Postdocs look beyond NIH funding as, despite policy changes, the percentage and age of first-time grant winners stay steady.

NIH approved just 15% of applicants for new grants for all researchers in the 2012 federal fiscal year, yet young researchers especially feel the funding squeeze.

While six years of changes to agency policies have increased the number of new investigators receiving R01 research project grants or equivalent funding, and the agency says it remains committed to further progress, the percentage is still around 30%, and the age of first-time grant winners continues to stay steady.

At 14.9% approved—3,662 of 24,637 applications—the percentage of new investigators winning a combined $1.593 billion in funding during FY 2012 is slightly less than the 15.3% success rate for all new NIH grant applications (17.6% when renewals are accounted for), and half the percentage for established investigators, according to agency figures. More sobering for younger researchers, however, is how the age of first-time R01 grant winners has leveled off since 2000 to around 42 years old for Ph.D.s, 44 years old for combined M.D./Ph.D.s, and about 45 for M.D.s.

Needing at least one and often two R01s to achieve tenure-track faculty positions, young researchers are scrambling for research dollars wherever they can find them.

The Foundation Route

Jeremy Herskowitz, Ph.D., said he turned to the BrightFocus Foundation (formerly American Health Assistance Foundation), which awarded him a $100,000 research fellowship while a postdoc. Over 21 months ending December 31, 2012, he studied the function of protein LR11 (also called SorLA) with mentor James Lah, M.D., Ph.D., of Emory University, to learn more about the underlying brain cellular mechanisms by which LR11 may influence the onset and progress of Alzheimer’s disease.

Now a junior faculty member at Emory’s Department of Neurology, and searching for a tenure-track position, Dr. Herskowitz went on to win NIH funding—not an R01, but a Pathway to Independence Award, nicknamed “kangaroo” because of its code number K99/R00. The award is designed to help postdocs transition to a stable independent research position with NIH or other independent research funding—as well as bring down the average age for first-time R01 winners.

“I still didn’t get that money until about nine months after I submitted it, and that was the best possible situation I can get, because I got it on the first try. You can’t run out of money in the interim,” Dr. Herskowitz said. “It’s a real pressurized situation, because you’ve got to apply for the grant at the right time, so that new money will kick in, if you get it, before the old money runs out.”

Also going the foundation route was James L. (Jay) Morris, Ph.D., assistant professor/research at University of Texas Health Sciences Center San Antonio (UTHSCSA). He told GEN he worked closely with the center’s Office of Corporate and Foundation Relations, and other foundations—he won’t say which ones—to secure grants or donated program funds.

Through a collaboration partner, Morris connected with a foundation that agreed to fund a pilot project and initial testing of an experimental compound from nature that shows some promise as a potential therapy.

“After the funding cycle we are working them for possibly a longer term relationship on this project,” Dr. Morris said. “Sometimes these foundations have smaller submission requirements, either timelines, or budgets, or even application length or preliminary data. For early stage investigation or side projects which might lead to bigger grants, this type of money is valuable to a lab. This process has helped us to keep some projects going.”

Dr. Morris has continued his postdoctoral research even as his lab moved to UTHSCSA when his PI, Michael Wargovich, Ph.D., F.A.C.N., became co-leader of the Cancer Prevention & Population Science program at UTHSCSA’s Cancer Therapy and Research Center. Given the move, and the realization that his time would be better spent wrapping up research, packing the lab, finishing off papers, and setting up a lab, Dr. Morris held off pursuing further fellowships like the T32 he had as a postdoc.

“After that, trying to obtain further fellowships was a series of rejections. Either the research was not a good fit, or there were too many applications for too few awards,” Dr. Morris said. “Later this year I will resume my quest for funding. Given the tough nature of the funding world I will explore all options, not just the usual route of NIH, NSF, et cetera.”

Playing The Grant Lottery

Kenneth Gibbs Jr., Ph.D., a Science & Technology Policy Fellow for the American Association for the Advancement of Science, told GEN the scramble of young researchers to get grants emerged as a key frustration among many of the 38 Ph.D.s he and a colleague interviewed in focus groups with recent biomedical graduates.

One Ph.D. interviewee who secured a faculty job analogized it to playing the lottery, recalled Dr. Gibbs. The study will expand to a broader survey of a few thousand Ph.D.s, of which more than 100 will be interviewed over the next year or two.

Especially vulnerable to quitting early are disadvantaged researchers, many the first in their families to pursue science careers, yet who face additional pressure to make money, added Dr. Gibbs, who studied the intersections of cell signaling, stem cell biology, and cancer biology in the lab of Garry Nolan, Ph.D., at Stanford University. While at Stanford, Dr. Gibbs worked to increase the participation of trainees from traditionally underrepresented minority backgrounds as president of the Biomedical Association for the Interests of Minority Students, and student representative of the university’s Committee for Graduate Admissions & Policy.

