Why Are More Science Funders Investing in Young Researchers? Here's Part of the Story

We report frequently enough about research grants and prizes specifically for young investigatorsparticularly in the biomedical sciencesthat some readers have asked why so many foundations make it a point to earmark this early-career funding. What's the obsession with youth? We gray-hairs want to know.

The question came up again when we spoke with Olivia Tournay Flatto, Ph.D., executive director of the Pershing Square Sohn Cancer Research Alliance (PSSCRA), which recently opened applications for this year's Prize for Young Investigators in Cancer Research. The prize, starting its third year, awards $200,000 annually, for up to three years, to at least five New York City-based scientists. The prize is intended to nurture the fresh ideas and creativity that newcomers often bring to their fields, and enable them to pursue high-risk, high-reward research.

The Pershing Square Foundation, which partnered with the Sohn Conference Foundation to create the prize, tries to fund work that can potentially catalyze progress and benefits. Why is this important? Blame the government.

It all goes back to the constrained budget of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the federal government's primary health and medical research agency—and one of the main sources of major grants for biomedical researchers in the country.

Despite its $30 billion research budget, the NIH, like most government agencies, has been under pressure to cut spending, so it has made some tough choices. Understandably, NIH decision makers want to invest in research with the highest likelihood of yielding positive results for the taxpayers who fund it. But playing it safe doesn't necessarily lead to the big breakthroughs in science.

"The NIH has become so risk-averse, they mainly fund programs where they know what the results will be," said Flatto. "But research is about discovery; you never know what ideas are going to be important."

The PSSCRA prize, and others like it, support young scientists exploring new territory, and generating the first rounds of experimental data that can open up new avenues of research. Later, they can use the data from pilots and smaller studies and apply for larger NIH grants.

Young scientists are often caught in a research catch-22: The NIH won't fund a new line of investigation without lots of supporting data, but young researchers can't generate the data without funding. Enter philanthropy like the PSSCRA prize.

"We feel that philanthropy can play a catalytic role by shining a light on an area that is in need of funding, at a stage when traditional sources of money are lacking," said Flatto.

The deadline to submit letters of intent for the prize is November 9, 2015.  For more details on the application process, visit the PSSCRA website.

The PSSCRA prizes are not just a nice check and a good-luck handshake—they're also a support system and research community that continues through the life of the three-year grants. PSH pairs its awardees with mentors—senior research scientists as well as pharmaceutical industry veterans—who can provide vital guidance to younger researchers as they design and execute studies during the course of the prize, explained Flatto.

Tight funding for early-career scientists can have a chilling effect on fields like cancer research. Most researchers don't win their first major NIH research grants until they're in their 40s, making it less attractive for promising students to opt for a career in cancer or other biomedical research. Think about it: If someone told you at age 22 that you might have to toil in the trenches another 20 years before you could start the main segment of your professional life, you might consider another career path. The last thing we want is to dissuade top students from entering important fields like cancer research.