Innovation Grants Program Infuses Cutting-Edge Projects with Start-Up Funds
Cuts in federal funding have left many scientists struggling with the reality that some of their groundbreaking experiments may just have to be shelved. But a recent program at the Salk Institute circumvents this hurdle. The Innovation Grants Program (IGP) is a donor-funded mechanism for supporting riskier, but potentially very rewarding, projects that would otherwise be orphaned.
"Salk's mission has always been one of unobstructed discovery," says Joseph Ecker, who chairs the program and is a professor in the Plant Biology Laboratory at Salk. "This program provides researchers with the financial flexibility to ask bold scientific questions, which they can attempt to answer by exploring their most creative ideas."
Though, historically, donors have supported new scientific research at Salk, the IGP is the first mechanism to ensure that the most promising projects receive immediate funding. Scientific proposals are reviewed by a committee of seven Salk faculty members who rank the prospects and recommend funding for those that meet program criteria.
Since it was established in 2006, the IGP has attracted $1.5 million in donations. More than half of that has been distributed in two rounds of funding, with grants ranging from $25,000 to $100,000 for one year. A third round of grants is scheduled to be distributed in the coming weeks.
Among those who received an IGP grant in the first round is Gerard Manning, a senior staff scientist in the Razavi-Newman Center for Bioinformatics. Manning is a computational biologist who studies genomes to understand the function of all kinds of life forms.
Manning is testing a radical strategy for piecing together DNA fragments scooped from the environment to assemble genomes of new bacterial species. This genetic information can then be used to determine the organisms' function in the environment. If it works, it could revolutionize the ability to understand the functions of the 99 percent of bacteria that cannot be cultivated or studied in the lab.
"Many of the projects that have received funding from the IGP involve the development of a new technique such as this," says Christopher Kintner, who co-chairs the program and who is a professor in the Molecular Neurobiology Laboratory. "New technical breakthroughs are one of the primary engines driving scientific discovery."