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Junior scientists leapfrog postdoc training

10/21/2010
Natalie Goode-Henry

A new NIH program promises to help exceptional young scientists to gain their independence earlier by bypassing the traditional postdoc training.

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A new National Institutes of Health (NIH) initiative promises to help junior scientists start their independent careers earlier, bypassing postdoctoral training. The NIH Director’s Early Independence Award (EIA) program is a response to criticism that young researchers with innovative ideas are held back by the traditional research career path.

“Postdocs provide essential skills and serve as first authors on many important papers, thus boosting research productivity,” wrote Francis Collins, director of NIH, in a recent Nature News editorial. “But these gains must be set against the significantly longer time it now takes for most young scientists to launch independent research careers.”

Over the past three decades, the average age of first-time NIH grant recipients has been steadily increasing. A cartoon from Vadlo.com comments on this trend: "...runs in our family. My father and grandfather are also working as postdocs." Source: Vadlo.com

Over the past three decades, the average age of first-time NIH grant recipients has been steadily increasing. In 1981, the average age of PhD students who received their first research grant was 36. In 2009, the average age was 42.

To combat this trend, the EIA program will give exceptional young scientists the opportunity to work in temporary academic positions at US institutions upon completion of their doctorate or master’s degree. The NIH will provide EIA awardees with up to $250,000 in direct costs per year for up to five years for any area of scientific research that will complement and boost an institution’s current area of research.

“Different people mature more effectively in different kinds of programs,” said James Anderson, director of NIH’s division of program coordination, planning, and strategic initiatives. “Most benefit from a period of structured mentoring offered by postdoctoral training. A few are ready to blossom on their own. The Early Independence Award program is innovative in that it focuses on these exceptional individuals.”

Unlike NIH’s Pathway to Independence grant, which provides postdocs with mentors during the setup of their own lab and submission of their first R01 grant, the EIA program is more individualized and gives more responsibility to the recipient who will devote most of their time to developing their research agenda and tracking their own progress. The award applicants are required to determine a host institution that will provide laboratory space, supplies, and equipment for the funded research project. The junior investigators also must recruit the necessary support staff.

“EIA recipients are not postdocs,” Anderson told BioTechniques. “Most institutions do not allow postdocs to hire and supervise personnel. We expect institutions to allow EIA recipients to perform these functions as recognition of their research independence.”

Critics of the program say that circumventing the postdoc path is detrimental, arguing that traditional training provides researchers with essential skills that will help make their independent careers more successful.

Cathee Phillips, executive director of the National Postdoctoral Association (NPA), is one such critic. The NPA provides a list of core competencies that postdocs develop during their training, such as discipline-specific conceptual knowledge, research skill development, communication skills, professionalism, leadership and management skills, and responsible conduct of research. According to the NPA, these skills, which are traditionally learned during postdoc training under an advisor, will help them be successful when they begin their independent careers.

“The desired outcome of a postdoc and this new initiative appear to be complementary, to move new scientists to independence,” Phillips told BioTechniques. “Some postdocs might be upset because they may have to compete for independent positions with people who didn’t do a postdoc.”

The NIH plans to invest $60 million over the next five years in the NIH Director’s EIA program, with the first awards scheduled to be announced in the fall of 2011.

The deadline for applications is Jan. 21, 2011.

For additional information on the EIA program visit, http://commonfund.nih.gov/earlyindependence