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A Look at Programs Targeting New Scientists

The strength of the biomedical research enterprise depends on new researchers becoming independent NIH-funded researchers, bringing fresh ideas and perspectives for solving scientific questions. As we have discussed here and in other venues, we are keenly aware that the long training period, aging of the biomedical workforce, and the fiscally challenging times all impact the ability of individuals to move from training positions into independent research positions. Because of this, NIH has a number of policies and programs in place which facilitate innovative and exceptional science from people who are just launching their independent research careers.

One example is that applications from NIH’s New Investigators – research investigators who have never received a major independent research award – are grouped in peer review to help reviewers identify the best projects from people in that cohort . For several years now our fiscal policy has stated that New Investigators success rates on new (type 1) R01-equivalent applications should be comparable to that of experienced PIs. There also are special considerations for Early Stage Investigators (ESIs) who are within ten years of completing their terminal research degree or clinical residency program.  In addition, NIH has a number of targeted programs for supporting research from newer scientists, such as the NIH Director’s New Innovator Awards and Early Independence Awards .

Reducing the time between the terminal degree or clinical training and the point at which researchers receive their first independent research award is certainly a goal that we want to measure. Age isn’t an absolute measure for this but it can serve as a proxy. We know that NIH’s New Investigators have an average age of 42 for PhDs and about 44 for MDs and MD-PhDs. Therefore, I was also interested in the ages of Early Stage Investigators when receiving their first major independent research award, and the ages of awardees of programs specifically targeted to providing new scientists with substantial independent research funding. We specifically looked at the NIEHS Outstanding New Environmental Scientist (ONES) program, the Biobehavioral Research Award for Innovative New Scientist (BRAINS) program, the NIH Director’s New Innovator Award Program, and the NIH Director’s Early Independence Awards program. We also looked at the ages of NIH Pathway to Independence (K99/R00) awardees moving into the R00 (research grant) phase during FY2013. Here’s the data, below, and you can find the full set of data including footnotes in this Excel file on RePORT.

Type of Classification Number of Awardees Average Age Median Age
Early Stage Investigators2 785 39.2 39
Targeted New Scientist Programs Number of Awardees Average Age Median Age
Outstanding New Environmental Scientist (ONES) in 20111a <11 36.9 37
Biobehavioral Research Award for Innovative New Scientist (BRAINS)1b <11 36.4 36
NIH Director’s New Innovator Award Program1c 45 37.4 37
NIH Pathway to Independence Award (R00)3 153 36.2 36
NIH Director’s Early Independence Awards1d 14 32.1 32

In FY2013, the average age for scientists classified as Early Stage Investigators was 39.2, and their median age was 39. Looking at the average and median age of awardees of the targeted programs that provide substantial independent support for newer investigators, we see also see that recipients are younger than most investigators receiving their first NIH R01-equivalent award. As expected, the awardees of the Early Independence Award program receive major research  support earliest in their careers since this program is designed to allow individuals to skip their postdoc.

While these data are not conclusive because they are based on only a single fiscal year, they do seem to indicate that programs targeting innovative and exceptional research from newer investigators can attract researchers earlier in their careers. We will monitor these trends in future years and follow the outcomes from these programs, particularly the success of these awardees in securing future NIH support going forward.

18 thoughts on “A Look at Programs Targeting New Scientists

  1. Does it not matter when applicants for grants get their independent positions? Won’t that affect the age at which first awarded? Additionally, which of those programs have limits to who might apply (by age or duration of post-doc?). If the K99/R00 program has limits to who might apply and when, isn’t that pool of candidates necessarily likely to be younger than the general pool for ESI? Is it possible that awardees with R00s might be delayed getting a first R01 because they have some additional funding when starting their careers? Does this program have any negative effect on R01 award ages?

  2. I think that the length of the training period is one factor that dissuades many people from a research career. However, I wonder if the results possibly could have been any different. What I mean is, the ESI is DEFINED by a time-frame of eligibility. Within 10 years of terminal degree or completion of residency.

    Based on a previous Rock Talk post (Jun 27, 2012, “What We’ve Learned About Graduate Students”), the average age of receiving a PhD in biomed sciences is between 30 and 31. So the 10 year window, on average, closes at age 40 to 41. Looks like the age of success for ESI’s at 39.2 years old is very near the time we ‘age-out’ of eligibility.

    An average age of success for ESI (or the Director’s New Innovator Award- which is only for ESI’s) that is the same as successful new investigators (~42 yo) is likely impossible based on the definition of an ESI- ESI’s MUST be younger, or else they are not in the ESI camp.

