High-Risk, High-Reward Research of the Behavioral and Social Sciences

High-Risk, High-Reward Research of the Behavioral and Social Sciences

This blog was co-authored by Dr. Elizabeth (Betsy) Wilder, Director of the NIH Office of Strategic Coordination (OSC). More information about OSC and The Common Fund can be found here.

Headshot of Dr. Betsy Wilder, Ph.D.

Dr. Betsy Wilder

The National Institutes of Health Health High-Risk, High-Reward program (HRHR) is a Common Fund effort created to accelerate the pace of biomedical, behavioral, and social science discoveries by supporting exceptionally creative scientists conducting highly innovative research. The program seeks to identify scientists with high-impact ideas that may be risky or at a stage too early to fare well in the traditional peer review process. The program encourages creative, outside-the-box thinkers to pursue exciting and innovative ideas in any area of biomedical, behavioral, or social sciences research within the NIH mission.

The High-Risk, High-Reward program is open to all areas of research relevant to the NIH mission, but to date, applications from behavioral and social sciences research (BSSR) investigators have made up only a small fraction of the applicant pool. To support a more diverse scientific portfolio, the NIH Office of Strategic Coordination and the Office of Behavioral and Social Sciences Research (OBSSR) is encouraging BSSR investigators to consider applying to one of these initiatives.

Consistent with the emphasis on innovation and pursuit of novel research directions, preliminary data are not required, and the applications do not include detailed experimental plans. The primary emphasis in review is on innovation and significance of the project. The HRHR program includes four initiatives that target investigators throughout their research careers.

  • NIH Director’s Early Independence Award – allows early career scientists to skip postdoctoral training and enter independent research positions. Candidates must have received a terminal research degree or completed clinical training within the previous 15 months or must do so within the following 12 months of the application submission date and be in a non-independent position at the time of the application. Awards are up to $250,000 direct costs per year for 5 years. There is a limit of two applications per institution.
  • NIH Director’s New Innovator Award – supports early career investigators with no prior substantial NIH support as principal investigator who propose innovative, high-impact research. Awards are up to $1.5 million direct costs for the project period.
  • NIH Director’s Pioneer Award – supports individual scientists proposing bold approaches to major challenges in health research. It is open to all career stages and awards up to $700,000 direct costs per year for up to 5 years.
  • NIH Director’s Transformative Research Award – supports unconventional research projects with the potential to overturn fundamental paradigms. This award is open to individuals or teams at all career stages. Flexible budget levels are allowed, commensurate with the project scope, and no advance approval is needed for large budget applications.

Transformative opportunities in the behavioral and social sciences served as a basis for OBSSR’s strategic plan, and the accelerated integration of neuroscience in the behavioral and social sciences, the advances in measurement science, the role of digital technologies in intervention delivery, and the integration of unique data sources within large scale population cohorts represent just four of many potential transformative opportunities that could accelerate advancement in the behavioral and social sciences and challenge fundamental paradigms in the field. As independent evaluations of HRHR have demonstrated its effectiveness in promoting impactful research, BSSR projects funded by these initiatives could accelerate progress toward OBSSR’s Strategic Plan’s goals.

Thus far, some BSSR investigators have taken advantage of these High-Risk, High-Reward opportunities to transform the field and challenge existing paradigms. The following are a few examples of behavioral and social sciences research funded through these programs.

If you are a behavioral or social sciences researcher with an idea that is innovative, risky, and has the potential to impact the field in transformative, paradigm-shifting ways, we encourage you to consider submitting an application to the Common Fund High-Risk, High-Reward program. For more information, visit https://commonfund.nih.gov/highrisk.