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NIH’s Next Generation Researchers Initiative

At the Advisory Committee to the Director meeting last week, NIH Principal Deputy Director Dr. Larry Tabak presented a new NIH initiative to strengthen the biomedical workforce. This presentation followed extensive discussions with stakeholders both here through this blog, at stakeholder meetings, and at NIH advisory council meetings over the last month. We heard unequivocal endorsements for supporting early-career and mid-career researchers given the hypercompetitive funding environment — a challenge we have addressed many times in our blog posts. However, many voiced concerns about our taking a formulaic approach to capping grant funding and called on us to be more direct in enabling greater support for the next generation of biomedical researchers.

For this reason, we have shifted our approach to a focused initiative to support early- and mid-career investigators. As described in a June 8 NIH Director’s statement, and in recognition of the call for such action in the 21st Century Cures Act, we are naming this effort the Next Generation Researchers Initiative. We will take a multi-pronged approach to increase the number of NIH-funded early-stage and mid-career investigators and stabilize the career trajectory of scientists. We describe these approaches on a new web page that we will continue to update. Our activities address both research workforce stability, and evaluation of our investments in research. In brief, NIH will:

  • commit substantial funds from NIH’s base budget, beginning this year with about $210 million, and ramping to approximately $1.1 billion per year after five years (pending availability of funds) to support additional meritorious early-stage investigators and mid-career investigators
  • create a central inventory and track the impact of NIH institute and center funding decisions for early- and mid-career investigators with fundable scores to ensure this new strategy is effectively implemented in all areas of research
  • place greater emphasis on current NIH funding mechanisms aimed at early- and mid-career investigators
  • aim to fund most early-career investigators with R01 equivalent applications that score in the top 25th percentile
  • encourage multiple approaches to develop and test metrics that can be used to evaluate the effectiveness of our research portfolio, and assess the impact of NIH grant support on scientific progress, to ensure the best return on investment

Applicants do not need to do anything special to be eligible for this funding consideration. Beginning this fiscal year, the NIH institute or center (IC) who would fund the grant will give your application special consideration for support if you are:

  • an early-stage investigator (within 10 years of completing your terminal research degree or medical residency and have not previously received a substantial independent NIH research award) and receive a score in the top 25th percentile (or an impact score of 35 if the application is not percentiled)
  • a mid-career investigator (within 10 years of receiving your first NIH R01 equivalent award) who scores in the 25th percentile, and either:
    • are at risk of losing all support, or,
    • are a particularly promising investigator currently supported by a single ongoing award (i.e, NIH will prioritize funding an additional concurrent research project grant award)

NIH ICs make funding decisions to support their mission, and this plan provides flexibility in how ICs will meet the NIH-wide goal of supporting highly scoring early-stage and mid-career researchers. Each IC will make its decisions about how it will prioritize funding to support this initiative.

As further details are announced, we will be updating the Next Generation Researchers Initiative web page with this information. In the meantime, we encourage you to read the NIH Director’s statement, and look at the Advisory Committee to the Director presentation and webcast recording.

We appreciate your feedback in addressing the very important issue of stabilizing the biomedical research workforce. Your comments to this blog (or via email, if preferred) are welcome. With the continued input from individuals at every career stage, as well as research institutions and other stakeholders, we can work together to make changes that ensure the long-term stability and strength of the U.S. biomedical research enterprise, and that advance science to improve health for all.

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21 thoughts on “NIH’s Next Generation Researchers Initiative

  1. These are excellent ideas. Much better than the previous attempts.

    I particularly like that help will be given both to new investigators AND to struggling mid-career investigators.

    However, will the 10 year time limit take into account various potential reasons for gaps? That is, will the 10 years be 10 physical years or 10 “work years”. For example, if someone takes 5 years off to raise (let’s be honest, usually her) kids, will that person have lost 5 years of their 10 year time limit?

  2. It is a great initiative by NIH. Also, wondering where small businesses fall into this program?
    Similar to academics, there are small businesses who would have got SBIR grants. They need to sustain the program.

    Are there any opportunities in this program

    Thanks

  3. This is a great idea in principle but it has 2 critical flaws, both revolving around the fact that the NIH budget is a zero sum game.. 1) If the money for this new program doesn’t come from NIH wealthy as it did in the proposed Grant Support Index,it risks simply rearranging the zero grant PIs, removing money from one small 1-2 grant lab to fund a different one. 2) By restricting the new funds to relatively junior folks, it risks creating an even larger pool of mid/senior folks who lose their 1 grant to provide the money for those who get a grant through this mechanism. If we don’t have a policy like the GSI or the NIGMS 750K policy which caps investigator funding, we’ll never make progress. Consider emailing Drs. Collins, Lauer and Lorsch to express your thoughts and consider signing the petition on this matter

    • This commenter is correct that this has potential to seriously harm current investigators with modest sized labs as it will certainly result in even lower pay lines in a flat funding climate. This initiative does not make sense without GSI, NIGMS type cap or all institutes adding a MIRA type program for those beyond 10 years with established long term productivity but who are not piling on awards. Petitions are now circulating to instead revisit rather than eliminate GSI. GSI was a more practical solution to broaden the research base at NIH while this proposal has serious potential for negative unintended consequences.