  3. Age discrimination – I am in favor of people moving faster into independent careers. That said isn’t the NIH fundamentally practicing a form of age discrimination on both ends – favoring younger people at the expense of more senior investigators – but at the same time rewarding more senior investigators in other ways. Shouldn’t we be trying to solve the big health issues regardless of age? You never know where the good ideas are going to come from.

  4. Following on “New PI”s comment – because of the eligibility criteria, the mean age for all these programs is less than 40. I think that’s called selection bias. What about the results for other training programs such as the KL2? More importantly, what is the likelihood that these new investigators are getting a second R01 once they join the regular applicant pool?

  5. This is all well and good, but why don’t you check to see how many young PIs get there first grants renewed…it doesn’t do any good to delay the inevitable. With so little funds available, so many PIs, young and old, can’t get grants, and promising careers simply die a few years later…either NIH needs more money, or stop bringing so many people into the research fold that cannot be supported! I’m a full professor, had a productive independent research career for 12 years, had two R01s and cannot get either one renewed…time to boost my salary as an administrator?

  6. It is notable that the programs specifically targeting new investigators (ONES, BRAINS, Early Independence Awards) fund a frighteningly small number of researchers (Ns of each award are less than 15). Further, even with the ONES and BRAINS the median age is 36 or 37. The implication is that only a small minority of folks will benefit from these mechanisms and the funding will often come when they are Associate Professors (should their careers survive to that point). The Early Independence program pushes the age to 32 which is great but 14 researchers benefited from that award. So, all well-intended programs but can this really provide encouragement to our graduate students as they look to starting a research career?

  7. Efforts to fund young researchers are to be applauded, but, so far, it is too little.. I urge everyone at the NIH , as well as biomedical researchers in general , to read the article by Kirschner, Alberts, Tilghman, and Varmus, in the new PNAS.

  8. The idea that the US needs more early career investigators at a time that most mid-career investigators are having a horrendous time keeping their faculty appointment is inane! I can tell you from my own experience that the biggest drag on our ability to inspire gifted students to pursue a career in the biomedical sciences is the devastation that they see, first hand, resulting from their mid-career mentors losing their positions due to lack of funding. Contrary to what Dr Rockey and other administrators at the gilded echelons of the NIH administration seem to be thinking, the biomedical research enterprise in the US is dying, in real time, right now! (as exemplified by the loss of academic positions for mid level investigators and the merger binge gripping the pharmaceutical industry resulting in large scale lay-offs). Creative solutions to bring in more research funding from the private sector are out there, given the enormous amounts of money “sloshing” around at the upper levels of society that are looking for reasonable investment opportunities (reasonable in terms of ROI). However this would require a leading role of the NIH to bring together all stakeholders (i.e. Big Pharma (who needs access to the new ideas that academia provides), Government (who should be loathe to see one of the US’ greatest assets, built up over 60+ years, be eviscerated in the span of a few years), and capital markets (who are always looking for reasonably safe and profitable investment opportunities – Research Bonds anyone?). As I said – it could be done, but the (apparent) focus of the NIH administration on piddling around trivial issues (does it really matter, in the big scheme of things, if 1st investigators get their start in academia 2.7 years earlier?) seems designed to allow the, much vaunted, process of “creative destruction” run its course “right-sizing” the academic biomedical research enterprise of the US. This might work if the US would not face competition from other countries. However, as anyone knows that has read recent research literature, research output from Pacific Rim countries is increasing exponentially. (Not surprisingly, since many of the scientists from China and India were educated in the US, at taxpayer’s expense (via NIH grants) and were then forced to return to their home countries due to lack of job opportunities here (oh the irony!).
    I can still remember how the 1993 cancellation of the SSC (superconducting super collider) virtually destroyed the US’ lead in high energy physics research. I am afraid that the current administration’s inaction will do the same for biomedical research.

