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.