A strain on the young

April 24, 2007

A News Focus in the 20 April issue of Science continues the drumbeat on the dismal NIH funding situation. Although depressing this is good because it is just possible that through much discussion the essential problems will be made clear to those in a position to do something useful.

A strain on the young
Nowhere does the funding gap seem wider than when looked at through the lens of age. “It’s just about inconceivable for a brand-new investigator to get an NIH grant funded on their first submission these days,” says David Sweatt, chair of the neurobiology department at the University of Alabama, Birmingham. Sweatt has hired three young scientists in the past year and worries about their future. “I see it as this dark shadow hanging over people who are just starting out their labs,” he says. “They’re having to spend so much time being anxious over funding, to the detriment of having time to think creatively about their research.”

But NIH officials are increasingly worried about mid-career scientists, those seeking to renew their first or second grant. “That’s probably where the pain is maximal,” says Zerhouni.

BINGO! Perhaps Zerhouni is really grasping that “transition to independence” takes more than one grant (the main problem with the otherwise admirable KangaR00). So here is a simple suggestion. Use the MERIT program (descriptions from NIDA, NCI, NIAID) a little differently. As currently used, the MERIT is a reward for fairly established investigators who acquire a good score on their competing continuation and get on well with Program staff. It converts a standard 5 yr noncompeting interval into a 10 yr noncompeting interval. This makes little sense because it goes to investigators who are fully capable of popping out fundable proposal after fundable proposal and who enjoy every benefit of a close relationship with Program staff. Why not extend this program to the (rare) New Investigator who manages to get a fundable score? S/he is very likely to be the genuine goods after getting through the process. So why not give them the help to succeed? Heck, they should even consider boosting this rare individuals’ budget!