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Vol. LXI, No. 21
October 16, 2009
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Pioneers, Innovators Celebrated at Ceremony

On the front page...

As FY 2009 wore to a close with NIH disbursing some $5 billion in ARRA money, the 115 grantees who won Pioneer Awards, New Innovator awards and Transformative R01’s—representing an investment totaling $348 million over 5 years (some of which is ARRA money)—might seem a relative drop in the bucket. But in that bucket lie high hopes for scientific breakthroughs, said NIH director Dr. Francis Collins, who presided over the fifth annual NIH Director’s Pioneer Award Symposium Sept. 24-25 in Masur Auditorium.

Continued...


  NIH director Dr. Francis Collins presents the first of 18 2009 Pioneer Awards to Dr. Ivor Benjamin, professor of medicine and biochemistry at the University of Utah School of Medicine.  
  NIH director Dr. Francis Collins presents the first of 18 2009 Pioneer Awards to Dr. Ivor Benjamin, professor of medicine and biochemistry at the University of Utah School of Medicine.  

“This could be called a celebration of innovation,” said Collins, who explained that all three award components “are intended to be out-of-the-box.” The grants are paid for out of the Common Fund, part of the NIH Roadmap for Medical Research, and represent 30 percent of that fund’s value. “We hope to maintain that percentage, or grow it, in years to come,” Collins said.

The longest-standing of the three mechanisms is the Pioneer Award, which began in 2004 with only nine recipients; this year the honor went to 18 scientists. Members of the inaugural class of 2004 presented updates on their NIH-funded work at an all-day symposium Sept. 25.

New Innovator Awards went to 55 researchers, 10 of whom are supported by ARRA. Like the Pioneer Awards, these focus primarily on the promise of an especially creative investigator, not on a specific scientific proposal.

Dr. Teri Odom, a 2008 Pioneer awardee from Northwestern University, talks about imaging and the life sciences.
Dr. Teri Odom, a 2008 Pioneer awardee from Northwestern University, talks about imaging and the life sciences.
New this year, the Transformative R01’s, on the other hand, are project-focused rather than person-focused, and typically involve multiple principal investigators. Forty-two of these awards were made. “This is a very competitive program,” Collins said. To orient himself, as relatively new NIH director, to the breadth of NIH science, Collins explained that he has been reading grant summary statements. “I’ve read hundreds of them so far, including most of [the TR01 applications],” he said.

Giving the symposium’s keynote address was Dr. Arthur Molella, director of the Smithsonian Institution’s Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation, who ran the risk of preaching to the choir, given such an accomplished audience. Speaking on “The Habits and Habitats of Inventive People,” he discussed the contributions of environment (the pastoral remove of HHMI’s Janelia Farm, for example, or the Salk Institute’s ocean-side setting) and personality in nurturing creativity. Efforts at engineering creativity go but so far, he suggested.
Keynote speaker Dr. Arthur Molella discusses habits and habitats of inventive people.
Keynote speaker Dr. Arthur Molella discusses habits and habitats of inventive people.

Whether they do their work in barns, basements or abandoned air traffic control towers, creative people tend to like the proximity of tools, diversions and a variety of stimuli—anything, it would seem, but the standard office cubicle. Molella’s recipe for an inventive atmosphere included flexibility, leadership (but not too much), communication, a balance of solitude and interaction and tempered doses of chaos and structure.

“In the end, it’s still all about people,” he said.

The Pioneer and New Innovator Awards are administered by NIGMS and the TR01 program is run by the Division of Program Coordination, Planning and Strategic Initiative’s Office of Strategic Coordination. A complete list of 2009 grantees is available at http://nihroadmap.nih.gov/. NIHRecord Icon

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