    • This is an extremely valid point that the Council is ignoring. Someone on this message board pointed out that the Council is packed with multi-grant funded PIs (can you say conflict of interest?) so they don’t care if you rob Peter to to pay Paul, as long as the Peter is not any of them. The NIH has to put a cap on funding for each investigator just like certain branches of the VA allows only one Merit Award per investigator – without such a cap this problem will never be solved, and the rich PIs will continue to stay rich and get even richer at the expense of the vast majority of other capable PIs.

  4. What about those of us that are New Investigators but not ESI? We are already not eligible for the R35 mechanism. Now we are being left out of this new initiative?

    thanks for your consideration.

    • exactly. excessive obsession with “Early” but not “New” is puzzling. Include New Investigators into your mechanism.

      and yes, its a zero sum game as someone mentioned. and any reform needs to start with Intramural NIH research programs- they have technicians on permanent positions earning >100K who can’t be fired. They have investigators with monetary equivalent of 5 or 10 R01 per year who are not productive (lab budgets of 1 mil- 6 mil per YEAR!)

  5. 1) “Early-stage” should reflect the true status of one’s career, rather than one’s age.

    2) With an increase in competitiveness and as a result the number of years needed to get an independent faculty position (of course, depends on schools / disciplines / individuals), defining “early-stage” as within 10 years from the completion of one’s terminal degree is a little out of touch with the current reality.

    3) For some schools / disciplines, one may need a longer postdoc (6-8 years is very common these days) before getting an independent position; for some other schools / disciplines, one may only need 2-3 years. This means for the longer postdoc, one only has a few years left to be eligible for this early-stage benefit; and for the shorter postdoc, one has 7-8 years. How do you balance this variability?

    4) If a person does very well and is able to quickly rise to an Associate level with tenure but is still within 10 years from completion of their terminal degree, should this individual still be considered “early-stage”?

    One approach to avoid these inconsistencies is to be inclusive and help out all the investigators that truly need help — those who have never received a R01 and those who are struggling to get their first R01 renewed in order to keep the lab alive (assuming they are all considered as “next generation researchers”?) — regardless of their age or rank.

  6. This proposal should absolutely include NEW Investigators (per NIH definition) as well. As people above said, it often takes a long time to do postdoc. Otherwise this will only be helpful to Early investigators and Mid-career investigators who already have funding.

    You will leave New Investigators out in cold…..

    My situation (not uncommon)- after PhD defense I stayed for 1.5 year to finish more PhD manuscripts, apply and interview for postdoc, accept offer, relocate

    Then 6 years of postdoc- mouse, long term work. Postdoc fellowship and Career development award. 2 first author papers which are cited 1300 and 450 times (just to show that I was not a slouch and did not waste 6 years). Interviews for faculty position.

    Again, when I start my faculty position, its already 7.5 years after PhD. Establishment of mouse colony, first results. By the time 10 years kick in, I have applied for all young PI awards (got some) and thing like NIH Innovator (was competitive but did not get). First 2 R01 are not funded and now to be left out in cold…? I am sure I am not alone with this problem.

    This initiative will also dramatically short recruitment strategies, changing from hire of well published, interview process vetted external candidates with start ups to internal promotion of people to some “instructor” “research track” position hoping that they will score R01 with 25% funding rate and without much investment from the department until they will get the grant.

    INCLUDE NEW INVESTIGATORS!

    And before any cap for awards is considered, take another look at Intramural NIH Program.

  7. Actually, what the program of help should look like in my opinion, is the following:

    1) make it 1-2-3 system. You are getting your first R01 with 12% extra. second R01 with 8% extra. 3rd R01- 4% extra- that’s the idea (exact %% can be figured out). That takes care of early , new and mid-career investigators.

    got 2-3 R01 at the same time? good for you- you got enough money to run robust program, publish good and compete in the future without extra help.

    less lucky or need only 1 R01 at a time? Then such program can give you preferential funding rates for 15 years then (3 consecutive R01). after 15 years in the business probably you do not need as much help….

    2) no age restrictions (illegal), time after PhD (for that you already have early MIRA and NIH Innovator) or caps on senior investigators (these guys get peer reviewed, why punish productivity after peer review)?

    • Way to go – this would avoid many potential problems such as variabilities, inconsistencies, restrictions, discriminations, and negative impact on career paths – and fair to all investigators regardless of their age and rank

  8. As stated by others, this leaves New Investigators who are not ESI out in the cold. Please include us. The 10 year post PhD rule is arbitrary. It does not account for those of us (mostly women) with non-traditional career trajectories, while simultaneously increasing the perks afforded to those who take a lock-step/ traditional path. This is increasing disparity, not reducing it!

  9. To point out the obvious, this decision by the Council to essentially maintain the status quo with respect to uneven distribution of federal grant dollars, was not unexpected. To understand this decision you only have to look at the Council roster and how many on that roster have multiple grants.

