Young Faculty Angle For Funding Support

For scientists beginning their first year in their own lab, amassing sufficient startup funding can pose a tremendous challenge. This was not the case for organic chemist Eric Anslyn, however. Even before he began his first day as an assistant professor at the University of Texas in Austin last fall, he negotiated a package with the university that gave him $190,000 to equip and start up his lab. Then he won a $25,000 no-strings-attached award specifically designed for startup funding from the

By | July 23, 1990

For scientists beginning their first year in their own lab, amassing sufficient startup funding can pose a tremendous challenge. This was not the case for organic chemist Eric Anslyn, however. Even before he began his first day as an assistant professor at the University of Texas in Austin last fall, he negotiated a package with the university that gave him $190,000 to equip and start up his lab. Then he won a $25,000 no-strings-attached award specifically designed for startup funding from the New York-based Camille and Henry Dreyfus Foundation.

Once the academic year began, Anslyn won a state grant to pay for several students to work in his lab. And by springtime, he had added still more to his coffers with the receipt of a coveted National Science Foundation Presidential Young Investigator Award.

Now that's the best thing you can possibly get," says a very pleased Anslyn. After he collects the matching funds from other sources that are required in order to get the full value of the NSF award--which he expects to have little trouble doing--Anslyn figures it will be worth about $100,000 a year for the next five years. A hundred thousand a year without any overhead can run a group of four," he says.

Anslyn is, to say the least, sitting pretty after just one year of contending in the rough-and-tumble world of lab funding. But according to him and his colleagues, Anslyn's case is a rare one. Fighting for funding is hard for any scientist these days, when the amount of money available for researchers is not keeping up with the demand for support. But for those trying to set up a lab for the first time, finding funding can be an even tougher struggle.

"It's hardest in a certain sense for assistant professors, because they don't have the track record to compete with other [more senior] scientists," says Anslyn.

Here are a few funding programs designed for young investigators. For most of these programs, with the notable exception of the Camille and Henry Dreyfus Foundation's New Faculty Awards, it takes anywhere from six to 10 months from the close of application deadlines to the time a check is actually placed in the hands of an investigator. The process is that slow because of the time required for the granting agency to assemble outside advisers to review applications and complete the necessary paperwork, combined with the time it takes for the funding to go through the bureaucratic process at the awardee's university. In addition, because of the way most deadlines are structured, a scientist will already have begun the first year at a new job before being able to apply.

First Independent Research Support and Training Award (FIRST): This program, run by the National Institutes of Health, provides up to $350,000 over five years to investigators who have never before received an NIH grant. Recipients of these grants may apply for other NIH grants in a subsequent funding cycle, but at least 50 percent of their research time must be devoted to the FIRST award project. Projects must relate to the interests of any of the NIHinstitutes. For more information, contact the Division of Research Grants, Office of Grants Inquiries, Westwood Building, Room 449, 5333 Westbard Ave., Bethesda, Md. 20892; (301) 496-7441.

Petroleum Research Fund: Operated under the umbrella of the American Chemical Society, this fund was established by grants from seven petroleum companies in 1944. Proposed projects must have an impact on the petroleum field, although a wide variety of topics can fall into this category. Awardees receive $18,000. For more information, contact ACS, Petroleum Research Fund, 1155 16th St., N.W., Washington, D.C. 20036; (202) 872-4481.

Presidential Young Investigator Award: A National Science Foundation grant. Applicants must be nominated by their institution's dean. The grant provides $25,000 a year for five years. It will also pay up to an additional $37,500 a year in funds to match funds raised by the investigator from other--usually private--sources. For more information, contact Edward Ferrand, National Science Foundation, Room 360, 1800 G St., N.W., Washington, D.C. 20550; (202) 357-9466.

The Camille and Henry Dreyfus Foundation New Faculty Awards Program in Chemistry: Ten awards of $25,000 are given each year to new scientists beginning their first year in a tenure-track position. Applications should be made by the new scientist's institution. The check is given to successful applicants within the first few weeks of their start date at their institution.

