NIH Funding Advantages to New and Early Stage Investigators

Between 1980 and 2001, the average age at which an investigator first obtained NIH R01 funding rose by almost 6 years (I won’t tell you what that age currently is, because I don’t want to depress you.) Yet the NIH website states,

“New investigators are the innovators of the future – they bring fresh ideas and technologies to existing biomedical research problems, and they pioneer new areas of investigation. Entry of new investigators into the ranks of independent, NIH-funded researchers is essential to the health of this country’s biomedical research enterprise.”

So what is NIH doing to help New Investigators break into the field? And what the heck IS a New Investigator, anyway?

The NIH defines a “New Investigator” as a Program Director/Principal Investigator (PD/PI) who has not previously competed successfully as PD/PI for a substantial NIH independent research award. (i.e., R01s, but not R03s and R21s.) During the hay day from 1998-2003, when the NIH budget doubled, 25% of R01 recipients were New Investigators. That number has been steadily declining since 2003. In order to address that decline, one of the policies NIH implemented concerns how New Investigators are treated at scientific review. The NIH website states,

“In order to address both the duration of training and to protect the flux of new investigators, the NIH announced a new policy in fiscal year 2009 involving the identification of Early Stage Investigators (ESIs). ESIs are New Investigators who are within 10 years of completing their terminal research degree or within 10 years of completing their medical residency at the time they apply for R01 grants.  Applications from ESIs will be given special consideration during peer review and at the time of funding. Peer reviewers will be instructed to focus more on the proposed approach than on the track record, and to expect less preliminary data than would be provided by an established investigator.”

It is difficult to find language on the NIH website that provides an operational definition of “special consideration during peer review and at the time of funding.” But word on the street is that the funding line can be as much as five percentile points higher for ESIs. So, for example, if a given Institute is funding 12% of applicants on a specific FOA, then 17% of ESIs will be funded. The original NIH Notice concerning the creation of ESI status and the favored position they would enjoy at review states, “Early Stage Investigators should comprise a majority of the New Investigators supported” under this policy. “Where possible, New Investigator applications will be clustered during review.”

Naturally it pays to take advantage of this window of opportunity in your career and work to land an R01 before your ESI status runs out. Conventional wisdom states that ESI status is eliminated after you land your first R01. So if you are lucky enough to be within 10 years of your terminal degree when writing a competing renewal (ie, your first R01 has run out and you are trying to land another one), supposedly you will be thrown into the pool with the big sharks and will have to compete like everyone else, with the same funding lines. However, last year I had a client who was in just that situation—writing an R01 competing renewal, but also less than ten years from her terminal degree. Her R01 competing renewal score was 16%. As a non-ESI at her primary Institute, she was not eligible for funding. However, this shrewd investigator found out that another major institute that was relevant to her work recognized ESI status on R01 competing renewals—so she switched assignment and obtained funding as an ESI at that institute.

The take-home message, as always: It pays to call around and speak to Program Officers at NIH. Many “rules” are not consistent across institutes, and a great many within Institutes are not written in stone. You never know unless you ask…

For more information about New Investigators and Early Stage Investigators, visit: NIH’s Frequently asked questions about NI/ESI.

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