Recipients of Prestigious NIH Awards Include Women This Time
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The National Institutes of Health announced on Thursday that six female scientists and one African-American scientist were among the 13 recipients of this year's Director's Pioneer Awards, which support researchers who propose bold approaches to major questions in biomedicine. The agency drew criticism after its inaugural awards last year all went to men.
The grants are prestigious and large, bringing $500,000 in direct costs of research (plus additional amounts for overhead) annually for five years. Because they attach few strings to recipients, the awards have been compared to the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation's fellowships, which are commonly known as "genius awards."
The NIH's director, Elias A. Zerhouni, urged the awards' creation to support the most-creative scientists who are exploring hypotheses at the frontiers of science that have a high risk of not panning out. He was responding to a longstanding critique that the agency's peer-review system tends to support more-conservative research proposals that offer only incremental advances in knowledge.
The contest results have helped to shed light on how the agency goes about encouraging diversity among the scientists it supports, an issue that sparked debate and controversy this year when Lawrence H. Summers, president of Harvard University, said women may lack the innate ability to succeed in science.
The NIH's competition this year and last was based strictly on the scientific merit of the applicants' ideas and experience, said Jeremy M. Berg, director of the NIH's National Institute of General Medical Sciences, which ran the contest. But when none of last year's nine awards went to a woman or a member of a minority group underrepresented in science, critics called the result disheartening and said the agency had apparently overlooked good ideas from such researchers.
The NIH agreed some changes were needed, Mr. Berg said, and it made a deliberate effort to assemble a diverse group of scientists to review this year's award entries. Last year, he said, 60 of 64 reviewers were men.
The agency received more applications than expected last year, and when the NIH rushed to recruit sufficient reviewers quickly, demographic balance was lost, Mr. Berg said. "The reviewer panel was not up to the normal level of diversity in an NIH review group," he said. The agency's rules require that its peer-review panels be diverse as to gender, race, ethnicity, and geography.
For this year's competition, the reviewers comprised 38 men and 28 women, and the NIH explicitly requested applications from female and minority scientists. Twenty-six percent of the 840 applicants were women, up from 21 percent in last year's competition.
"I think once we made those changes, the process really took care of itself," Mr. Berg said. "To me it was a real case study in how a little bit of tweaking the process, and making sure that people are a little bit more sensitive to these issues, really leads to a very different outcome."
The revamped review process also contributed to another change this year: While the recipients in 2004 included several well-known, seasoned investigators, more than half of this year's crop are at relatively early stages of their careers -- that is, the associate-professor level or below.
Winners of the awards are:
More information about the winners is available on the NIH's Web site.
Background articles from The Chronicle: