NIH Grants Offer Funding Relief

Harvard scientists receive federal money despite dearth of dollars

Though federal funding has proven tight for researchers around the country, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) have awarded nine Harvard scientists special funding to pursue innovative, “high-risk” research.

The money comes as a welcome relief for researchers who say that federal funds have been allocated elsewhere in recent years.

Harvard scientists garnered $15 million of the $105 million awarded Tuesday to 41 researchers at 21 institutions.

One award-winner, Frances Jensen—a professor of neurology at Harvard-affiliated Children’s Hospital—said that NIH usually requires some preliminary findings before it funds research, which makes these grants unique.

“In order to push the frontiers of science ahead, you have to take some risks—to push the envelope in terms of creativity into areas where there hasn’t been a lot of research done,” Jensen said.

Six scientists at Harvard schools and hospitals were given the newly created Director’s New Innovator Award, which granted 29 new scientists $1.5 million each for research expenses over the next five years.

Recipients praised the new grants for giving them the opportunity to pursue unusual projects.

“This is a tremendous boost for the lab both in the sense of giving us outside validation that what we’re doing is interesting and important, and giving us the means to pursue our research without the restrictions of monetary issues,” said Alan Saghatelian, an assistant professor of chemistry and chemical biology in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences.

He will investigate the function of enzymes associated with diseases including schizophrenia, diabetes, and cancer.

Saghatelian said that since he came to Harvard about a year ago, he has had to rely on a transitional grant from a private foundation.

Sarah Fortune, nine months into her position as assistant professor of immunology and infectious disease at the School of Public Health, also received a New Innovator grant for her research into tuberculosis.

“I decided to apply because the project I wanted to do was truly high risk,” she said. “There was no way I was going to get funding from any other source.”

NIH also awarded 12 Pioneer Awards, with Harvard professors receiving three of those.

The award, first given out in 2004, provides $2.5 million over five years to established researchers for work that is considered “highly innovative” and “potentially transformative,” according to the NIH Web site.

For many scientists, funding opportunities have been few and far between.

The federal government expanded funding between 1998 and 2003 but in the past four years, funding has been static, the University’s senior director of federal and state relations, Kevin Casey, told the Crimson in an interview last spring.

He said that up to 95 percent of normal grant applicants are rejected at first submission as a result.

“It has been very difficult to get funding in the last few years because of where the money is being allocated by the federal government,” Jensen said. “The NIH budget has suffered and the funding rate has been extraordinarily affected.”

Fortune, who had another NIH grant application rejected outright this year, said that she knows many people in similar situations who are still struggling to find grant money.

Jensen said that she and other scientists have gone to Capitol Hill to lobby for increased NIH funding, but for now many researchers have to apply to private foundations and charitable trusts for money.

—Staff writer Aditi Balakrishna can be reached at balakris@fas.harvard.edu.