Next-generation researchers
find allies on the Hill

When National Institutes of Health Director Francis Collins testified before Congress in March, he highlighted challenges facing the next generation of researchers. “I try to contemplate the future of where biomedical research can go in the United States,” Collins said. “(New investigators) are finding themselves in a situation that is the least supportive of that vision in 50 years. They look ahead of them and see the more senior scientists struggling to keep their labs going and suffering rejection after rejection of grants that previously would have been supportive. And they wonder, ‘Do we really want to sign up for that?’ And many of them, regrettably, are making the decision to walk away.”

New versus early-stage investigators

The National Institutes of Health define an investigator as new if he or she is an NIH research grant applicant who has not previously competed successfully for a substantial, NIH-independent research award other than grants for early-stage investigators; small research grants; or awards for training, infrastructure or career enhancement.

The NIH defines an investigator as early stage if he or she is a new investigator who has completed his or her terminal research degree or medical residency within the past 10 years and has not yet won a substantial, competing NIH research grant.

In 1980, the average age of investigators receiving first R01-equivalent grants from the NIH was 35. By 2001, it was 42. Since then, the average age has continued to rise for M.D. and M.D./Ph.D. investigators and has stabilized for those with Ph.D.s. Facing a stagnant federal research budget and a reduction in the NIH’s purchasing power, new investigators face great difficulties renewing grant funding. An average of only one in six investigators receive a second NIH grant.

U.S. Sens. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wisc., and Susan Collins, R-Maine, want this to change. They are introducing legislation to protect the future of research, science and innovation as sponsors of The Next Generation Researchers Act. Their act proposes creating an initiative within the NIH Office of the Director that will coordinate those NIH policies that promote opportunities for new researchers and earlier research independence.

The Next Generation of Researchers Initiative is designed to manage the Pathway to Independence Award, the NIH Director’s New Innovator Award and the early-stage investigators grant-review procedures. It also seeks new policies to increase mentorship for early-stage investigators, expand workforce diversity, improve workforce data collection and address the challenges of renewal funding.

Furthermore, the legislation directs the National Academy of Sciences to produce a comprehensive report on fostering the next generation of researchers. The report would evaluate barriers to entry into biomedical research, current NIH policies and the effect of the Budget Control Act on the biomedical workforce.

“In order for America to out-innovate the rest of the world and create an economy built to last, we must protect and strengthen our investments in research, science and innovation,” said Baldwin in a statement. “We can’t accomplish this without supporting and investing in the next generation of researchers.”

Sarah K. Martin Sarah K. Martin is the science policy fellow at the ASBMB.