Risk-Reward at NIH

Over the past decade the NIH Office of the Director has created four grant programs that operate outside the traditional grant review process to promote "high-risk/high-reward" research.

The Pioneer Award was launched in 2004 for scientists of exceptional creativity who propose highly innovative approaches to important research challenges. The award provides up to $500,000 in support over five years.

Instead of submitting a traditional research proposal, applicants submit a 3-5 page essay describing their vision for addressing a major research problem and their qualifications "to engage in groundbreaking research." The essay must explicitly address how the planned research is different from an investigator's current or prior work.

Applications are reviewed by an external committee rather than a standing NIH study section, and finalists are interviewed in person at NIH.

The New Innovator Award was launched in 2007 to fund investigators who have graduated in the last 10 years and have not received an R01 grant. The award provides up to $300,000 in support over five years.

Applicants submit a 10-page essay describing why a scientific problem is uniquely suited to this grant program, what makes the project "unusually innovative," and why the scientist is personally qualified to lead the project.

The Transformative R01 program was launched in 2009 to fund "exceptionally innovative and/or unconventional research projects that have the potential to create or overturn fundamental paradigms." Transformative R01s provide up to five years of support and do not have a funding cap.

Applicants submit a 12-page research plan that includes a description of how the work is significantly different from "mainstream science."

Finally, the Early Independence Award (EIA) was launched in 2010 to allow students to bypass a postdoc and immediately begin independent research. EIA awards provide up $250,000 of support over five years.

Applicants must be less than a year past graduation and must submit a 12-page research plan explaining their rationale for skipping the postdoc, their preparation to run a lab, how the project is innovative and how the proposal is related to the applicant's prior work.

Applications for New Innovator, EIA, and Transformative R01 programs are first sent to a scientific review group of outside experts and then are evaluated by an NIH advisory committee. EIA applicants are interviewed before selection.

-Chris Cain