Reposted from Science News, 9 December 2005

Getting that first faculty job represents the end of one arduous journey for a biomedical scientist--and, given the difficulties and cost of establishing a new lab, the start of another. Last week, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) rolled out three initiatives intended to smooth that transition to becoming an independent researcher.

One of them, expected to be finalized by spring, is a 5-year award for postdocs that will provide initial salary support and then convert to a full-fledged research grant once the scientist gains a faculty position. The other two are already being tested: an independent investigator grant program that does not require applicants to submit preliminary data and a process to speed up the resubmission of R01 grant applications by new investigators who fail on their first attempt. NIH officials hope that the three initiatives will help young scientists get their labs up and running more quickly--a goal agency Director Elias Zerhouni calls his "number one priority."

At $250,000 a year, the new transition awards will be more than three times larger than a typical career development award, and they come with an equal amount of institutional overhead compared to the 8% indirect cost rate allowed by the career awards. The goal is to give universities an added incentive to recruit young investigators and provide newly hired faculty members with some breathing room before applying for their first major grant, says Story Landis, director of the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke in Bethesda, Maryland.

"If you came with this kind of dowry," Landis says, "deans, even in troubled times, should be willing to take a chance [on you]." Biologist Thomas Cech, president of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute in Chevy Chase, Maryland, and chair of a recent National Research Council (NRC) report on fostering independence among young biomedical researchers, calls the award "a wonderful move forward." Landis won't say how many awards NIH plans to give, although Cech says it should be at least 100.

The NRC report inspired another of the initiatives: a new grant competition at the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) for investigators lacking enough preliminary data for a full-fledged NIH proposal. NIEHS plans to give out six such grants next year, and other institutes may join in.

A third effort, by the Center for Scientific Review, the NIH unit that evaluates grant applications, aims to speed up the turnaround time for new investigators so they can resubmit a revised application by the next triyearly deadline. Beginning in February, 40 study sections will meet earlier than usual to review submissions from first-time applicants and provide written evaluations within a week. Applicants will also receive 20 extra days to file a resubmission.