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Supporting early stage investigators, and an update on NIDCD’s May advisory council meeting

Scientists examining a test tube.

June 7, 2023

Initiatives that attract and retain early stage investigators (ESIs) are vital in ensuring the well-being and stability of the biomedical research workforce. In this director’s message, I describe NIDCD’s efforts to encourage talented ESIs to advance their research careers within the institute’s mission areas.

I also summarize topics discussed at the May 2023 National Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NDCD) Advisory Council Meeting.

ESIs: The Next Generation of Researchers

NIH defines an ESI as “a Program Director/Principal Investigator (PD/PI) who has completed their terminal research degree or end of postgraduate clinical training, whichever date is later, within the past 10 years and who has not previously competed successfully as PD/PI for a substantial NIH independent research award.”

Although ESIs represent the future of a strong, diverse research workforce, late-career investigators have historically received a disproportionate amount of NIH funding. This has led to concerns that ESIs are leaving the research workforce before their independent research careers can begin. One proposed reason (PDF | 733KB) for this discrepancy is that newer applicants are disadvantaged due to a grant process that tends to favor established scientists.

To help even the playing field, NIH launched the Next Generation Researchers Initiative in 2017 to make it easier for ESIs to apply for and receive funding. When an ESI submits an R01 application to NIH, the application is flagged to receive special consideration during the NIH review and funding process. In particular, applications from ESIs are evaluated separately from those submitted by established investigators, with reviewers focusing more on potential than achievement and expecting fewer preliminary data. In addition, applications from ESIs that are scored within the funding range are prioritized for funding. To ensure that they are given appropriate consideration for R01 applications, ESIs should update their eRA Commons profiles with the date they completed their terminal degree (e.g., Ph.D. or M.D.) or postgraduate clinical training.

NIH also sets aside funding specific for ESIs. For example, the Stephen I. Katz Early Stage Investigator Research Project Grant (R01) funds innovative projects that represent a change in research direction for an ESI and for which no preliminary data exists. In addition, NIH recently launched its NIH Director’s New Innovator Award Program, which supports ESIs who propose innovative, high-impact research projects.

NIDCD remains dedicated to supporting NIH ESI policies and to developing its own initiatives to support these scientists. For example, NIDCD may consider funding a grant application from an ESI if its scoring percentile is outside of, but close to, the funding payline. To be evaluated, the ESI may provide a written response to the comments in the summary statement of the R01 application. In addition, NIDCD promotes diversity among ESIs conducting research in our mission areas through the NIDCD Research Opportunities for New Investigators to Promote Workforce Diversity funding opportunity. This program is intended to support early stage and new investigators from diverse backgrounds, including those from groups underrepresented in the health-related sciences.

Basic and clinical investigators who are in the early stages of transitioning to an independent research career, including postdoctoral fellows still in their mentor's laboratory, may be eligible for the NIDCD Early Career Research (ECR) Award (R21). This award mechanism supports different types of projects, including secondary analysis of existing data; small, self-contained research projects; development of research methodology; translational research; outcomes research; and development of new research technology. It is important that applicants pay close attention to the distinct eligibility criteria for the ECR Award.

I encourage ESIs to take advantage of these initiatives and to explore the ESI frequently asked questions page, the ESI resources page, and NIDCD’s ESI page for information. The NIH Guide for Grants and Contracts website also lists NIDCD-supported funding opportunities that are specific for ESIs.

National Deafness and Other Communication Disorders Advisory Council Meeting, May 18-19

On May 18-19, the institute’s advisory council was convened. Portions of our council meetings are open to the public, and I invite you to watch the archived videocasts of the May 18 and May 19 open sessions. I also invite you to join us online for our next meeting, to be held September 14-15, 2023. A few highlights from May’s meeting are summarized below.

  • I announced the selection of Joshua Levy, M.D., M.P.H., M.S., as NIDCD’s Clinical Director. Dr. Levy was previously an Associate Professor and Associate Vice-Chair of Research in the Department of Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery at Emory University School of Medicine. To view this segment, start at the 11:30 mark of the May 18 videocast.
  • I also announced the launch of our new NIDCD Director’s Seminar Series: Advancing the Science of Communication to Improve Lives. On June 28, FDA Commissioner Robert Califf, M.D., will speak in our first seminar, “Technologies and Marketplace Innovations to Improve Health Care Access and Outcomes,” followed by a moderated discussion with several NIH leaders. To view this segment, start at the 12:30 mark of the May 18 videocast.
  • NIDCD staff provided updates on ESI programs and the ECR R21 Award:
    • Susan Sullivan, Ph.D., an NIDCD Program Officer and Director of the Taste and Smell Program, provided data showing that NIDCD’s ESI initiatives have been closing the gap between funding levels for ESIs compared to established investigators. To view this segment, start at the 18:50 mark of the May 18 videocast.
    • Bracie Watson, Ph.D., a Program Director in NIDCD’s Division of Scientific Programs, presented an update on NIDCD’s ECR (R21) initiative, including numbers of applications, success rates, and the percentage successfully transitioning to R01 grants over the last few fiscal years. To view this segment, start at the 36:05 mark of the May 18 videocast.
  • A council member, NIDCD staff, and grantees also described various aspects of NIDCD-funded training and mentoring pathways:
    • Emily Buss, Ph.D., Vice Chair for Research and Professor of Otolaryngology/Head and Neck Surgery at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine, shared advice on preparing successful fellowship applications. To view this segment, start at the 1:02:00 mark of the May 18 videocast.
    • Alberto Rivera-Rentas, Ph.D., NIDCD Research Training Officer, presented an overview of NIDCD-funded research training and career development opportunities. To view this segment, start at the 1:22:26 mark of the May 18 videocast.
    • Three speakers, listed below, described how NIDCD’s training, mentorship, and diversity funding opportunities helped them transition to independent research careers. To view these segments, start at the 1:49:45 mark of the May 18 videocast:
      • Ross Williamson, Ph.D., Assistant Professor in the Department of Otolaryngology at the University of Pittsburgh
      • Jamila Minga, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Head and Neck Surgery and Communication Sciences at Duke University
      • Elizabeth Peña, Ph.D., Professor in the School of Education at the University of California, Irvine
  • Two updates were provided regarding research to promote language and communication in minimally verbal/non-speaking individuals with autism. To view these segments, start at the 0:11 mark of the May 19 videocast.
    • Judith Cooper, Ph.D., NIDCD Deputy Director, provided highlights from a January 2023 NIDCD webinar and a recently issued Notice of Special Interest.
    • Helen Tager-Flusberg, Ph.D., Director of the Center for Autism Research Excellence at Boston University, described two suggested research directions in this field: identifying underlying factors to tailor personalized interventions, and preemptive interventions that target speech and language in infants.
  • Patricia Flatley Brennan, R.N., Ph.D., Director of the National Library of Medicine, presented on the inaugural NIH Digital Strategy Plan (PDF | 3.32 MB) and noted that NIDCD could support the strategy by identifying and enabling institute-specific technology investments that align with NIH’s mission. To view this segment, start at the 1:22:45 mark of the May 19 videocast.
  • Dr. Cooper described Tackling Acquisition of Language in Kids (TALK), an initiative that supports efforts to better understand why children with various conditions are late to talk. Holly Storkel, Ph.D., a Program Officer in NIDCD’s Division of Scientific Programs, listed recent grant awards within this initiative and notified council of a concept for a future funding initiative. To view this segment, start at the 2:06:12 mark of the May 19 videocast.

*Note: PDF files can be viewed with the free Adobe Reader.

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