The Burroughs Wellcome Fund (BWF) offers a career transition award in biomedical sciences,a the initial structure of which was developed by the Markey Foundation. The bulk of BWF’s funding is directed to this program: to date it has given 195 awards for a $90 million investment in the careers of young scientists. The program is very competitive—of the 175 to 200 applications received per year, it funds only 8 to 10 percent.
The goal of this $500,000, 5-year award is to help postdoctoral fellows obtain faculty positions and achieve research independence. The award provides money for salary and research—up to 2 years of postdoctoral support and the balance as faculty support. An investigator may hold other concurrent awards. Recipients are allowed no-cost extensions of unused money through the tenure review process and beyond.
Individuals at BWF track the progress of the program, examining the faculty position itself, the independence of the scientist, and the institution (Pion and Ionescu-Pioggia, 2003). The tracking data allow BWF to determine if the program makes a difference in the quality of science for those individuals who were funded compared with those who were not. Eighty-four percent of awardees believe the award helped them develop an independent research program, and 69 percent believe the award allowed them to pursue risky or novel research.
Of the incumbent awardees eligible for tenure-track positions, 98 percent currently have them, with many at the top NIH-funded institutions. The mean amount of time from the last doctoral degree to the faculty position is 6 years, and the average age at the first faculty appointment is 35. The awardees receive start-up funding at levels at or above national averages. The average age for receiving an initial R01 is 36. Of 33 awardees in the two early BWF classes (1996 and 1997), 12 are now associate professors, 1 is a full professor, and 10 are assistant professors. Approximately 60 percent of career awardees receive their degrees from institutions ranked in the top 25 institutions based on NIH funding. On average, awardees are 33 years old (slightly older for MDs) and have completed 41 months (slightly less for MDs) of postdoctoral work at the time of award.
In addition to formal studies of recipients (Pion and Ionescu-Pioggia, 2003), BWF conducts an annual survey and encourages feedback from the awardees. This feedback has helped change the structure of the award over time.