Pioneer Comparison Evaluations
The NIH Director’s Pioneer Award program began in 2004 as an experiment to test novel ways of fostering innovation and high impact research. It was developed in response to input from biomedical researchers who felt that the application and review process for traditional NIH grants (R01s) limits risk-taking and innovation through their requirement for detailed experimental plans and for preliminary data that demonstrate feasibility of the approach. Moreover, many investigators felt that past innovations by an applicant should be considered a reliable predictor of future achievements and should therefore be weighted heavily in the selection of exceptionally innovative research projects. Collectively, the community called for a program to enable investigators with histories of innovative achievements to take entirely new directions in their research to achieve transformative results.
As a result of this input, Pioneer applicants describe a general vision for the research project but do not describe specific aims or details of the approach. The vision must represent an entirely new direction for the investigator and should include novel, pioneering experimental approaches. The review process includes an interview to enable reviewers to query applicants about the transformative potential of the research, and assess their capacity to conduct the work and their past achievements that might predict successful outcomes for the Pioneer project. Once the awards are provided, the investigators are given flexibility to adjust their project as necessary to achieve transformative results.
As this program approaches its 10th anniversary, the NIH faces the question of whether this experiment has worked. Does the novel application and review process used for Pioneer awards result in higher impact and more innovative research than that which is funded via R01s? How do Pioneer awards compare to other programs known for fostering innovation?
To address these questions, the NIH commissioned an evaluation of the Pioneer program in which research funded through this program was compared to research funded via R01s or via the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. Outcomes measured included both publication bibliometrics and evaluation by scientific experts. The full report can be found here. The report concludes that Pioneer research is more pioneering - highly innovative with higher impact - than R01s. Pioneer awardees often forge entirely new scientific directions, paradigms and techniques. Their level of innovation and impact is similar to that of Howard Hughes Investigators when efforts are made to control for total level of support received.
This assessment compels us to continue the support for the Pioneer program and to celebrate the trail blazing opportunities it provides. However, we also recognize that scientific progress results from following many paths, and the different funding mechanisms used by the NIH can each facilitate progress in different ways. R01 supported research provides the depth and breadth to the scientific research portfolio which is required to afford meaningful and directed understanding. The NIH will continue to embrace traditional R01s while also encouraging opportunities for departure from the mainstream via the Pioneer program.