  9. Add to all that the tendency of big prestigious academic institutions to milk the government for all it’s worth by forcing their researchers to bring in their own salaries, even though a lot of these institutions have plenty enough money to throw around. I am research track, had 7 years of federal funding, 6 years of private funding, never got promoted, and was told to take a hike if I couldn’t get funding or find a colleague to work for. Now try to find another job at 50+ …

  10. 1. The NIH does not seem to have a mechanism to prevent new investigators from being awarded multiple grants due to the special considerations/advantages afforded to them in the review process. I do not know how frequently it occurs, but I do know of cases of new investigators submitting multiple applications during their period of eligibility for new investigator treatment during the review process and then being awarded multiple R01s and other grants. See

    2. It does not make sense to pump bright new scientists into the extramural research/soft-money system without asking what their fate is likely to be a few years down the line (when they need to renew their beginning grants). Many smart people are commenting that the system is broken; how does it help to lure more people in. I agree with the comment above:
    “This is all well and good, but why don’t you check to see how many young PIs get there first grants renewed…it doesn’t do any good to delay the inevitable. With so little funds available, so many PIs, young and old, can’t get grants, and promising careers simply die a few years later…either NIH needs more money, or stop bringing so many people into the research fold that cannot be supported! “

  11. Look at the track record of the program (F32, to be exact) targeting young scientists:
    If you obtained F32 award after 2005, you have less than 10% chance of having R01 now! How come “postdocs who have the potential to develop into independent investigators” have low odds of making it?

  12. In times of crisis it does not seem right to keep feeding new investigators into the system through facilitated funding. Although harsh, the extramural enterprise needs to come out of the ICU and once happy and healthy again all these wonderful programs should be restored. Right now, the NIH should cut all special funding out and put all the effort on rescuing investigator initiated science (R01s) in the US. If most labs close, what is the use of having more new investigators that will not be able to renew their grants? or generating massive amount of data (mostly databases) through huge contracts and program grants? who is going to be there to use that information?…Oh yes, people in Asia….It is unbelievable that with the depth of the whole the US extramural science is in, there is still not significant reallocation of funds to rescue the system….come on NIH…look outside your window! morale is at an all time low from students to senior scientists, labs with one person are becoming a common place…really? would those labs ever be able to be part of the 9% funded?….

  13. While there are many considerations for early stage investigators, the considerations for new investigators are dying out. Is the “success rate the same” for real and is it followed in all institutes ? I asked officials at NHLBI, only to be told it is meaningless.

  14. The NIH should be lauded in their efforts given the circumstances. Supporting early investigator independence is important for many reasons that most (young and old) can’t fathom. First, as the philosopher Nietzsche pointed out, most scientists, unlike poets, have trouble keeping the fire burning because of the constant need for sobriety (especially with low funding/hiring rates). After that first discovery, they may want or need to work on that idea forever because of the independence/financial barriers for any new ‘fantasy’ that may lead to a more fortunate ‘accident’ (again borrowing on Nietzsche). Another constant barrier a young investigator faces is obtaining recognition or reward for their level of talent and effort both inside and outside of their place of employment. They may not ever get anything tangible out of their work aside from a small stipend and authorship, if even that security. The sober senior PI may assume the recognition coming from the fire, fantasy and talent of the youth without the young having any scientific future. What the NIH should look for is the scientist who is capable of maintaining the fire burning while also demonstrating the sobriety required to bring a fantasy to reality. It’s a hard road to walk, but a few (young and old) are capable of it. Sure give a PI a grant to do the bread and butter and confirm or expand reality, but expect something new and more beautiful on the horizon. When evaluating a scientist/grant application, reviewers should very carefully ask what came out of a scientist’s previous stages whether it be a training fellowship or regular grant. Was there ever a fantasy that is now a reality? or is it still mere fancy? or was it solely technical -confirming something we already knew or suspected? It also helps to be familiar with who the youth was working with-and how that fantasy was turned to reality.

  15. The April 4th issue of Science has a ten page section up front regarding the current travails of U.S. grant-funded researchers: “Chasing the Money”.

    The NIH funding situation has been getting progressively worse over the past few years. Meanwhile, over the years, the NIH has kept coming up with new schemes to direct funds to new investigators in order to pump fresh blood into the system.

    Now, read the following excerpt from the lead article:

    The agency makes it easier for new investigators to get funding, for example, but it doesn’t know how they fare 5 years out, when their first big grant is up for renewal. “We want to make sure we’re not setting them up for failure,” says Sally Rockey, NIH’s deputy director for extramural research. The agency plans to start tracking these people, to gauge whether they’re headed for dire straits.

    Now read it again.

    Note the words “plans to start.” Plans. To. Start. Plans to start. Now? Now?(!)

    When starting a program, it’s good to think through the outcomes beforehand. Especially when your enticing people into a career and investing heavily in them. Especially when their livelihood while pursuing that career is dependent on your organization. Similarly, it’s good to try to ascertain results/outcomes in as timely a fashion as possible.

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