To Bolster Autism Research, the Simons Foundation Aims to Bring in Young New Talent

If you're a philanthropist concerned about a specific medical condition, here's a smart strategy: Use generous grants to entice new researchers to work in this area. Another wise approach: Make sure you're cultivating a stream of younger researchers who are interested in your issue. 

Launched in 2003, the Simons Foundation Autism Research Initiative (SFARI) has embraced both strategies, and it's the only program supported by the foundation that focuses on the science behind a specific medical condition. SFARI’s first request for applications went out in 2007. The awards were intended to entice top researchers into the field of autism research. Each year, SFARI awards about $65 million in grants to around 175 researchers. Since it started, it has granted more than $362 million to more than 250 investigators worldwide.

The Bridge to Independence Award program is designed to nurture an upcoming generation of autism investigators by identifying and supporting scientists with M.D.s or Ph.D.s in the early stages of their careers (with fewer than eight years of postdoctoral training) who are interested in autism research. The grants total up to $150,000 a year for three years with the deadline for first-stage proposals 28 August 2015, and are intended to support these scientists by easing their transition to an independent research career. The foundation is soliciting participation in the program “from individuals who will conduct bold, imaginative, rigorous and relevant research in three main research areas: cognition and behavior, gene discovery and molecular mechanisms.”

It's worth noting that many other medical research funders are also keenly interested in cultivating younger researchers. In fact, this is such a big trend right now, that we almost feel sorry for older researchers who aren't eligible for many of the awards we're seeing lately. 

The Simons Foundation reports notable results from its autism research. One scientist it backed, David Sulzer, Ph.D., neurobiology professor at Columbia University Medical Center, discovered a key difference between autistic brains and non-autistic brains. The Simons Simplex Collection has amassed genetic material from 2,700 families that have single children on the autism spectrum while other relatives have been unaffected. Last year, SFARI also launched the Innate Immune System Award to explore the link between the autoimmune system and autism. Although the Simons Foundation has zeroed in on autism spectrum disorder, it expects its research in this area to complement the "foundation’s work in other basic sciences."