Concerned about the graying of the investigators it funds, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) today unveiled a new kind of grant aimed at helping postdocs become independent researchers. Grantees will receive up to $1 million over 5 years to cover research and training expenses. Even in tight budget times, "nothing is more important than supporting the new investigators early," said NIH director Elias Zerhouni.
NIH is responding to an alarming rise in the age of new investigators: 25 years ago, the average age of a Ph.D. investigator winning his or her first research grant, called an R01, was 37, but now it's 42. The reasons are thought to include longer postdocs and fewer new tenure slots at universities. In the late 1980s, NIH created a new research award for young investigators, but it was relatively small--$70,000 a year--and didn't seem to help scientists get R01s, so the agency phased it out. Last year, a National Academies' National Research Council panel recommended creation of a new, larger grant to help address the problem.
That's what NIH has now done by creating the Pathway to Independence award, a hybrid of traditional training and research grants. It begins with up to 2 years of $90,000 per year for training while the postdoc finishes research with a mentor. Then, assuming the postdoc has gotten a position as an assistant professor, he or she will receive up to $249,000 a year for as many as 3 years for independent research. The hope is that these investigators will then be in a good position to win an R01.
NIH wants to award 150 to 200 fellowships a year in the next 6 years, at a total cost of about $390 million. "That's enough to really make a difference," says Howard Hughes Medical Institute president Tom Cech, who chaired the Academies panel. Alyson Reed, executive director of the National Postdoctoral Association, which had also recommended the award's creation, called the announcement "welcome news for the entire postdoctoral community."
Also important, says Cech, is that the grant can go to non-U.S. citizens, can be transferred to another institution, and will include money for overhead (indirect costs), which can be as high as 50% at some universities. That should give universities a strong incentive to create new positions for these investigators, Zerhouni says. The first awards will be made next fall.