A New Path for Postdocs

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) has chosen 58 postdocs for a new type of hybrid award meant to speed their transition into academic research. The new "Pathways to Independence" grants, worth at least $830,000 over 5 years, combine elements of a training award and an R01 research grant--NIH's bread-and-butter awards for independent investigators. Yesterday's grantees are the first wave of an expected class of 150 to 200 annual winners between 2007 and 2011.

The new awards--modeled after a Burroughs Wellcome Fund program that has since ended--are an attempt by NIH Director Elias Zerhouni to address the problem of a graying investigator pool. In particular, the agency is concerned that the average age of first-time investigators has increased steadily over the past 3 decades and now stands at 43. The grants begin by paying postdocs a $50,000 stipend (and an additional amount for benefits, materials, and travel) for up to 2 years before morphing into a 3-year, $250,000-a-year research grant as they move up the career ladder. "That's the real kicker," says new grantee Terrence Town, a postdoc at Yale University who studies aging and Alzheimer's disease. "You basically go to a prospective employer with $750,000 and say, 'Here's my grant, I'm ready to go to work.' For a lot of institutions, it's a no-brainer for them to hire you."

That's precisely the point of the award, says Story Landis, director of the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke and co-chair of the committee that designed the award. And although everyone agrees that the most promising biomedical scientists should have a chance to establish themselves while they're still young, some scientists take issue with how the pathways program is structured.

"It's a step in the right direction," says biochemist Susan Gerbi of Brown University, who served on a National Academies' panel that recommended NIH adopt such a program. But Gerbi sees some disadvantages to the new program. For one thing, she says, it is likely that the new grants will just replace money from other sources, like start-up funds and similar transition-award programs. For another, she's concerned that with these awards, NIH will be anointing the next generation of biomedical faculty. Instead, Gerbi would rather see young faculty members compete for a separate pot of R01 money. "That way, NIH would not be influencing who the schools decide to hire," she notes.

NIH is still tweaking the program's eligibility criteria, Landis says. Currently, the program is open to all biomedical postdocs at U.S. institutions no more than 5 years past their Ph.D.s. But what exactly is a postdoc? Right now, NIH relies on job titles, but by next year, Landis says, NIH plans to define--and it hopes expand--the pool by relying instead upon job characteristics. For example, she says, researchers with their own lab space or those who have already received start-up funds would be ineligible for the award. In the first round, competition was already high: "About 420" people applied, Landis says, for a success rate of about 15%.

In the meantime, the winners of the first round aren't complaining. "I'm very, very happy, as you might imagine," says biochemist Danica Galonic, who works with Christopher Walsh at Harvard Medical School in Boston. "It's really a fantastic experience, just to write the whole application--I'm sure that's going to be helpful later on." Galonic, who just turned 30, plans to start looking next fall for a faculty position.

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