In late January, Elias Zerhouni, director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), announced an exciting and ambitious new program called Pathway to Independence . The pathway program will provide nearly $1 million over 5 years to between 150 and 200 postdocs, who will be selected competitively from what will probably be a large pool of qualified applicants. (There's no reliable figure for the number of biomedical postdocs in this country, but it is certainly in the tens of thousands.) Applicants will submit a full research proposal, which will be evaluated according to criteria similar to those used to evaluate new-investigator R01 proposals.
All relevant NIH institutes and centers will participate. Only postdocs within 5 years of receiving their Ph.D. may apply. Winners will receive $90,000 per year for up to 2 years of postdoctoral studies. When they receive a faculty offer--which they almost certainly will--the awards will become the equivalent of smallish R01s. The effect will be to get significant numbers of biomedical scientists into independent research positions while they still have teeth and hair.
This is the most ambitious and exciting career-development program in decades, and NIH is to be commended for the effort. I honestly didn't think they would manage to pull off something quite so bold. In a year of flat--or worse--research budgets (referring to the recent budget doubling, one knowledgeable source called these years "the era of the halving of the NIH research budget," her tongue only slightly in her cheek), NIH raided the sacrosanct R01 pool and extracted a third of a billion dollars over 5 years. That's real money, and hard-won. Well done.
Although no aspect of the program's design is nearly as interesting as the fact of its existence, the program does have some interesting features. It is, I believe, the first extramural training award available to foreign nationals; the only requirement is a visa that will allow the winners to stay in the United States for the award's duration. With all the recent reports on the dearth of U.S.-born scientists it is a surprising, and I believe the correct, choice. Another interesting fact: Whatever their nationality, pathway winners remain eligible for "new investigator" status as they compete for their first R01 award.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the new program is its likely impact. When Science's Next Wave first started investigating the program, we wondered what fraction of the biomedical faculty positions that come open each year are likely to be filled by pathway awardees. To figure that out, we needed know how many openings there are in a typical year. That number, we estimated, is about 1000. (My back-of-the-envelope calculation yielded 1200; the authors of the Bridges to Independence report , which led directly to the pathway program, said 800--p. 107.)
If all the pathway winners get faculty positions--which seems likely--one-sixth to one-quarter of all current positions will now be filled by pathway awardees. Add in the Burroughs Wellcome Fund's Career Award fellows , a few similar awards, and a few scientists who manage to win independent funding before they achieve full independence, and the message is clear: The biomedical career landscape is dramatically altered. The pathway program is, instantly, the single most important route to a biomedical faculty position. A few brilliant scientists each year will manage to compete with pathway winners and other prefunded scientists. And it is likely--as Zerhouni predicted at the event announcing the new program--that a few new positions will be created as a result of the new awards. But that doesn't change the conclusion: If you don't have a pathway award or a similar fellowship, you'll probably be competing for the positions left over once all the award winners have been placed. NIH will now be (in effect) anointing a significant portion of the next generation of biomedical scientists.
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Speaking of awards for new investigators, the biology division of the National Science Foundation (NSF) has an interesting award program, aimed specifically at underrepresented minorities and faculty at minority-serving institutions, which, I've heard, is underutilized. Translation: high success rates. Research Initiation Grants  (RIGs) are intended to increase the number of applications NSF receives from members of underrepresented minority groups and faculty members at minority-serving institutions. Such applicants will probably have a big advantage in the competition, but the program isn't explicitly limited to minority-related faculty. Rather, "proposers from underrepresented groups" and faculty from minority-serving institutions are merely "especially encouraged to apply." Do people who aren't members of these groups have a realistic chance of winning an award? I don't know yet; tune in next month for more information.
RIG is not a high-volume program--NSF estimates that it will make just 15 to 30 awards--but the success rate is considerably higher than for most other NSF programs. RIGs pay up to $150,000 over 2 years, with a possible $25,000 bonus to purchase equipment. The goal is to give early-career scientists the resources they need to collect preliminary data and become more competitive for regular NSF research grants. Only citizens and permanent residents are eligible.
The RIG program is not exactly a transition award. In contrast to NIH's pathway awards, RIGs are not intended for postdocs. Indeed, says the solicitation, "a RIG is not intended as a substitute for a postdoctoral fellowship." Yet the award is not limited to faculty members; applicants are expected to hold a faculty position or a "research-related position" at a U.S. college or university. The solicitation is explicit about the expected professional status: "The submitting institution must provide a letter showing its support for the proposed activities. If the proposer is not in a tenure-track appointment, the institution must state its contractual agreement with the proposer if the appointment period and requested grant award dates are not congruent." In other words, if the institution is willing to support your application--and to guarantee that you'll have a salary for the duration of the award--you are eligible (assuming you meet the other eligibility criteria). The next deadline is 12 July.
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I had planned to discuss the progress of NIH's electronic proposal-submission program, but due to time and space limitations, I'll have to save that discussion for next month. For now I'll just mention some key dates. Although some NIH programs have already been switched to electronic submission, the most important dates for early-career scientists still lie in the future. First up: Electronic submission for R15s (Academic Research Enhancement Awards), which support research at smaller institutions, commences with the 27 February 2006 deadline, so if you're planning to submit an AREA grant you need to start learning about electronic grant submission.
The next deadline of interest to early-career scientists: Electronic submission for "small" and "exploratory" grants (R03s, R21s, R33s, and R34s) is scheduled for 1 June 2006. Electronic R01 submission is expected to kick in with the 1 February 2007 submission deadline. For training awards (type K), electronic submission will commence in June of next year. For fellowships (including National Research Service Awards), the date to remember is 5 August 2007. Mark your calendars.