A New Grant Aims to Help Young Medical Researchers Jump-Start Their Careers

March 23, 2015

The average age at which American medical researchers receive their first major grant from the National Institutes of Health is frustratingly, persistently high. So three leading philanthropic groups are attempting to step in and support young medical researchers early in their careers.

The Howard Hughes Medical Institute, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and the Simons Foundation announced on Monday a $150-million grant program designed to counter tight NIH budgets. The new grant, to be known as the Faculty Scholars competition, will provide five-year nonrenewable awards ranging from $100,000 to $400,000 per year. (Institutions would receive an additional 20 percent for administrative costs.)

The program hopefully will "give people some optimism" at a time of great concern that NIH’s budget constraints may be discouraging large numbers of young medical researchers, said Erin K. O’Shea, vice president and chief scientific officer at Hughes.

Faculty Scholars candidates must be postdoctoral researchers in tenure-track positions who have already won at least one smaller grant, such as a training award. They must also be affiliated with one of about 220 institutions selected by program administrators for meeting minimum levels of research activity. Sponsors said they anticipated 70 winners every two-and-a-half-year cycle, though Ms. O’Shea said she hoped to see the program grow to about 100 annually.

The president of one of the eligible institutions, Freeman A. Hrabowski III of the University of Maryland-Baltimore County, called the program an important step toward reducing the average age — now about 42 — at which scientists earn their first R01, the NIH’s main independent-research grant.

The Faculty Scholars concept appears especially valuable for its emphasis on interdisciplinary research, said Mr. Hrabowski, whose institution is one of the nation’s top producers of minority graduates who later earn doctorates in science and engineering.

In the meantime, the NIH has been making its own efforts to help younger researchers cope with the decade-long decline in the value of its budget relative to inflation. Among other steps, the agency has tried to provide financial support to student researchers through dedicated awards, known as T32 and F31 grants, rather than the R01 awards.

The nation’s leading user of the F31 grant, Emory University, has emphasized teaching students to write grant applications as well as scientific journal articles, said Anita H. Corbett, a professor of biochemistry at Emory. The Faculty Scholars program should help those younger researchers continue along their career paths, Ms. Corbett said, even if its prerequisite of one previous grant might limit its reach.

The eligibility restrictions simply reflect the depth of the need, Ms. O’Shea said. Even with them, she said, the Faculty Scholars award will only reach perhaps a tenth of those who could benefit from such help.