New funding mechanism aims to bring balance to the biomedical research (work)force

by Chris Yarosh

This past March, the National Cancer Institute (NCI) announced a new funding mechanism designed to stabilize the biomedical research enterprise by creating new career paths for PhD-level scientists. That mechanism, called the NCI Research Specialist Award (R50), is now live. Applications (of which there will likely be many) for the R50 will be accepted beginning in January, with the first crop of directly-funded Research Specialists starting in October 2016. More details about the grant can be found in the newly released FOA.

Why is this a big deal? In recent years, there have been increased calls for reform of the biomedical enterprise. More people than ever hold PhDs, and professor positions (the traditional career goal of doctorate holders) are scarce. This leaves many young researchers trapped somewhere in the middle in postdoctoral positions, something we've talked about  before on this blog. These positions are still considered to be training positions, and without professor openings (or funding for independent labs), these scientists often seek industry positions or leave the bench altogether in lieu of finding academic employment.

On the flip side, modern academic labs are highly dependent on a constant stream of graduate students and postdocs to do the lion’s share of the research funded by principal investigator-level grants (R01s). This creates a situation where entire labs can turn over in relatively short periods of time, possibly diminishing the impact of crucial research programs.

But what if there was another way? That, in a nutshell, is the aim of the R50. By funding the salaries (but not the research costs) of PhD-level researchers, the R50 seeks to create opportunities for scientists to join established research programs or core facilities without having to obtain larger grants or academic appointments. This attempts to kill two birds with one stone: more jobs for PhDs, less turnover in labs already funded by other NCI grants.

This approach is not all roses, however. For one, this doesn’t change the fact that research funding has been flat or worse in recent years. Even with more stable staffing, the amount of research being completed will continue to atrophy. Moreover, the money for future R50s will need to come from somewhere, and it is possible that this will put additional strain on the NCI’s budget if overall R&D spending is not increased soon. Lastly, there are some concerns about how the R50 will work in practice. For example, Research Specialists will be able to move to other labs with NCI approval, but how will this actually play out? Will R50s really be pegged to their recipients, or will there be an implicit understanding that they are tied to the supporting labs/institutions?

It should be noted that this is only a trial period, and that full evaluation of the program will not be possible until awards are actually made. Still, this seems like a positive response to the forces currently influencing the biomedical research enterprise, and it will be interesting to see if and when the other NIH institutes give something like this a shot.

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