Starting Early: A Biomedical Funder's Unusual Focus on (Very) Young Scientists

photo: Halfpoint/shutterstock

photo: Halfpoint/shutterstock

In our coverage of grants for science, we have often highlighted philanthropic programs designed to fund early-career researchers such as post-docs and new faculty. Behind many of these programs is the idea that sources of government funding have tightened over the last decade, so senior scientists with track records of research tend to get the grants. This can leave younger scientists facing serious professional obstacles. Careers can be slowed, diverted, even halted. 

For foundations with a single disease or research cause, supporting newer scientists can be a crucial career link, one that keeps promising young researchers in their chosen fields, rather than losing them to better-funded opportunities in other areas, or even to other careers. To many biomedical funders, a key to achieving breakthroughs in a given niche is first to win the battle to engage and retain talented young investigators. That means getting to promising researchers early and guaranteeing them a secure livelihood over time. Scientists have to make a living, too.

The Autism Science Foundation has worked to ensure a long pipeline of researchers for what is likely to be an even longer road to treatments for autism spectrum disorders (ASD). The decade-old organization has devoted a large portion of its grants to investigators at early stages in their careers, such as pre- and post-docs, and newer faculty.

But can it attract promising talent even earlier? 

Apparently so. For the past few years, ASF has been running a program to fund undergraduate scientists with autism-related research interests, which is not something we see very often. In fact, we almost never see it. ASF says it's alone among funders in its view that support for undergrads is a worthwhile use of research dollars. As far as we know, that's true. 

The foundation recently announced the award of four grants to undergraduates investigating early predictors of ASD symptoms, brain activity during sensory experiences, features of autism in family members, and development of new pharmacological therapies. 

"These projects allow undergraduate researchers to contribute to scientifically important projects while gaining skills that will allow them to flourish as future autism researchers," the ASF said in its announcement. 

“ASF invests in young researchers at the very start of their careers—a unique opportunity not offered by any other organization,” said Alycia Halladay, chief science officer of the Autism Science Foundation, in a press release. “We are proud to support this year’s recipients, who are each working with an accomplished mentor on projects that will enhance our understanding of autism and ultimately inform new treatment approaches to improve the lives of people with ASD and their families.”

ASF has been running the undergraduate summer research grants for a few years now; evidently, it liked the results. 

It's eminently reasonable to promote students interested enough in science that they'd devote some of their summers to health and science research. Research is a complicated path, involving not just strong academics about a particular field of study, but also skills in the funding and grant writing processes, which are just as critical to scientific success as the book learning.