The increasing age of principal investigators funded on R01-type* mechanisms by the NIH. (A) Age distribution of PIs in 1980 and 2016. (B) % PIs plotted against year.
The authors point out that:
“Despite a large increase in the NIH budget since the early 1980s, there has been more than a five-fold decrease in the number of investigators aged 36 or less who hold R01-type grants…Expressed in terms of NIH dollars, the proportion of all NIH grant funding awarded to scientists under the age of 36 has dropped from 5.6 percent in 1980 to 1.3 percent in 2012.”
In addition, they discuss the perception that in order to successfully have a grant proposal funded, early career investigators are seeking to write proposals in a window of riskiness – not too risky that it won’t be funded, but just risky enough that it isn’t seen as incremental. They lay the blame for this at the feet of study sections perceived to be conservative, and too focused on translational research rather than research addressed at more fundamental questions with less obvious direct application to medical problems.
The authors highlight the strategy undertaken by the European Research Council Starting Grants program as part of a tiered system of funding announcements. They champion the division of proposals into tiers where researchers are competing against peers of a similar career stage. Likewise they highlight the recent evaluation of the New Innovator Awards (DP2) funded 2007-09, which suggests that NIH is using the mechanism to fund “research that is more innovative, risky, and impactful than research that typically is reviewed and funded using the traditional R01 program.”
They therefore make a plea for three changes to NIH grant policies, specifically to help fund junior investigators for more high-risk scientific proposals:
- Fund ten times the number of DP2 awards;
- Mandate that a substantial proportion of awards funded through Requests for Applications (RFAs) be awarded to early career investigators; and
- Experiment with a separate evaluation of applications from junior investigators.
These proposals are aimed to coincide with discussions taking place currently at NIH as part of the Next Generation Researchers Initiative.
*R01-type grants are defined as R01, R23, R29 and R37 awards.