A program unveiled Friday by the National Institutes of Health will provide nearly $400 million in grants over the next five years to help promising new scientists pursue independent medical research.
Dr. Elias A. Zerhouni, director of the federal government’s medical research agency, said he expected the NIH to issue 150 to 200 awards each year to scientists who had recently received their doctorates.
“Hopefully this will allow innovation and allow new investigators to take chances in research,” Zerhouni said.
The program follows the recommendations of a National Academy of Sciences report, which last year found that new researchers faced increasing difficulty finding funds for independent research.
Dr. Aaron DiAntonio, who served on the academy committee, said new scientists were often forced to make incremental progress on mentors’ research because they had neither the time nor the money to demonstrate that they could investigate on their own.
With an NIH award, “these people will be able to branch out from what their postdoctoral advisor is doing and follow their own ideas,” said DiAntonio, who teaches at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis.
New scientists typically work for senior researchers who have won NIH funding, then try to find a job that will allow them to pursue their own work. But that’s difficult, and many leave academic research.
Dr. Margaret McCarthy, assistant dean of graduate studies at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, said the new program might have the added benefit of encouraging new female scientists, who have been dropping out of biomedical research career paths at a higher rate than men.
“If you get one of these awards, you’ll have all of the tools to stay without wallowing in the netherworld of training,” McCarthy said.
Many scientists complain that independent research projects that deserve -- and historically would have received -- government funding aren’t getting it because NIH budgets have tightened and grant money often goes to new NIH initiatives.
The new award pays for research and other work until recipients obtain traditional grants for independent research.
Zerhouni said that the Pathway to Independence Award wouldn’t affect the money set aside for independent research, and that the hope was that a greater percentage of starting scientists would win the independent grants.
Zerhouni said the money for the new awards would come from cost-cutting across the NIH and would be an addition to the $1.4 billion a year the agency spends on training and career development.
The director has shown an interest in prodding new researchers chasing cutting-edge science. Last year, the NIH gave 13 scientists Pioneer Awards worth $500,000 to pursue bold but risky research.
Winners of the new awards will work for a year or two under a mentor.
During this time, they will be expected to publish the results from their supervised research and find an independent position, such as an assistant professorship.
The scientists who secure independent positions will have up to three years to apply for one of the NIH’s independent research grants.
Scientists with no more than five years of postdoctoral research training can apply immediately.
The NIH expects to begin issuing awards this fall.