“We heard this repeatedly where a lot of folks were talking about the granting cycle and just the extreme difficulty that they’re seeing their PIs having when they’re trying to get grants,” said Dr. Gibbs. “For a lot of people, what they see of the system is just not tolerable. So they’ll say, ‘You know what? I’m going to go do something else.’ And that might be science in industry, or they’ll say, ‘I’m just going to leave research altogether, and find another career path.’”

The NIH Steps In

NIH has long committed itself to funding more new investigators, introducing policy changes that increased their numbers and percentage of winners for competing R01 awards—from 1,362 or 23.9% in FY 2006, to 2,091 or 31.8% in FY 2010. That year, hoping to lower the average age of first award, NIH launched its current policy of separating new investigator applications at review.

The agency says that has helped equalize success rates for type 1 R01 applications from both new and experienced investigators, as well as the numbers of Early Stage Investigators (ESIs)—new investigators within 10 years of completing their terminal research degree or of completing their medical residency—and non-ESI New Investigators. More than 55% of the New Investigators were ESIs in FY 2012.

“It is likely that the average age at first application for NIH R01 support is influenced more by long training periods and hiring practices in academic and other institutions than by NIH policies. Nevertheless, we will continue to provide incentives for those within 10 years of completing their Ph.D. or their medical residency,” Wally Schaffer, Ph.D., senior scientific advisor for extramural research in NIH’s Office of Extramural Research, told GEN.

He said NIH is implementing many recommendations for accelerating researcher education made last year in a report by the Biomedical Research Workforce (BMW) Committee and recently reported to the NIH Advisory Committee to the Director. They include reducing the length of graduate training, accelerating the transition to independence using kangaroo awards, encouraging broader use of individual development plans, and increasing awareness among graduates and postdocs about how long they can expect to be trainees.

“We expect the BMW recommendations working in concert with the New and Early Stage Investigator policy to shorten the period of training and facilitate the transition to independence,” Dr. Schaffer added. “We will continue to monitor the impact of these policies to see if they help reduce the average age at which a researcher receives her/his first R01 award.”

He said about 90% of investigators winning their first R01 award apply for additional research project grants after about eight years, with 80% receiving subsequent grants after 13 years: “It is too early to determine how many of these New Investigator cohorts will go on to receive additional NIH awards. We will continue to monitor to see how it turns out.”

More Obstacles

Two possible reasons why younger researchers struggle to find NIH funding may be lack of practice, and communication skills. Only PIs can write and apply for grants, so postdocs lack expertise in the application process. Even if they have it, many biomedical postdocs (about 15,000 of 35,000 counted in 2009, according to the BMW report) are non-U.S. citizens and don’t always demonstrate command of English language and grammar, Tuba Sural-Fehr, Ph.D., a postdoc at the University of Illinois-Chicago, told GEN.

“Even though we have good ideas, and a good approach, we don’t necessarily convey it very well. We make mistakes in grammar, which is a turnoff for reviewers when they’re reading applications. I have to deal with it all the time, so I think it’s a big challenge,” said Dr. Sural-Fehr, who is originally from Istanbul, Turkey.

Dr. Sural-Fehr offered another reason just as likely to explain the dearth of young researchers: The agency’s desire to maximize its return-on-investment on grants by playing it safe and funding the most established investigators, no matter how incremental their research.

“When you write your grant, you really cannot steer too much away from where the field is going,” Dr. Sural-Fehr said. “You really can’t write a grant for a high risk project unless you have very solid preliminary data. And as a young investigator, where’d you get that preliminary data? It’s doing your postdoc. And that’s almost impossible to do, because you’re doing [the PI’s] research.”

Added Dr. Herskowitz: “Young scientists like myself are usually scientists who take the most risks with the biggest payoff. We’ll explore ideas that would have the biggest impact toward translational research, curing diseases, because a lot of the senior professors and investigators are likely much more conservative.”

As a result, he added, “We’ll stick to the sidewalk and be a pedestrian, in terms of moving our science forward. Whereas if the climate were a lot different, and there were more funding, I would take a lot more risks that could have a higher payoff, in terms of coming up with drugs and things against disease.”

NIH can claim some success from its policy changes, but keeping young researchers in the field and well-motivated to make their science a lifelong career will also require changes outside the agency. Those changes begin with postdocs themselves, who must take responsibility for building their resumes in a very competitive field, beyond what they study, down to enhancing how they communicate. Institutions that hire postdocs can also help by presenting them with a clearer path to professional success, one that reduces training time but steps up skill-building, especially how to pursue the funds that make the difference between their success and failure.

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