Bruce M. Alberts, PhD, says innovation is disappearing from U.S. biomedical research — and he may have a remedy to bring it back.
In his Lasker Laureate Lecture on Monday at Scientific Sessions, the biochemist urged expanding the NIH New Innovator Award program from the current 30-40 grants annually to 500.
“That would take about $1 billion out of the total $30 billion in NIH grant spending,” said Alberts, the Chancellor’s Leadership Chair in Biochemistry and Biophysics for Science and Education at the University of California, San Francisco. “That would be enough to encourage graduate students to plan more innovative careers.”
The current funding system encourages researchers to expand what’s already known instead of looking into new mysteries, Alberts said.
“Our present system strongly discourages risk-taking and prevents researchers from taking leaps into the unknown where great new discoveries can be made,” he said. “In the biomedical field, the National Institutes of Health is pushing scientists into translational research, which is important, but it is not everything. You need new basic science discoveries before you can translate them.”
Many genomic discoveries driving recent clinical advances originated from studies in fruit flies, Albert said. Yet, a common complaint among younger researchers is that neither the NIH nor most other funding sources are seriously considering grant proposals that aren’t focused on either rodent or human biology.
Age discrimination is another barrier, Albert said. In 1980, the median age of principal investigators funded by the NIH was about 36. In 2015, most PIs were 46 and older. In 2012, only 1.3 percent of key grants in the United States went to investigators under 36.
“How successful do you think Silicon Valley would be if nearly 99 percent of all investments went to innovators who were 36 years old and older?” Alberts said. “We are starting researchers out too late and losing the energy, the ambition and the innovation of young people. We need to change our incentives to encourage more younger researchers to strike out in their own direction.”
The European Union provides a useful model for innovation, Alberts said. In the 20th century, much of European biomedical research had moved from innovative to copycat, driven by many of the backward incentives that are hampering U.S. research.
Young PhDs moved into an established lab, built their reputation and moved on to their own projects — which were almost always derivative. Grant review committees, in turn, focused on recognized research tracks as being more likely to produce results. Innovation suffered.
In 2007, the European Union established the European Research Council (ERC) with three grant levels. Starting grants are reserved for investigators two to seven years beyond their PhD; consolidator grants are for researchers seven to 12 years post-PhD; and advanced grants are for older researchers.
The key, Alberts said, is that the starting grant review criteria focus on novelty, interdisciplinarity and high-risk/high-gain research. Each successful applicant is funded for five years and up to €2 million, about $1.7 million. And the bulk of ERC funding is reserved for researchers 12 years or less post-PhD.
Expanding the NIH New Innovator Award program would move U.S. research in a similar direction, Albert said.
“We should encourage young people to follow their dreams in science,” he said. “The message they get from faculty and funders now is that they can’t do that and get funded. It shouldn’t take a funding miracle to get a researcher to work on the unknown.”