  10. I agree with a previous comment pertaining to the definition of ESI. Faculty positions are becoming increasing difficult to obtain so we are seeing researchers in 5+ years of postdocs. Why doesn’t NIH consider increasing the number of K-awards and even extending the eligibility timeline? I know that the K99/R00 and K22 mechanisms are 4-5 years of postdoc experience. I think the number of postdoc years needs to reflect the reality that candidates may be in their 7th year of postdocing before securing a faculty position. Also, I think NIH needs to start thinking about how to increase the number of grants awarded to PIs from underrepresented backgrounds in science.

  11. While it is laudable to help early and mid stage investigators, as pointed out this is a zero sum game. Why penalize more experienced investigators still doing outstanding work but who may have small labs that exist on 1 R01? As some of the original justification for the GSI pointed out there is a big difference between going from 1 to 0 grants, vs 3 to 2 or even 2 to 1, irrespective of seniority. I don’t think anyone believes that the grant that gets 15% is really that much worse than one that gets 10%, and that the PI of the latter is necessarily the better scientist that will make the next big breakthrough.

  12. I was initially excited about this new policy as the NIH director’s statement, the Advisory Committee to the Director presentation, and this blog all mentioned that NIH will bolster the support for “early- and mid-career investigators”. As a person who is just recently removed from my ESI status, I figured that I must belong to the above-mentioned “early- and mid-career investigators”. However, after I went through the detailed description, I realized that I was wrong because I do not belong to any of the categories NIH is going to support, based on the definitions by NIH.

    So now the question is: what category do I belong to? Do I belong to “senior-career investigator” if I am not an early- or mid-career investigator? Naturally, I would say no, I am not a senior-career investigator as I just started my independent position a few years ago.

    As one would assume that you either belong early- career or mid-career, or you must belong to senior, based on a natural course of a career, how come this could occur?

    Now the term “New Investigator” comes to play. New investigator, based on NIH definition, is an investigator who has not received his/her first NIH R01 award. I would guess that a New Investigator could be an early-career, mid-career, or senior-career, based on natural career stages. I also further guess that a significant portion (if not majority) of New investigators are still early-career or mid-career investigators. But the new NIH policy does not cover these investigators. I will argue that this is an oversight of NIH and that NIH should equally support these investigators.

    First let’s look at how a new faculty works. After a lengthy postdoc training (3-7 years, or you name it), a new faculty starts his/her independent position with institutional support of 3-4 years. You will be eligible to be an ESI for the remaining years (10 years minus your postdoc years); some people might start their position approaching almost zero years as a ESI. Within these years (far less than 10 years for most ESIs), you have to secure your first R01; otherwise you will be left in cold.

    Now let’s also look at how NIH defines “mid-career investigator”. Based on the NIH definition, a mid-career investigator is an investigator who receives his/her first NIH R01 award within 10 years). This means that from the day he/she is awarded the first R01, a mid-career investigator will have 4-5 years (mostly 5 years) of R01 support and have 10 years of time to get a second R01 grant if his new application receives a score in the top 25th percentile.

    If you compare the situations between “mid-career investigator” and an ESI, it is obvious that it is much tougher for an ESI to secure his first R01 award (within only 1-5 years remaining as ESIs and 3-4 years of institutional support) than a mid-career investigator for a second R01 award (within 10 years and 4-5 years of R01 support). As a result, a significant portion (if not most) of ESIs will end up as New Investigators.

    For fairness and parity, I urge NIH to include New investigators, or at least to include new investigators who are within 10 years since their first faculty position.

  13. From the point of view of a PI and mentor, NIH definitely needs a new mechanism to encourage young people to go into science and to keep good scientist in the game. The idea of limiting funding at the extremes was laudable and brave. Most importantly though, it was practical and all but the “richest” among us know it is based on sound logic. A shrinking field of “rich” scientist is a recipe for and failure, just as we are currently witnessing in society. As the field shrinks, so will those who are willing to get into it. I urge your to consider listening to the voices of the many in the field of science rather than the excessively loud voices of the few. To characterize the criticism of the NIH limited funding proposal as widespread and resounding is simply not correct from what I am hearing from colleagues. It is widespread among those who have benefitted greatly from the system. They are certainly good scientist, but for the good of science they should be willing to support their ideas and labs with reasonable funding rather than extreme and clearly unreasonable funding. I would argue that even if the 4 or 5th R01 in a lab produces at the same level as the single R01 that could go to another lab does it is still far better to keep that other lab going, keeping those ideas and the people they support in science. My advise to NIH is to do what most of us know is right. Our field is shrinking and it is becoming more difficult to get good students to go into science. We need a change and some type of reasonable funding limit was in my opinion a good start. It would be especially good as a mechanism of support for young and middle career scientist, and it would encourage young people driven away from science by fears of never getting funded. Doing nothing, or something that is incremental is akin to complacency.

  14. I agree with WW that NIH should consider to include new investigators who have been a PI for less than 10 years in the initiative. Actually this is what’s being described by Dr. Larry Tabak at the Advisory Committee to the Director meeting.

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