The National Institutes of Health announced a new pilot program on Monday to help new researchers at Yale and other universities receive their first major grant.
The program, set to debut in February, will allow scientists applying for their first R01 grant from NIH to resubmit their denied grant applications four months earlier. Though it may appear to be a minor change, Yale scientists said they think the initiative is an important step towards improving research opportunities for younger tenure-track professors.
The new initiative will allow denied applicants to reapply in the next review cycle. Previously, the investigators would not hear back early enough to address reviewers’ comments in time for the next cycle’s deadline. According to NIH, the acceleration will come from speeding up internal review processes and allowing reapplicants to file 20 days late in the next cycle.
Pathology professor Michael Robek, who applied for his first R01 grant in October and is still waiting to hear about the status of his application, said the new program, regardless of its details, will be helpful.
“Anything they could do to expedite that process would be beneficial,” he said.
Yale School of Medicine Dean Robert Alpern said the new program is “terrific” and will help address the particular funding concerns of new investigators who by NIH definition are those who have never received major funding from the Institutes.
“One of the biggest problems we have is to help young investigators given the difficulty of anyone getting money from the NIH,” he said.
R01 grants are not the only type of NIH funding, but scientists said they are vital. R01 grants account for $10 billion of funding every year for biomedical researchers at academic institutions and medical centers, according to NIH. Last year, the last year for which such data were available, the average R01 grant was about $350,000 per year, but such grants are often for up to five years of funding, and can even be renewed past five years. The University received $318 million in grants from NIH in 2004, though not all came from R01 grants.
Antonio Scarpa, director of the Center for Scientific Research at NIH, said a university’s recruiting package for new assistant professors usually lasts just two to three years, at which point young professors must find their own funding or risk having their lab closed. Alpern said the same holds true at Yale.
“It’s a major hurdle,” Alpern said. “There’s just no way they can run their research without an R01. A Ph.D. would probably get fired. An M.D. would get so discouraged and quit and go into [private] practice. As dean of the Medical School, that’s my biggest concern.”
The grants are almost always awarded to scientists already on the tenure track. Alpern said many post-doctoral fellows, scientists who already hold a Ph.D. or M.D. but are not in charge of their own lab, could have received an R01 20 to 30 years ago, but now it has become too competitive.
New investigators are more likely than their more experienced colleagues to have their grant applications denied, even though their immediate career success is more dependent on them, for several reasons. Their inexperience can seep into the grant applications, preventing an otherwise attractive research proposal seem unlikely to yield meaningful results.
But every scientist, new and old alike, is facing problems. For the first time in several years, NIH funding may be cut, Alpern said.
“Every time NIH funding goes down, we lose faculty,” he said. “We went through this cycle [of lower funding] in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The budget doubled in the late ’90s and early 2000s. The last few years, it’s been reversed. The people who have the biggest trouble with the cycles are those just starting out.”