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Zerhouni's Parting Message: Make Room for Young Scientists

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Science  07 Nov 2008:
Vol. 322, Issue 5903, pp. 834-835
DOI: 10.1126/science.322.5903.834

An intractable problem faced Elias Zerhouni when he became director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) 6 years ago: The agency's corps of more than 20,000 independent investigators was getting old. The average age at which researchers receive their first NIH research grant had been creeping up for decades. (It is now 42.) Zerhouni saw this as a crisis and tackled it head on. After probing the data, he launched an experiment. Instead of relying solely on peer review to apportion grants, he set a floor—a numerical quota—for the number of awards made to new investigators in 2007 and 2008.

Last week on his final day as director, Zerhouni made this a formal NIH policy. He hopes his successors will keep it: “I think anybody who thinks this is not the number-one issue in American science probably doesn't understand the long-term issues,” he says. The notice states that NIH “intends to support new investigators at success rates comparable to those for established investigators submitting new applications.” In 2009, that will mean at least 1650 awards to new investigators for R01s, NIH's most common research grant.

The quotas have meant pain for some institutes in a time when NIH's budget isn't growing. Many are trying to steer money to new grantees by setting funding cutoff points in peer-review scores at more generous levels for new investigators than for established ones. Although some scientists may see this as a kind of affirmative action, Zerhouni says it is not. To him, it is simply “leveling the playing field” by correcting peer reviewers' bias against the young.

In 1980, the average age of a first-time NIH grant recipient was 37. The 5-year rise in average age since then, observers say, can be blamed on longer time spent in training, including in postdocs, and the older age at which faculty are first hired at medical schools, where they begin independent careers. In 2003, when NIH's budget stopped growing, the situation “collapsed,” Zerhouni says: The number of R01-like research grants (known as R01 equivalents) going to first-time investigators slipped to 1354 in 2006, the lowest level in 9 years.

Transfusion.

Departing NIH Director Elias Zerhouni says it is urgent to bring new blood into U.S. biomedical research.

CREDIT: NIH

This is “detrimental for all sorts of reasons,” says Jeremy Berg, director of the National Institute of General Medical Sciences. One concern is that scientists are not getting enough support when they're young, during their most creative years. Another is that the well may run dry. When Zerhouni asked his staff to model the age distribution of NIH-funded scientists over time, the results were startling. If trends continue, by 2020 there will be more investigators over 68 than under 38 (see p. 848). “If we don't fund the pipeline now, we will pay for it 20 years from now,” Zerhouni says.

A leg up.

After NIH set a numerical target for grants to first-time investigators in 2007, the number of awardees grew. Their success rates matched those of established investigators seeking new grants.

CREDIT: NIH

Zerhouni created special awards for young scientists but concluded that wasn't enough. In 2007, he set a target of funding 1500 new-investigator R01s, based on the previous 5 years' average. Some institutes struggled to reach their targets, NIH officials say. At the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, for example, the shift to new grants meant that only 9% to 10% of established investigators with strong peer-review scores received funding, whereas 25% of comparable new investigators did, says NINDS Director Story Landis. She maintains, however, that “it's not as though a huge number of investigators lost out.”

Some program directors grumbled at first, NIH officials say, but came on board when NIH noticed a change in behavior by peer reviewers. Told about the quotas, study sections began “punishing the young investigators with bad scores,” says Zerhouni. That is, a previous slight gap in review scores for new grant applications from first-time and seasoned investigators widened in 2007 and 2008, Berg says. It revealed a bias against new investigators, Zerhouni says.

The 2007 target had an immediate effect: For the first time since 1995, new investigators and established ones submitting new grant applications had nearly the same success rate, about 19%. (Investigators renewing existing grants still do much better, however.) From now on, NIH will set award targets designed to equalize new grant success rates for the two groups.

NIH will also fine-tune its policy to tilt it in favor of early-career scientists. The goal is to adjust for the recently discovered fact that only about 55% of investigators who receive their first NIH grants are at an early stage of their career. The rest are scientists who had been funded by other agencies or came from NIH's intramural program or from Europe after being forced to retire there. “It was embarrassing” to realize, for example, that the new investigators included two department chairs with Veterans Administration funding, Landis says. The targets will favor “early stage investigators,” defined as researchers within 10 years of finishing their Ph.D. or residency.

Those outside NIH are generally supportive of the new-investigator targets, which were also endorsed earlier this year by an advisory committee reviewing NIH's peer-review policies (Science, 29 February, p. 1169). But at the same time, some scientists may be uneasy about the cost, says Howard Garrison, spokesperson for the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology in Bethesda, Maryland: “Every time you give a leg up to a young investigator, you're pushing someone off the edge of the cliff.” Some observers say the real test will come when early stage investigators try to renew their grants: They may have trouble, and gains in creating a more youthful corps of investigators could be lost (Science, 26 September, p. 1776). NIH officials say they've looked at the data, and so far it seems that first-time investigators do just as well as established investigators who are renewing a new grant.

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