Reprinted with permission of Science News, 25 June 2004

For years, the biomedical community has worried about the graying of the average investigator supported by the National Institutes of Health (NIH). A National Academy of Sciences (NAS) panel tackling this stubborn problem has revived an old idea: a special grant tailored to young researchers with bright ideas but little or no preliminary data. At a workshop last week, participants were mostly positive but noted problems that would need to be overcome.

Experts have watched with alarm as the proportion of researchers under 35 receiving grants from NIH has slipped from 23% in 1980 to below 4% in 2001 ( Science, 4 October 2002, p. 40). As possible reasons, they point to fewer new tenure-track positions and more complex biology, among others. NIH Director Elias Zerhouni, who asked for the NAS study, told the committee that he wants "specific action steps" and "testable pilots" rather than more handwringing.

NIH had such a pilot once, called the R29. But it was phased out 6 years ago after the agency concluded that it was too small (at $70,000 a year compared with more than $160,000 at the time for the standard R01 grant) and that it was not valued by universities. Instead, NIH added a checkbox for new investigators on the R01 application and asked reviewers to put less emphasis on preliminary data. But the checkbox hasn't made any difference, notes the NAS committee's chair, Thomas Cech, who is also president of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute in Chevy Chase, Maryland.

Aging youngsters. The average age of new investigators receiving the two main NIH research grant types rose by about 5 years in the past 2 decades.

CREDIT: NIH

Instead, Cech and his co-members are contemplating a different kind of R01. By keeping the name, Cech says, the 5-year grant would give investigators as much money as a regular R01 and wouldn't "carry a stigma" with tenure committees. NIH would drop the section for preliminary data and judge applicants on the methods they propose and previous experience, such as papers and patents. Study sections would review these grants separately from regular R01s.

NIH program staff expressed a few concerns. "If somebody has preliminary data, they will try to tuck it in," and study sections may favor those grants, predicted Brent Stanfield, acting director of the NIH Center for Scientific Review. And with the flattening of NIH's budget, finding money for the new program might require rebalancing the grants portfolio or capping large R01 grants, other participants noted.

But the special R01 sounds like a good idea to Howard Garrison, public affairs director for the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology. "Most people I know are very supportive of doing something like this," he says. And one young investigator at the workshop, University of Maryland cell biologist Iqbal Hamza, 36, says, "I love it." Hamza was told not to apply for an R01 because his idea was too radical. And the size of the awards from the NIH program that eventually funded his proposal are much smaller.

Cech's committee is also examining how to help postdocs gain independence and whether more non-tenure-track faculty members should be eligible for R01 grants. He says the panel expects to issue its report later this year.