Because the funds are unrestricted, the grant money can be used for travel to conferences--something that new faculty rarely have money for in their first year. The funds must be spent within five years. For more information, contact the Camille and Henry Dreyfus Foundation, 445 Park Ave., New York, N.Y. 10022; (212) 753-1760.

Cottrell College Science Grants: These grants are given by the Research Corporation. Applicants must teach at a college, not a research university.

Grants must be applied in the areas of astronomy, chemistry, or physics. Awards range from $3,000 to about $30,000 and are intended to last one or two years. Generally, they are used by faculty to run summer research projects at four-year colleges. Applicants must be new scientists, senior scientists restarting in research, or senior scientists going into a new area of research. For more information, contact the Research Corporation, 6840 E. Broadway, Tucson, Ariz., 85710-2815; (602) 296-6771.


In recognition of this disadvantage, some federal agencies and private foundations have created programs designed specifically for new scientists, generally defined by grant givers as those who have finished their postdoctoral fellowship and are within their first three years in an academic position (see accompanying list).

"Those of us who see a problem down the road with attracting new faculty see these starter grant programs as part of the solution," says Joseph Rogers, who oversees the American Chemical Society's Petroleum Research Fund (PRF). The fund, begun in 1944, earmarks money to be given to young investigators each year. In the 1989-90 granting season, it distributed a total of about $2.5 million to 142 applicants in $18,000 grants. But ACS' special program is the exception, not the rule, Rogers says. "Not many people have addressed the special problems of faculty in their first three years," he laments.

One set of programs that intentionally doesn't specifically address young investigators, but from which new scientists like Anslyn nevertheless benefit, is run by the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, based in Austin. The statewide grant programs-- the Advanced Research Program and the Advanced Technology Program-- were established by the state legislature and began operating in 1987. They grant a total of about $60 million every two years to researchers throughout Texas.

The programs' goal is to help diversify the state's economy while providing the means for scientists to conduct research and train future investigators in their labs, says Roger Elliott, the board's assistant commissioner for research programs.

Though the programs are not specifically directed toward young investigators, about one fourth of the winning applicants are at the assistant professor level. Whether the programs should be designed with special set-asides for young faculty members is "a subject that always comes up in our advisory committee," says elliott. Ultimately, the committee has decided not to target new scientists.

"We feel that the really excellent young investigators are getting supported by the program," he says. And those whose credentials aren't strong enough yet to win grants are encouraged to team up with senior scientists on projects. If the program continues to fund scientists whose careers are in different stages, "it will encourage this teaming up," he says.

In the existing targeted programs, there is significant competition among young scientists for the dollars. For instance, 237 applicants for PRF's Young Investigator Award didn't win one of the $18,000 grants. One of the most sought-after awards for new scientists--the First Independent Research Support and Training (FIRST) award granted by the National Institutes of Health--funded just 505 of 1,634 applicants.

Still, the chance of getting a PRF award was better than one in three, and for the FIRST award, the chance was just under one in three--probabilities that generally are more favorable than overall figures for mainstream award programs, because there are fewer applicants for these programs than for grants open to the general scientific population.

Even with those favorable figures, though, the existing programs appear to fall far short of demand and need. "I have friends at Berkeley, Syracuse, and Pennsylvania, and they're struggling," says Anslyn.

One of those friends is Bruce Novak, a polymer chemist at the University of California, Berkeley. Before Novak began his first year as an assistant professor, he negotiated a startup package that he describes as fair and higher than the $200,000 average. The package was higher than usual, he says, because he is the school's only polymer chemist and needed to buy a lot of expensive equipment.

"What you want to do in a startup package is get enough equipment to start a project and get preliminary results," says Novak. After he is able to report some initial data, Novak figures he will be in a better position to obtain outside grants.

Yet even with the generous startup package, Novak has spent lots of time applying for grants. "Competition for funding has never been harder, according to my senior colleagues," he says. "Everybody's crying the blues."

Kathryn Phillips is a freelance science writer based in Pasadena, Calif.

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