A new award for junior faculty

Early-career faculty in biomedicine can add a new grant to their list of funding opportunities. Today the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI), the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and the Simons Foundation announced their new Faculty Scholars Program, a funding mechanism for researchers 4 to 10 years into their independent academic careers. The 5-year, nonrenewable award will provide $100,000 to $400,000 per year for direct costs, with an extra 20% for indirect costs. The philanthropies will make up to 70 awards this round. Two future funding rounds are planned.

“I think it’s a great initiative,” says Sandra McAllister, who began her assistant professor position at Harvard Medical School in 2009. “I applaud them for identifying a critical phase in most researchers’ careers where we need to maintain support, and maintaining support is really as challenging as getting funding in the first place. … There are a number of early investigator awards for people just starting out, but … a crisis can also hit in this midrange phase of your career.”  

This program is a fantastic opportunity for people in my position to at least have a chance at some funding for a big idea that we would not be pursuing otherwise.

Gates Foundation Director of Global Health Discovery and Translation Sciences Chris Wilson calls this career point an “accelerated phase of research productivity,” when scientists “are really creative, they’ve got the ball rolling, and they may be resource limited more than idea and ability limited. … We want to foster that creativity and willingness to address risky and potentially transformative projects.”

“One of the things that we’re particularly interested in is individuals who are working either at the interface or bridging across scientific disciplines or silos,” especially between biological and physical sciences, Wilson adds. “Where you see a lot of new ideas coming out is where people are talking to others not within their traditional academic discipline, and we’re looking for that sort of creativity.”

Thomas Fazzio, an assistant professor at the University of Massachusetts Medical School in Worcester, likes the fact that the program supports junior faculty pursuing high-risk, high-reward research. “I think I have some really good ideas that I would not have necessarily pitched to the NIH [National Institutes of Health] at this stage because they’re a little bit too high risk”—and so less likely to be funded by NIH without a long track record and years of preliminary results, which junior researchers usually lack. “This program is a fantastic opportunity for people in my position to at least have a chance at some funding for a big idea that we would not be pursuing otherwise.”

To be eligible for the program, applicants must be on the tenure track or tenured at one of the 223 eligible institutions, or they must hold an equivalent position at an eligible institution that does not have a tenure track. They must have at least 4 but no more than 10 years of “post-training”—that is, post-postdoc—experience. Applicants can request that time away from work (e.g. for family) not be counted toward the 10-year maximum. The final requirement is that applicants already be principal investigators (PIs) or co-PIs on at least one nationally competitive grant or career development award—or must have been during the last 2 years. A wide variety of awards, not just R-01s, can satisfy this requirement, says HHMI Chief Scientific Officer Erin O’Shea.

“This award is meant to fund people who have great potential to make original research contributions, and we felt that the vast majority of the people who fall into that bin will meet the criteria,” O’Shea says. “It’s a balance between the number we can review well and not excluding people who we’d like to encourage.”

Once the awardees are chosen, through a common review process managed by the three philanthropies, the amount of financial support will be determined partly by each awardee’s current funding level. “Basically, if you already have a lot of money, we’re going to give you less money,” O’Shea says. “We’re going to have more impact if we can give more awards and if we can give money to people who don’t have as much already.”

Responses to this tiered funding model are mixed, and most are curious to see how it will work out. The approach makes sense to Fazzio, who believes it may compensate for some of the apparent randomness in funding decisions. “As junior faculty, who gets a lot of funding and who doesn’t, I think, is determined a lot by luck,” he says. “When nobody has a track record, the selection committees are working on minimal data, and to some degree are making educated guesses. There’s a lot of uncertainty and error in that system,” and giving more money to those who have been able to obtain less through other avenues could level the playing field. Others worry, though, that this model could discourage qualified candidates from applying if they expect their funding to be determined by their current funding rather than the merit of their science.

In addition to financial support, awardees will participate in the philanthropies’ scientific meetings, which offer opportunities for networking, developing collaborations, and building relationships with mentors. There will also be career development workshops appropriate to the recipients’ career phase.

“I think these other components of our program are going to have as much effect on people’s careers as the money itself, and so we don’t want to exclude the people who have money already,” O’Shea says. “We just plan to give them less and still include them in the community, so they derive the benefit.”

Despite the mostly positive reception, no one expects the new initiative to be a silver bullet for the biomedical workforce crisis. “We hope this program will inject some optimism into the system, but we can’t solve the problem ourselves,” O’Shea says. “I hope the federal government wakes up to the severity of this problem, and I also hope that private philanthropists join in support of biological and biomedical research in this country to increase the amount of funding available.”

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