The most formative moments in a young scientist’s emerging career often occur not in a lab but around a table filled with half-empty beers and passionate colleagues. Ideas are tossed around, latest papers discussed, the owner of the week’s hottest data celebrated – and these topics are all met with a contagious giddiness by other young scientists.
The beer helps, but in reality it’s the possibility of launching new areas of research in often stagnant fields that is so exciting – the fact that the pieces of the puzzle you put together could result in a major breakthrough. And this enthusiasm and eagerness often results in some of science’s most cutting-edge research ideas.
However, as scientific research funding from the U.S. National Institutes of Health and other large funders has flatlined or decreased in recent years, younger researchers are left to compete over a much smaller piece of the pie. According to the scientific journal Nature, in 2015 the NIH awarded only 78 grants for “high-risk” studies – those supported by limited preliminary data – but more than 15,000 conventional grants, which are generally awarded to more established researchers. And between 1983 and 2010, the proportion of NIH-funded principal investigators under age 36 dropped from 18 percent to 3 percent.
This is a devastating loss for science as a whole. A failure to invest in young scientists not only means some of today’s most exciting research may remain unfunded, it could also limit the field’s vitality and ability to address the world’s challenges tomorrow – from curing diseases like HIV to climate change.
As a scientist myself, I experienced the giddiness of being a young researcher. It’s what kept me working late into the evening and testing novel hypotheses. But I also saw how the daunting reality of establishing a research career in the current environment caused many of my classmates to stop pushing for breakthroughs, and instead to propose safe and fundable science – or to abandon the field of research altogether.
But now, as associate director of research at amfAR, the Foundation for AIDS Research, I also see the path to a solution.
For over 30 years, amfAR has been dedicated to funding the most innovative HIV research ideas – ideas often deemed too risky to receive funding from the NIH and others. And our investment approach has contributed to many of the world’s most critical HIV breakthroughs, such as the development of the protease inhibitors that revolutionized HIV treatment and the prevention of mother-to-child transmission of the virus. Investing in young scientists and their creative ideas is and has always been a key part of our strategy.
Through our Mathilde Krim Fellowships in Basic Biomedical Research program, named in honor of amfAR’s founding chairman, we are able to identify outstanding young HIV researchers and award them up to $200,000 to pursue innovative, often high-risk research. The fellowships also allow these scientists to enter the job market with a competitive edge: ready-to-go research funding. And the program has shown time and again that this investment in researchers during their postdoctoral period produces results.
According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, approximately 7.4 percent of science and engineering graduates with advanced degrees land faculty jobs. However, 57 percent of our recent Krim Fellows obtained university research positions. Many have also used their amfAR-funded studies to leverage prestigious grants from large funders, such as the NIH -which has awarded over $3.6 million to our young fellows since the program started in 2008.
Currently, amfAR is embarking on its most ambitious research endeavor in the history of the organization: our Countdown to a Cure for AIDS initiative, aimed at developing the scientific basis of a cure by 2020. Today, thanks to 30 years of progress, we have been able not only to identify the final roadblocks to curing HIV, but also to devise a research strategy for overcoming them.
Through the Countdown, we will invest $100 million in this strategic plan – which prioritizes the most innovative approaches to resolving the unanswered questions standing between us and a cure. These are the studies young researchers excel at. Fittingly, our funding model includes crucial support from amfAR’s generationCURE – a group of energetic young professionals committed to helping us raise funds for cure-focused research led by young scientists.
We know that the enthusiasm, passion, and creativity of young scientists will be critical to getting us to our next and ultimate goal – a cure for HIV. And then to achieving the next step – developing an affordable way to get that cure to the 37 million people living with the virus today. We hope others will also prioritize supporting the young researchers who will prove so critical to ending AIDS and to finding solutions to the world’s many other ongoing scientific challenges.
Dr. MARCELLA FLORES is the associate director, research, at amfAR, the Foundation for AIDS Research.