At the NIH Director's Pioneer Award Symposium last week, a roundtable discussion about innovation evolved into something else entirely - a conversation about whether the mechanisms behind the R01, NIH's traditional and most popular research project grant, actually discourage collaboration among research teams.
The roundtable panelists were all recipients of a Pioneer Award, a multi-year, more open-ended research grant designed to fund high risk work. During the discussion, panelist Frances E. Jensen, director of epilepsy research at Harvard Medical School and a professor of neurology at Children's Hospital Boston, noted that a Pioneer Award lets the momentum from an exciting exchange of ideas at a meeting carry over into the lab right away, something that's not always possible in the traditional funding realm.
During the discussion, audience members lined up to comment at the microphones. The overall sentiment was that NIH's Pioneer awards are truly transformative for a research program, but that NIH could do even more to encourage collaboration among researchers by adjusting the structure of more traditional grant programs, which might require some waiting time between an initial idea and having the funding to proceed with it. A related concern was that it can vary from department to department and institution to institution how a bioscience researcher with many collaborative achievements but fewer solo achievements will be evaluated come tenure time. NIH holds the purse strings, and so has the power to spark changes in academic culture from the top down.
Ryan C. Bailey, a bioanalytical chemist and 2007 NIH Director's New Innovator Awardee from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, says that the more flexible nature of Pioneer and Innovator awards helps researchers follow paths they may not have anticipated when they applied for their grant. The fact that the awards aren't renewable eliminates the worry that goes with the renewal process for more traditional grants, he adds.
Lila M. Gierasch, a protein folding expert and 2006 Pioneer Awardee from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, notes that the NIH's 2006 move to allow multiple co-equal principal investigators to apply for joint NIH grants has helped foster collaboration and so is a big step in the right direction.
UPDATE 10/06: View a webcast of the second day of the Pioneer Award Symposium here.