Statement of the NHLBI Director

Fostering the Independence of New Investigators

January 2006

I am strongly committed to ensuring the continuing vigor of the research enterprise through training and career development of new investigators. The nurturing of young talent was a high priority during my tenure in academic medicine, in particular because it coincided with a time of constrained budgets that resulted in the virtual loss of a generation of promising young investigators. Thereafter, as Scientific Director of the NHLBI, I created an Office of Education to raise the visibility and stature of training and mentoring in our intramural research program.

It is clear that much, if not most, of the momentum in this arena must continue to come from the scientists in our laboratories and clinics who are in a position to recruit and mentor young researchers and show them the path to a rewarding career. Nonetheless, as we confront another spell of budget constraints I believe that the NHLBI can and should look for innovative ways to spark this effort. Most particularly, we need to create a better springboard to launch junior investigators into independent careers. In practical terms, that entails increasing the rate at which trainees achieve independent funding through an NHLBI research project grant (RPG). We have taken several noteworthy steps to do so.

Increased Payline

The Institute has increased the R01 payline for new investigators by 5 percentile points. Currently, for instance, we are paying to the 14th percentile for general applicants, but reaching to the 19th percentile for new (i.e., type 1) R01 applications from new investigators.

Full Award Duration

To meet the requirement that the average project period not exceed 4 years, the NHLBI typically applies a formula that reduces the duration of some of its grants. We are now excluding new investigator grants from this calculation and funding all such awards at the level recommended by the initial review group (IRG). We believe that full-term funding will increase the productivity of investigators during their initial period of independence and, thereby, render them more competitive for subsequent grant support.

Expedited Review

Beginning in fiscal year 2006, the NHLBI will enable an expedited review for type 1 R01 applications from new investigators that “miss” the payline by 5 percentile points or fewer. Rather than requiring investigators to submit amended applications for a full round of review—a process that takes 6 months—we will permit them to address IRG concerns in a communication for administrative consideration. If NHLBI staff determine that IRG concerns have been addressed satisfactorily, the application will be funded promptly.

Other Approaches

The NHLBI has for many years been a strong supporter of K-series awards as an avenue to research independence. To broaden the accessibility and maximize the utility of such awards, we recently revised the special leave guidelines to accommodate personal and family circumstances (e.g., medical conditions, disability, childrearing, elder care). The new policies permit eligible awardees to take a leave of absence during the award period, train at a lower level of effort for a longer period of time, or pursue part of the training period at another institution.

Unfortunately, only about 20 percent of K-awardees are successful in obtaining RPGs. We are anxious to understand the reasons for this phenomenon and to develop strategies that may increase the yield of K-awards. In this regard, the NHLBI plans to join the NIH in supporting a standardized career transition program that would include a phase I mentored K-series award that transitions to a phase II R-series award contingent on securing an independent research position.

The NHLBI also is exploring the feasibility of expanding its current training program into a comprehensive network that includes significant mentoring and career development components, laboratory and project management training, and grant writing experiences. In addition, we are contemplating working with professional societies to establish a “mentoring bank” as an asset for new and established investigators and, especially, for individuals who are training at non-research-intensive institutions.

Resources for Applicants

Let me mention the following resources developed by the NHLBI to assist applicants for its training and career development programs.

  • “Helpful Hints” for applicants preparing K-series applications—currently available for K08, K23, K18, and K24 awards.
  • “Model Applications” for K-series awards—currently available for K08, K23, and K24 awards. Model applications for K25 awards are being developed.
  • Database of active National Research Service Award Training Grants. Grants can be sorted by location, institution, department, type of training (predoctoral, postdoctoral, short-term), or principal investigator.

Next Steps

The Institute plans to conduct an internal assessment of its training and career development programs and, thereafter, to solicit the assistance of scientific leaders in identifying new opportunities and priorities. We look forward to meeting the challenge of creating and sustaining a workforce commensurate with the vitality and dynamics of our research enterprise. We are counting on our colleagues in the research community to join us in this critical endeavor.

Last updated: February 10, 2006

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