WASHINGTON -- A program unveiled yesterday by the National Institutes of Health will provide nearly $400 million in grants over the next five years to help promising young scientists pursue independent medical research.
Dr. Elias A. Zerhouni, director of the federal government's medical research agency, said he expects the NIH to issue 150 to 200 of the "Pathway to Independence" awards each year to talented scientists who have recently received their doctorates.
"Hopefully, this will allow innovation and allow new investigators to take chances in research," said Zerhouni.
The new program mimics awards that have been offered by the Burroughs Wellcome Fund, a private foundation. It also follows the recommendations of a National Academy of Sciences report, which found last year that young researchers faced increasing difficulty conducting their own work. Those problems could hinder biomedical advances, the report said.
Dr. Aaron DiAntonio, who served on the NAS committee, said young scientists are often forced to make incremental progress pursuing their mentors' research because they haven't had the time or money to demonstrate they can investigate on their own.
With an NIH award, "these people will be able to branch out from what their postdoctoral adviser is doing and follow their own ideas," said DiAntonio, an associate professor at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis.
Typically, young scientists work for senior researchers who have won NIH funding. The young investigators help with the project, then try to find a job that will enable them to pursue their own work. But that's difficult, and many leave academic research.
Dr. Margaret M. McCarthy, assistant dean of graduate studies at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, said the new program might have the added benefit of encouraging young female scientists who have been dropping out of biomedical research career paths at a higher rate than men.
"If you get one of these awards, you'll have all of the tools to stay without wallowing in the netherworld of training," McCarthy said.
Many scientists complain that independent research projects that deserve - and historically would have received government funding - aren't getting it because NIH budgets have tightened and grant money often goes to new NIH initiatives.
The new award will pay for research and other work until recipients obtain traditional grants for independent research.
Dr. Chi V. Dang, vice dean of research at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, praised the new program and expressed hope that NIH officials would ensure that money is available to fund the independent projects of young scientists when they begin seeking those grants.
"This gets them in the door, but if the room is very small on the other side, it's going to be tough," Dang said.
Zerhouni said the Pathway program wouldn't affect the money set aside for independent research, and the hope is that a greater percentage of young scientists will win the independent grants. Zerhouni said that the money for the awards will come from cost-cutting across the NIH and that it will be in addition to the $1.4 billion a year the agency spends on training and career development.
The director has shown an interest in prodding younger researchers chasing cutting-edge science. Last year, the NIH gave 13 scientists "Pioneer Awards" worth a total of $500,000 to pursue bold but risky research.
Winners of the new awards will work for a year or two under the supervision of a mentor. During that time, they will be expected to publish the results from their supervised research and find an independent position, such as an assistant professorship.
The young scientists who secure independent positions will have up to three years to apply for one of the NIH's independent research grants.
Scientists with no more than five years of postdoctoral research training can apply immediately, and the NIH expects to begin issuing awards this fall.