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NIH Director's Pioneer Award

Agency's new grant program looks for people with good ideas to do high-risk research

by Susan R. Morrissey
March 15, 2004 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 82, Issue 11

Credit: NIH
Zerhouni discussed the NIH Roadmap for Medical Research, which includes the Director's Pioneer Award, at a meeting in February.
Credit: NIH
Zerhouni discussed the NIH Roadmap for Medical Research, which includes the Director's Pioneer Award, at a meeting in February.

The National Institutes of Health is accepting applications for a grant program that is unlike anything the agency has done previously. The Director's Pioneer Award is designed to seek out talented individuals to pursue high-risk, potentially high-impact medical research.

"Historically, leaps in knowledge have frequently resulted from exceptional minds willing and able to explore ideas that were considered risky at their inception," NIH Director Elias A. Zerhouni explained in a statement. "We're seeking truly visionary thinkers who are able to make those leaps and change the current paradigms of medical research."

The idea for the Director's Pioneer Award emerged from a series of meetings convened by Zerhouni last year to discuss ways in which NIH could keep in step with the changing face of biomedical research.

"One of the things that came up repeatedly was the perception that NIH had become very conservative and risk-averse in both its review and funding practices," says Ellie Ehrenfeld, codirector of the Pioneer Award Program and an intramural scientist at the National Institute of Allergy & Infectious Diseases at NIH.

"I think most people really feel that the existing system works for the vast majority of review and funding decisions that NIH has to make," Ehrenfeld says. But NIH's research portfolio is no different from a retirement portfolio, she points out. "You feel like you should put the majority of your resources into safe investments, but almost everyone takes a small piece and puts it into venture capital or other high-risk things," she says. If that small piece does well, she adds, the payoff is big; if it doesn't, not much is lost.

To that end, NIH plans to award five to 10 of these new grants to individuals who show the potential to make the next big biomedical breakthroughs. The award consists of $500,000 annually for five years and is open to researchers from diverse disciplines such as biomedical science, behavioral and social sciences, physical and chemical sciences, computer sciences, mathematics, and engineering. The only constraint is that the investigator must pursue research relevant to the agency's mission.

"We're looking for people at all stages of their career," Ehrenfeld says. "The applicants could be junior-level, relatively new investigators or they could be senior-level staff who may or may not have ever been in the NIH system before," she notes.

One stipulation on the award is that the investigator devote the majority of his or her time to this project. "This is not designed to support ongoing, existing projects that are already funded, nor is it designed to simply supplement very successful investigators who are already doing great, well-recognized, well-supported research," she explains. "This is really looking for new ideas, new kinds of thinking, and new people, I hope," she says.

The selection process is also different from the traditional one used to select NIH grantees. The two-phase process is unique in that it puts the focus on the candidates' ideas and does not require a detailed research plan, Ehrenfeld explains.

In the first phase, investigators can nominate themselves or be nominated by a colleague by April 1. The nomination package includes a letter explaining the nominee's abilities and the nominee's curriculum vita. NIH staff will screen the applications to identify those eligible, after which a group of outside experts will select candidates to move on to the next phase.

THE SECOND PHASE, which is expected to begin in mid-June, will require the candidates to submit a short essay describing "their views on major challenges in biomedical and behavioral research to which they feel they can make seminal contributions." Candidates will also be asked to submit a copy of their most significant publication or achievement and several letters of recommendation. A subset of these candidates will be invited for a formal interview before the final selections are made by the end of September.

"We've tried very hard not to limit who and what might come in," Ehrenfeld says. "We are looking for any way that we can encourage people who want to take a gamble on what they believe is a really good, potentially high-impact idea and give them the chance to do it."

Ehrenfeld acknowledges that the success rate of these projects may not be very high because of their high-risk nature, but she believes it's "important to be able to encourage and allow people who have demonstrated creative, innovative scientific styles and approaches to dig in and spend five years to try to develop something that's really new."

To be a success, Ehrenfeld says, the program "would have to bring people into the NIH portfolio who are willing to and want to devote their efforts, energies, and creative abilities to try to develop new approaches to important biomedical problems that could potentially have a real major impact on the health of the American public."

For more information or to submit a nomination package, visit



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