Feedback on the NIH Emeritus Award for Senior Investigators idea

A few days ago the NIH posted a request for information (RFI) on a new type of award aimed at senior investigators moving away from grant-supported work. At first blush, I thought the idea was terrible, but as I write below, there may something good in there somewhere..


On the face of it, the Emeritus award seems like a stupid idea. Investigators who would be awarded such an honor would be extraordinarily talented individuals who could just as easily be supported by institutional soft money and who have already received generous amounts of NIH funding. As a mid-career investigator, I do not support this idea as it is presented here. I have complete sympathy for junior investigators who may even be resentful of the idea.

On the other hand, an Emeritus Award might be a good idea if the intentions of the mechanism were less muddled. I support a mechanism that would encourage senior NIH investigators to retire. I would be interested in such a mechanism myself in a few years. No blah, blah about partnerships, senior PIs have already trained their scientific replacements many times over. Senior PIs that have survived their entire career by bagging grants need no help in acquiring skills for transitioning to a new role. By definition, these folks are adults who can take care of themselves. What some senior folks may need is a kick in the pants to stop applying for funds and retire already. To achieve this role, the NIH could make a mechanism for senior folks that requires very little work, would have a high success rate, and came with the stipulation that, “that’s all you get.” It would be an easy-to-get final award. Period. Like being president. No more running for office. Adding all the gravy about transitioning skills is bogus.

The award should be for three or at most four years of support. The junior faculty partner idea is particularly terrible. The last thing we need is for junior investigators to be smothered by their elders any more than they already are!!

The incentive for the investigator would be the simplicity of the award mechanism, based primarily on the accomplishments of the PI and a very brief statement of plans. The NIH should also institute a reverse new investigator policy and make grants harder to get if the PI has been funded for 25 years. It is a problem that well-connected, senior investigators compete on the same playing field as new PIs. I don’t know that institutions respond well to much of anything except more money.

The impediments would likely be inertia. If applying for R01 grants is what you know, why change?