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Seeding a New Crop of Researchers Grows Controversy

Multiple blue-ribbon reports from the past few years have concluded what hundreds of post-doc researchers know: landing that first NIH grant is a daunting task. So daunting, in fact, that many younger scientists conclude that they’d rather move on to other careers than wait, on average, until their early 40s to win that first crucial funding award. As Sheril Kirshenbaum explained here at SP, new investigators are spending some of the most productive years of their careers re-running unsuccessful proposals instead of experiments, while funding flows disproportionally to established scientists.

One way the National Institutes of Health tries to keep members of the next generation of life science researchers from leaking out of the pipeline is by specifically channeling grants their way. But as Gardiner Harris reports in The New York Times today, those awards come at the expense of proposals that reviewers have deemed more scientifically meritorious:

Many of the favored recipients are “new investigators,” or scientists who had never before received a grant from the health institutes. By skipping projects submitted by older scientists and instead choosing to issue grants to projects from less experienced scientists, agency managers hope to use the scientific equivalent of affirmative action to encourage graduate students and newly minted professors to make careers in academia.

Part of the issue, as Kirshenbaum, Harris, and Beryl Benderly note, was the five years of flat funding for the NIH that followed a doubling of the agency’s budget. The increase grew the size of the research enterprise, as Benderly explained here at SP, without significantly expanding permanent career opportunities for scientists moving up the ladder.

The other reason for “skipping” some of the projects proposed by established scientists is to direct funding toward riskier new ideas—another important approach that federal funding agencies have strayed away from over the years.

Harris reports as well on pressure for greater oversight for the NIH to make sure that there are appropriate systems to monitor decisions to ignore reviewer recommendations and fund lower-ranked proposals. Improving accountability is certainly a good idea, and  might also improve assessments for how effective the policy is at retaining young scientists.

But increased accountability shouldn’t cut funds for researchers who swing for the fences with untried new ideas. Some of those will inevitably fail, and that’s okay. Scientists can learn a great deal from experiments that don’t work, and a commitment to biomedical innovation means a commitment to visionary, untested ideas.

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