Looking for mavericks. NIH's Elvira Ehrenfeld wants to give a few top researchers free rein to pursue new ideas.

NIH to Award People, Not Projects

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) hopes to shed its reputation for playing it safe by doling out no-strings-attached grants to a handful of exceptionally creative researchers. The program, which is planned for the fiscal year beginning in October, is meant to address long-standing concerns that the NIH peer-review system discriminates against unconventional ideas with high potential payoff.

The Director's Innovator Awards would go to people rather than projects, in a departure from traditional NIH peer review, which uses panels to select which research to fund. "There is a tendency to give very good scores to projects that are guaranteed to work," says Elvira Ehrenfeld, director of NIH's Center for Scientific Review. "It is clear that we are losing groundbreaking proposals simply because of the conservatism built into the system. ... It's just too risky not to do this." The proposal was first reported by Science and Government Report, a Washington, D.C.-based newsletter.

The award idea is part of NIH Director Elias Zerhouni's "road map" to make the $27 billion agency more effective. In June, an NIH task force co-chaired by Ehrenfeld heard from a 15-member panel on ways to fund high-risk, high-impact research. The outside experts came up with three ideas: a program like one at the Department of Defense that funds high-risk research; a program led by NIH that would assemble teams to solve specific problems; and awards to outstanding researchers based on their track record. The last item seemed easiest to implement quickly, Ehrenfeld says.

Panel member Gerald Rubin, vice president of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) in Chevy Chase, Maryland, notes that HHMI already follows such a model by allowing top-notch investigators to follow their instincts. "HHMI has done this experiment. It works," says Rubin, who compares the strategy to investing in both high-risk stocks and safe bonds. Like HHMI's program, the Innovator Awards won't target any particular age group, says Ehrenfeld.

NIH is still working out details of the new awards, including how to select the recipients and monitor their progress. It's not yet clear how much money will be devoted to the Innovator Awards. Some members of the outside panel felt that 5% of NIH's budget "would be about the right percentage," says Rubin. But Ehrenfeld says that initial funding will likely be modest and will depend on NIH's 2004 budget, which is still before Congress.