An “independent investigator” is one who enjoys independence of thought—the freedom to define the problem of interest and/or to choose or develop the best strategies and approaches to address that problem. Under this definition, an independent scientist may work alone, as the intellectual leader of a research group, or as a member of a consortium of investigators each contributing distinct expertise. Specifically, we do not intend “independence” to mean necessarily “isolated” or “solitary,” or to imply “self-sustaining” or “separately funded.”
committee’s interpretation of “independence.” The committee seeks to broaden the concept of independence beyond that of a tenure-track professor to include other career trajectories such as a staff-scientist track of highly trained and talented individuals engaged in independent research but without necessarily having their own laboratory. Moreover, increasingly collaborative research projects with multiple investigators and the growth in non-tenure-track positions necessarily alter what independence means. Even those working in large research groups who have overall goals set by others can and do exercise independence by developing the strategies in pursuit of those goals. The research environment of the future will likely incorporate both large collaborative teams and individual investigators with small research groups, and both models will be necessary for advances in biomedical research. Individuals will need to be able to direct their own research and pursue independent directions within both of these contexts—and be skilled at moving between them.
The committee also recognizes that independence means not only initially establishing independent research funding, but also sustaining it. Any programs explicitly for new investigators should be designed to help put researchers in a position to subsequently compete for funding with established investigators.
Finally, the committee has affirmed the interconnectedness of scientific research and research training. For those engaged in mentored research as postdoctoral researchers and graduate students, research cannot be separated from the training and mentorship offered to them. Even if a postdoctoral or graduate trainee is supported by a research grant, the principal investigator, institution, and granting agency have a responsibility to ensure that the trainee receives the appropriate guidance, mentoring, and training.