In the early 1990s, APS Executive Director Alan Kraut sat down with the congressional Appropriations Committee to discuss the National Institute for Mental Health (NIMH). The Committee had expressed concern about the trend noted in a 1988 report by the Alcohol, Drug Abuse, and Mental Health Administration (ADAMHA) of falling numbers of new investigators in the behavioral sciences. APS, then a relatively new organization based around the mission of promoting scientifically oriented psychology research, was only too eager to help promote behavioral science research alongside NIMH. Kraut, Toni Antonucci, Richard Bootzin, Rachel Clifton, James Jones, Charles Kiesler, and Georgine Pion made up the original APS/NIMH advisory committee that was advocating for improvements within the National Institutes of Health (NIH). According to Kraut, new PhDs in psychology would benefit from additional support from NIH by getting fair shot at research funding. But many new investigators were daunted by the complex application process for NIH grants.
With encouragement from APS and Congress, and in response to the need to increase the number of new behavioral science investigators, NIMH implemented the Behavioral Science Track Awards for Rapid Transition (B/START) program in 1994. B/START provided support for new investigators at a critical juncture in their career and gave them an opportunity to develop pilot data necessary to apply for a regular grant. In its inaugural year, B/START grants totaled over $1 million, allowing 31 recent PhDs to begin their own year-long research programs. Other NIH institutes began similar programs to help expand the cadre of behavioral researchers. The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) implemented a similar program in 1996, the National Institute on Aging (NIA) did so in 1997, and the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) followed suit in 1999.
Thanks to the B/START program, over 500 young investigators throughout the country and abroad have been able to jump-start their research careers . We recently caught up with some of the B/START grant recipients and were delighted to hear, in their own words, how the program has boosted their careers.
In Their Own Words
It engaged me (without overwhelming) in the most essential task of a young scientist — to formulate an interesting question, a tractable problem to take on scientifically.
Professor, University of California, Berkeley
The value of the B/START is to level out the playing field and give promising young investigators the chance to “get their foot in the door” and prove themselves as successful investigators. And if you do well with the first grant, your career is really off and running, which is what happened to me.
Professor, University of New Mexico
The B/START award proved to be quickly important to the development of my research program. Writing a short application allowed me to get started with grant writing.
Associate Professor, Northwestern University
Whether or not it ends with funding, grant writing at an early career stage felt like a helpful way to start focusing on independent research plans and to get feedback in advance from top people in the field.
Hillary Anger Elfenbein
Assistant Professor, University of California-Berkeley NIMH 2004
I think the most important aspect of the award for me was that it gave me confidence in my ability to compete successfully for NIH funding. With the initial success, I was able to moderate, to some extent, the learned helplessness that often follows repeated unsuccessful grant applications. The early success helped me have the confidence to keep competing.
Associate Dean of Research, Washington State University
Obtaining the B/START permitted me to obtain an appointment as a Research Assistant Professor and launched me into the area of animal models of alcohol consumption. The B/START helped me to gather pilot data for subsequent larger projects. I am pretty sure that I would have left academia and research altogether if it were not for the B/START. The B/START provided seed money to take a risk and really jump started my career. It was a great program.
Associate Professor, Utah State University
One of the most important things that my B/START grant allowed me to do was to hire a lab tech. The research proposed and completed in my B/START grant provided a springboard to other related projects using similar techniques and approaches.
Assistant Professor, University of Vermont
As a new assistant professor with limited pilot data and a new lab, the B/START grant was an ideal funding mechanism for my research at that stage of my career. It was truly life and career changing in that it took my research interests in a different direction that I would not have been able to pursue otherwise. Importantly, the B/START grant allowed me to acquire the necessary data and track record to secure longer term and larger scale research grants from different funding agencies.
Professor, The City College of New York
The NIMH B/START was my first successful grant application in the United States. It was enormously important to me because it provided evidence that I could be successful in the United States funding system.
Professor, University of Edinburgh
The B/START allowed me to do a short-term longitudinal project which I would have been unable to do without that funding. The work I did for the B/START understanding the development of infants’ visual attention has shaped how I think about the development of other cognitive abilities.
Professor, University of California-Davis
The B/START allowed me to conduct a series of experiments examining how people learn procedures from movies and computer training tools. Those experiments played a big role in the development of Event Segmentation Theory and the behavioral, computational and neurophysiological findings that have accompanied the development of the theory. The B/START also gave me important practical experience with the NIH review and funding process, with administering a grant, and with managing externally supported staff members.
Associate Professor, Washington University in St. Louis
Preparing a B/START application during this time period helped me to develop an early habit of carving out time to deliberately focus on the long-term trajectory of my research program and to create a plan to achieve the goals I had set for myself. Learning how to make this important task a regular part of my academic life was made even easier by the B/START’s brief and simple structure. Without that early success, the future grant application process would have been a lot more frustrating, I think. Another benefit of my B/START award was that it led a number of talented junior colleagues and graduate students to approach me for advice and feedback on their own grant and fellowship applications. It’s been great having the opportunity to support others as they approach the often daunting task of applying for their first grant.
Assistant Professor, University of Washington
The funding provided me with resources to conduct the studies and thereby made it possible for me to conduct more involved and challenging studies that were better tests of my theories than would have be possible without the funding. It also freed me up from having to teach during my early summers, which was critical for making progress on my research and writing.
Director of Graduate Studies, Florida State University
Funding for the project allowed me to partially support both graduate and undergraduate students. Moreover, I was able to recruit participants that would have been virtually impossible to gather otherwise.
Associate Professor, University of Florida
The B/START program was important to me primarily because it gave me a taste of success in grant-winning. Because it’s aimed at young investigators, and because it is a relatively small grant, it was pretty naturally the first major grant submission I made after getting a faculty position. I’d had two tries before with NIH (I submitted and re-submitted an NRSA post-doc application) with no success, but my scores on those efforts were promising. This gave me the confidence that the research that I do, though very basic cognitive stuff, wasn’t off-limits at NIH.
Director, Experimental Training Program at the University
The B/START program was a big spark to my research. It’s hard to exaggerate the usefulness of a small grant at the start of a tenure-track job: it creates time and money to get a lab off the ground, to travel widely, and to collect data for a larger grant.
Associate Professor, University of North Carolina- Greensboro
It was just the right sort of program for beginning young researchers who are trying to make it on their own. The proposal requirements were very reasonable and the review process was very smooth. NIH can certainly use more programs like B/START — small to medium-sized grants for both young researchers and also more established researchers.
Professor, University of British Columbia
The B/START proposal was a good stepping stone between the smaller proposals I had written as a student and the larger ones that I was expected to get as a faculty member.
Professor, University of Texas-Austin
The grant allowed me to pursue a research question that was risky and challenging. The B/START gave me the opportunity to fund this project, which resulted in multiple publications. More important, however, the B/START gave me the skills and confidence to write a R01 and additional grants for other agencies.
Associate Professor, Princeton University
Because of its explicit aims, the B/START program allowed me to circumvent many of the biases in reviewers that kill more “standard” grant applications. It seems to me, given the current funding climate, we need the B/START program more than ever if we wish to keep bright, motivated young people in science.
Associate Professor, University of California-Irvine