Bridges to Independence: Fostering the Independence of New Investigators in Biomedical Research



The age at which scientific investigators receive their first research grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) has been increasing in recent decades. The number and percentage of grants awarded to younger researchers has been decreasing. While investigators under the age of 40 received over half of the competitive research awards in 1980, that age cohort received fewer than 17 percent of awards in 2003. As of 2002, the median age at which PhD researchers receive their first research grant was 42. Moreover, the percentage and absolute number of awards made to new investigators—regardless of age—has declined over the last several years, with new investigators receiving less than 4 percent of NIH research awards made in 2002.

Because of concerns about the effects of the increasing age of first grant on the careers of academic scientists and their ability to undertake high-risk research, the NIH has asked the National Academies to recommend mechanisms to foster the independence of new investigators in biomedical research. This report therefore focuses on the transition to independence of postdoctoral researchers and entry-level faculty with emphases on mechanisms to enhance the quality and effectiveness of postdoctoral training, the ability of young scientists to receive independent research funding, and the establishment of stable research programs. The committee convened a public workshop as the principal data-gathering event of the study. Over 150 people participating in person and 100 more via a live webcast engaged in consideration of available data, model programs to support new investigators, as well as the previous recommendations and the impediments that have prevented them from being put into practice.

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Grants and funding

This study was supported by Contract No. N01-OD-4-2139 (Task Order #89) between the National Academy of Sciences and the National Institutes of Health. The content of this publication does not necessarily reflect the views or policies of the Department of Health and Human Services, nor does mention of trade names, commercial products or organizations imply endorsement by the U.S. Government.