The decline of a once-common species – the physician-scientist – has for decades been a subject of concern for those charged with steering the biomedical research enterprise. Now, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) is announcing a new programme that will handsomely finance a small, select cadre of young investigators, in hopes of seeding a languishing pipeline of clinical researchers.
The agency’s Lasker Clinical Research Scholars programme opened its doors on 2 February with this request for applications that are due on April 4. The programme will launch young health professionals as clinical researchers in two stages. First it will bring them to NIH’s Bethesda campus for five to seven years, during which they will conduct clinical research at the agency’s huge research hospital, the Clinical Center. The scholars will join the tenure-track ranks as independent principal investigators at one of NIH’s 27 institutes and centres – which one will depend on the nature of their project. In addition to salary, they will be provided with everything from research space and nurses to lab support, at a cost per scholar that the agency estimates will be $1 million per year. Applicants need to be young-ish: within six years of completing the final piece of their medical training, and with a license to practice in the United States. In addition to physicians, nurse-PhDs, osteopaths and dentists are welcome to apply. So are non-US citizens. The agency plans to hire at least three scholars in this, the programme’s first year. It will ultimately support 30 to 40 participants on the NIH campus.
In a second stage of the award, scholars who pass muster would have the option of staying on at the agency as tenured intramural investigators, or would be eligible to apply for an extramural research grant that would fund a project at an academic medical centre where they would continue as clinical researchers. The research grant would provide up to $500,000 per year of NIH support for up to five years, as well as indirect costs paid by NIH to the institution where they land.
That’s crucial at a time when, at financially strained academic medical centres, there is increasing pressure on young doctors to generate institutional income by seeing patients, rather than engaging in costly and time-consuming clinical research, says Michael Gottesman, NIH’s deputy director for intramural research.
“There is a burgeoning interest in translating more of our basic science into clinical applications,” he says. “What’s going to limit us is talented people who know how to do clinical research. Hopefully this will help fill that gap.”
Gottesman notes that the length and two-stage nature of the award is unusual: “I can’t think of any other example where we’ve had a single mechanism allowing people to start a career at NIH and continue it outside NIH.”
The programme will be financed from existing intramural and, eventually, extramural, budgets at individual NIH institutes. It will have no formal affiliation with the proposed National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences (NCATS), which has been a font of controversy of late. The foundation established by Albert and Mark Lasker, in honour of whom the award is named, will contribute connections to mentors for awardees, but no funds.