Skip to main content

Driving Innovation and Creativity with High Risk Research

Posted on by Dr. Francis Collins

Girl in a lab

Caption: One of the many faces of NIH-supported innovation, Stanford’s Christina Smolke is exploring how synthetic biology and microbes can be used to produce new drugs. She is a 2012 Pioneer Award winner.
Credit: Linda Cicero/Stanford News Service

High-risk research isn’t for the faint of heart. It’s for fearless researchers who envision and develop innovative projects with unconventional approaches that, if successful, may yield great leaps in our understanding of health problems and/or biological mechanisms. It takes nerve and creativity to conceive such projects—and, often, special support to bring them to fruition.  And, as the name implies, there is a significant chance of failure.

Today, NIH is granting 78 awards to 87 talented researchers who have proposed some extraordinarily creative approaches to biomedical research. These researchers span the professional career spectrum and represent institutions in states from Oregon to New Jersey; Minnesota to Louisiana. Some of their projects focus on new cancer screening methods or novel ways to kill viruses. Others are developing tools and strategies to understand autism or Alzheimer’s. From time to time over the next year, I’ll feature the story of one of these exceptional awardees in my blog. We’re calling the series “Creative Minds.”

The awards themselves, which total $123 million, represent four awards programs: Early Independence, New Innovator, Pioneer, and Transformative Research. All four are supported by the NIH Common Fund’s High-Risk High-Reward Research Program (HRHR). And they’re specially designed to meet the challenges of supporting exceptionally innovative research, and researchers, in the 21st century.

The Early Independence Awards support researchers at the very start of their independent careers. As you may know, it takes a lot of training—often, many years of training—before most PhDs and MDs have the skills to become independent investigators running their own labs. But some young scientists have the drive, creativity, and smarts to strike out on their own immediately. These awards allow such folks to “skip the postdoc” by giving them the support they’ll need to launch their research careers immediately after completing their doctoral degree.

New Innovator Awards are given to creative early stage investigators who have never served as principal investigator on an NIH grant but are proposing highly original research ideas.  The ideas have to be groundbreaking, but the extensive preliminary data sets usually used to evaluate the merits of proposals submitted for NIH funding are not required. These awards help us expand our support for unusually creative researchers just starting out on promising careers.

Pioneer Awards, as the name suggests, are given to exceptional researchers who propose pioneering approaches to important challenges in biomedical or behavioral research. Again, extensive preliminary results are not required, and this award is given to scientists at any professional stage—but we particularly like to encourage those in early and middle career.

Finally, we have the Transformative Research Awards. These awards go to scientists (an award is often shared by two or more scientists) whose interdisciplinary projects could overturn everything we know in a particular field of biology. Such potentially paradigm-shifting projects can transform research—and even launch entirely new fields of biology.

Recipients of NIH’s HRHR awards have already made tremendous contributions to biomedicine. For example, two previous awardees, Karl Deisseroth of Stanford University and Edward S. Boyden of MIT—who, between them, received a Pioneer Award, two Transformative Research awards, and a New Innovator award—were among the winners of this year’s prestigious “Brain Prize,” for the development of optogenetics: a new field of brain science that uses light to activate particular neurons in the brain.

Many congratulations to our 2013 awardees! I look forward to telling you more about some of these talented scientists—what inspires them, what they’re investigating, even whether they’ve had a “eureka” moment—in future posts.


The Common Fund

NIH Director’s Early Independence Award Program

NIH Director’s New Innovator Award Program

NIH Director’s Pioneer Award Program

NIH Director’s Tranformative Research Award Program

One Comment

  • Nancy Janitz says:

    I am glad that, even with all “political distractions,” the NIH has been capable to bring in “new inventive and individuals that look outside the box.” That is a treasure of new ideas and ways of thinking that will result in new discoveries in medicine and mental health! Thank you.

Leave a Comment