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NIH Looks to the Future and Unveils Program to Support New Scientists

New investigators who successfully cross the bridge from research dependence to research independence bring fresh ideas and innovative perspectives to the research enterprise, which are critical to sustaining our ability to push forward the frontiers of medical research.

By Sara Robinson

On January 27, National Institutes of Health Director Elias Zerhouni announced the NIH Pathway to Independence Award Program, offering the opportunity for new investigators to receive both mentored and independent research support from the same award. 

“Encouraging independent inquiry by promising new investigators is a major goal for NIH,” Zerhouni said.  “We must invest in the future of our new scientists today if we expect to meet the nation’s health challenges of tomorrow.  New investigators who successfully cross the bridge from research dependence to research independence bring fresh ideas and innovative perspectives to the research enterprise, which are critical to sustaining our ability to push forward the frontiers of medical research.”

There has been growing concern in the research community that young investigators are not being properly trained for independent careers, and in December a working group of the Advisory Committee to the Director was formed to develop strategies for helping talented young scientists make the transition to an independent research career. In a report issued early in 2005, “Bridges to Independence,” the National Academy of Sciences found that postdoctoral scientists were working in labs for years without the opportunity to apply for their own grants. As a result, the average age of investigators receiving their first R01 grants has increased over the past several decades--today, the average is 42 years of age.
For the program’s first year, NIH will issue between 150 and 200 awards beginning in Fall 2006.  Over the next five years, the NIH will provide almost $400 million in support of the program, which boasts the participation of all NIH Institutes and Centers. During the initial 1-2 year mentored phase of the awards, investigators can complete their supervised research work, publish results, and search for an independent research position. The following phase, or years 3-5, will allow awardees who secure assistant professorships, or equivalent positions, to establish their own research programs and successfully apply for R01 grants. 

“This award program is a major step toward fostering the early independence of new investigators, a key to innovation and creativity,” Zerhouni said.  “We must take action now to maintain the tremendous momentum that we’ve experienced in science.  Talented people with new ideas are at the core of our success--we must support them all the way.  Nothing is more important, especially in times of tight budgets.”