NCI is launching an award to encourage labs to rely more on staff scientists and less on trainees.

NCI is launching an award to encourage labs to rely more on staff scientists and less on trainees.

Scripps Health via National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences/Flickr

Cancer institute plans new award for staff scientists

The U.S. National Cancer Institute (NCI) plans to test an idea aimed at bringing stability to biomedical research labs: an award to support scientists who want to spend their careers doing research but don’t want to be the harried principal investigator (PI) who runs the lab and chases research grants.

Some biomedical research leaders have suggested that labs would operate more efficiently if they relied more on experts who stayed for years and less on short-term graduate students and postdoctoral trainees. It would also curb the cycle of PIs churning out too many young scientists for the available academic jobs, they argue. Last year, NCI Director Harold Varmus co-authored a commentary on coping with flat biomedical research funding that highlighted the importance of staff scientists. And Varmus, who is stepping down this month, mentioned NCI’s plans to launch a staff scientist award in his recent farewell letter.

Last week, NCI’s Dinah Singer rolled out the details at an NCI Board of Scientific Advisors meeting. (Watch her talk at 2:20 here.) The K05 “research specialist award,” as NCI is calling it, would be aimed at scientists with a master’s, Ph.D., M.D., or other advanced degree holding positions such as lab research scientist, core facility manager, or data scientist.

Applicants would need to be sponsored by a PI and their institution. The award could cover up to 100% of their salary, but not research expenses. The 5-year, renewable award also would be “portable” if the recipient moved to another lab or institution.

NCI’s advisers endorsed the idea, with a few caveats. Some worried that the staff scientist might leave at an inopportune moment, making the lab less, not more, stable. Would labs try to poach the best ones? Would NCI be flooded with applications? One concern is that “every single postdoc in the United States who’s got any interest in doing cancer research will apply for this … if they don’t get a PI job,” warned Bruce Stillman, president of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York.

Some also wondered if the new award would simply increase the competition for a limited pot of money. Aware of the uncertainties, NCI plans to start small, Singer said, earmarking $5 million for 50 or 60 awards over 18 months. NCI plans to issue a request for applications later this year. Varmus calls it “a really important experiment.”