January 2010

More Bang for the Buck

Following that model, the Pew Scholars Program in the Biomedical Sciences provides funding for early-stage investigators. Each year, between 15 and 20 early-career faculty members are chosen to receive the four-year awards. While freed from the constraints of presenting extensive amounts of preliminary data, investigators must demonstrate creative, innovative, risky approaches and ideas (9).

Even the NIH is experimenting with this approach. In 2010, it awarded seven Pioneer Awards to investigators who proposed pioneering and transformative approaches that could have an unusually high impact on a broad range of biomedicine (10). Additionally, the NIH Director’s New Innovator Award is tasked with “stimulating highly innovative research and supporting promising new investigators” by funding early-career faculty who may lack preliminary data (11).

Innovation Prizes

Popular in the private sector, innovation prizes soon may fund federal science research. These competitions award large cash prizes to teams that successfully complete predefined tasks. Previously, awards have inspired scientists and engineers to measure a ship’s latitude accurately, fly across the Atlantic Ocean and even develop better algorithms for predicting how much someone is going to enjoy a movie based on their Netflix movie preferences (12, 13). Now, the U.S. House of Representatives is encouraging the NSF to explore innovation prizes as a possible catalyst for scientific innovation (14).

Impact Uncertain

With so many new mechanisms for funding innovative research, it is difficult to determine which will prove the best. More time and more research will be needed to assess whether these novel mechanisms are fostering high rates of breakthrough science. But, by carefully comparing them and other programs, we should soon know the outcome of our nation’s innovation experiment.


1. Alberts, B. (2009) On Incentives for Innovation. Science, 326, 1163.
2. NIH Web site. Restructured Application Forms and Instructions for Application Due Dates on or after Jan. 25, 2010. http://bit.ly/6QAL8v.
3. Testimony of James P. Collins, assistant director, Directorate for Biological Sciences, National Science Foundation, before the U.S. House of Representatives, Committee on Science and Technology, Subcommittee on Research and Science Education. Oct. 8, 2009. Investing in High Risk, High Reward Research. http://bit.ly/7kdy9v.
4. NIH Web site. Exceptional, Unconventional Research Enabling Knowledge Acceleration (EUREKA) (R01). http://bit.ly/6eULHx.
5. NSF Web site. Chapter II -- Proposal Preparation Instructions. Early-concept Grants for Exploratory Research Grant Proposal Guide. http://bit.ly/7T2r5g.
6. Defense Advanced Research Project Agency Web site. www.darpa.mil/history.html.
7. U.S. Department of Energy Web site. Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy. http://arpa-e.energy.gov.
8. Testimony of Gerald M. Rubin before the Subcommittee on Research and Science Education of the Committee on Science and Technology, United States House of Representatives. Oct. 8, 2009. http://bit.ly/5rsUJ6.
9. Pew Charitable Trusts Web site. Pew Scholars Program in the Biomedical Sciences. http://bit.ly/54QhQd.
10. NIH Web site. Pioneer Award. http://nihroadmap.nih.gov/pioneer.
11. NIH Web site. NIH Director’s New Innovator Award. http://bit.ly/4XQBfd.
12. King, R. (2009) Innovation prizes through history. Business Week.
13. Netflix Web site. Netflix Prize. www.netflixprize.com.
14. House Report 111-149.Commerce, Justice, Science, and Related Agencies Appropriations Bill, 2010. http://bit.ly/6edHEc.

Kyle M. Brown (kmbrown@asbmb.org) is an ASBMB science policy fellow.


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