This was the prospect facing William Honer when he finished his psychiatry residency at Columbia University. Fortunately for Honer and others like him in the field of psychiatry, assistance was available. The Chicago-based National Alliance for Research on Schizophrenia and Depression (NARSAD) had begun only a year earlier, in 1987, to award Young Investigator grants to budding scientists.
"We want to stimulate the careers of bright, young people coming in," says Herbert Pardes, president of NARSAD's scientific council and director of the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) from 1978 to 1984. NARSAD tries to fill in the gaps in the NIMH funding system with a streamlined application process. "We try to make this organization as consumer-friendly as possible by minimizing paperwork [and] maximizing flexibility as to what they may do with the money, and we try to be supportive," says Pardes.
Young investigators, defined by NARSAD as scientists from postdoctoral fellows to assistant professors, apply for awards of $30,000 per year via a one-round evaluation process. Applications are due November 1 for funding the following July. A review committee, made up of members of NARSAD's scientific council as well as other scientists, if necessary, rank the proposals and recommend to the council which ones should be funded. The scientific council then makes recommendations to the board of directors. By March 1, the awards are announced.
Pardes says that the quality of the project is the most important factor in deciding awards; scientists may apply from any country and in any discipline. "We want to fund as many proposals as we can, depending on the availability of money," he says. In July 1991, 36 young investigator grants were awarded, and another 12 applicants were told their grants would be funded if money became available. Just last month, says Pardes, those 12 projects were funded.
For Honer, the flexibility of the NARSAD grant was doubly important. First, it allowed him to change plans after the grant was awarded. Originally, he had planned to work in a lab in England, but then decided he wanted to continue research he had started at Columbia. Second, when he received salary support from another source, NARSAD allowed him to reallocate salary funding to another use. "This is especially important for young investigators in transition because you're not sure where your support will come from, so it's great to be able to reallocate your funds," he says.
One of the organization's requirements is that young investigators have a senior mentor who will oversee the research. Honer's mentor, Peter Davies, at Yeshiva University's Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York, was a pioneer in the search for a molecular basis of Alzheimer's disease. Under Davies's direction, Honer was trying to apply a similar approach to the study of schizophrenia. Says Honer, "NARSAD likes to pull in established scientists in other areas and coax them into applying their expertise into the study of the major mental illnesses, such as schizophrenia, and they got the benefits of his [Davies's] expertise through me." Honer eventually received a second, two-year grant from NARSAD and is continuing his research at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver.
Honer's work reflects the orientation of NARSAD grants, which focus on the major mental illnesses, such as schizophrenia and depression, with an emphasis on elucidating the causes and treatment of those illnesses. Says Pardes, "We're very excited about the brain and are heavily focused in that area. That field is very hot: imaging, genetics, immunology, receptors, and transmitters, for example."
But research of a more psychological nature gets funded as well. This year, for example, Myrna Weissman, a professor of epidemiology and psychiatry at Columbia, received an established investigator grant from NARSAD to conduct a follow-up study of adults who as children had been diagnosed with and treated for depression or anxiety. "There's no data currently available on the continuity of childhood and adult depression," says Weissman. "One of the things we have already found is that among [adults who were] depressed children, there is a 4.5 percent suicide rate. That tells us that we need to know a lot more about childhood depression. Does it become adult depression?"
As an established investigator, holding the position of associate professor or above under NARSAD's definition, Weissman went through a different application process. In the first round, NARSAD asks for letters of intent by mid-June. About 25 of those applying are then asked to submit a longer proposal by October 15. By March 1, the scientists know whether their work has been funded. Established investigators receive up to $100,000 for one year. Six such grants were awarded in 1991.
Pardes says this two-step process offers several advantages: "We don't want to knock the researchers out with the application process, and we don't want to knock our reviewers out, either." In addition, because the process is fairly short, researchers can jump on a hot idea quickly. That was important to Weissman. She had only recently identified the sample of adults for her study; they were people who had been well characterized using modern psychiatric methods 10 or more years earlier, at the time of their initial diagnoses. "We didn't want to lose the sample," she says. "The NARSAD grant allowed us to capture a unique opportunity."
NARSAD has shown specific interest in funding researchers such as Weissman, who have unusual samples. In addition, the organization often is willing to fund novel and interesting ideas, without a substantial amount of data available beforehand. "We'll take a flyer; we're trying to get young people launched," Pardes says. A recently completed follow-up study of 33 researchers who received grants in 1987 and 1988 indicates that the NARSAD grants can help serve as a springboard. Twenty-seven of these grantees, says Pardes, "have been successful in getting peer-reviewed support from federal institutions, which is a measure of quality."
For more information, contact NARSAD Grants Office, 208 S. La Salle St., Suite 1431, Chicago, Ill. 60604.
Lisa Bain is a freelance writer based in Philadelphia.