Moving Past the Start-Up Grant

New Howard Hughes program for early career scientists aims to support researchers in their first years running an independent lab.
March 10, 2008

Among the more pressing concerns in the sciences is promoting the work of young researchers not far out of the postdoctoral years. Both the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health have programs for scientists in this stage of their careers.

But advocates for boosting investments in the sciences contend that existing funding opportunities aren't sufficient. In continuing its mission to support biomedical research, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute today announced a major effort to plug one of the gaps: the period when a junior faculty member's start-up funds start to dry out. The idea, according to officials, is to provide a six-year respite of completely predictable funding for up to 70 scientists who have already spent two to six years in their own laboratories, often with funding from their first grant.

"We decided to focus on scientists who have led their own laboratories for several years because many of these scientists are at a high point of their creativity just as they see their start-up funds and early-career awards ending," said the institute's president, Thomas R. Cech, in announcing the program. "Some of them may still be in line for their first NIH R01 grant, while others may have their first grant but are facing the very challenging first renewal of that grant. It is this period of career vulnerability that the HHMI Early Career Scientist Program aims to bridge."

The program will cost over $300 million for the first set of awards next year, followed by another group in three years. In contrast to the institute's traditional approach of supporting established scientists with long-term appointments, the early-career program is a one-time, non-renewable boost intended to free scientists to pursue more challenging research while setting the stage for more stable support in the future. In effect, the early-career scientists would become employees of the institute.

Part of the problem, said Gregory A. Petsko, the Gyula and Katica Tauber Professor of Biochemistry and Chemistry at Brandeis University, is that researchers moving from postdoctoral work to their first faculty position often pursue projects directly related to their graduate work and such projects carry little risk. What's missing, he said, is funding to encourage them early in their careers to pursue a broader research program, even to take risks.

Petsko said that the institute's medical advisory board, of which he is a member, didn't want to fund researchers at the outset of their careers because that could discourage institutions from providing more start-up money or overwhelm first-time investigators with more resources than they could handle. Likewise, he said, the target shouldn't be too far into a scientist's career, because at that point "hopefully they’re already funded."

Instead, he said, the idea was to get researchers "over that hump" they reach either when renewing their first start-up grant or seeking to broaden their focus. The Hughes program allows recipients to keep one other major award, but no more, on the assumption that young scientists with at least two grants would already have a secure enough base of funding to launch their careers.

"I guess Tom [Cech] and I both thought that this stage in a person’s career is when they’re most productive, when they’re absolutely full of energy.... What are they doing? They’re stuck in their office, writing and rewriting their grant," said Jack Dixon, the institute's vice president and chief scientific officer. The solution, he said, was to take a "people not project" approach, to attract the most creative investigators and give them the resources to branch out and even change directions in their work, if necessary.

The average age of first-time recipients of the NIH's R01 grant is 42 (for those with Ph.D.'s), Dixon noted. "You can imagine that you’re losing 10 of your most productive years struggling to get that first grant," he said.

Researchers from about 200 eligible institutions can apply, starting this year, directly to Hughes for 2009.


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