in the Division of Program Coordination, Planning, and Strategic Initiatives in the NIH Office of the Director in partnership with the NIH Institutes, Centers, and Offices. More information is available at the Common Fund website:

About the National Institutes of Health (NIH): NIH, the nation's medical research agency, includes 27 Institutes and Centers and is a component of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. NIH is the primary federal agency conducting and supporting basic, clinical, and translational medical research, and is investigating the causes, treatments, and cures for both common and rare diseases. For more information about NIH and its programs, visit

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