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New NIH Approach to Grant Funding Aimed at Optimizing Stewardship of Taxpayer Dollars

Thursday, May 4, 2017   (0 Comments)
Posted by: Psychonomic Society
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Today we want to put forward a new approach to making sure that we are exercising optimum stewardship of the funds that we receive from taxpayers. We will be discussing this approach with our Advisory Councils over the next few weeks, and so we wanted to provide this broad public description.  This initiative aims to take advantage of new and powerful ways to assess the effectiveness of NIH research investments to be sure that the funds we are given are producing the best results from our remarkable scientific workforce. We would pursue this strategy regardless of the level of budget support.

Over the last several years, NIH has been acting to address a biomedical research workforce dangerously out of balance.   While we have made progress in reversing the decline in grant funding to early-career investigators through various programs and policies, the percentage of NIH awards that support this group remains flat. Unfortunately, gains for early-career investigators have been offset by a decline in the percentage of NIH awards that support mid-career investigators. The only group for which the percentage of grant funding is increasing is late-career investigators.  

Moreover, the distribution of NIH grant funding is highly skewed, with 10 percent of NIH-funded investigators receiving over 40 percent of NIH funding. While that might be just fine if the data suggested that this is the best way to get results, analyses conducted by both NIH and others (1234,5678) has shown that incremental research output gradually diminishes as the amount of support per investigator increases. For anyone who is familiar with the stresses on an investigator trying to balance multiple competing priorities, perhaps this is not a total surprise.  Essentially, the more principal investigators must manage in terms of additional projects, personnel, and grant applications, the less additional time they have to dedicate to their research.  Thus, the incremental benefit in productivity starts to decline. This is an important new insight.  And because scientific discovery is inherently unpredictable, there are reasons to believe that supporting more researchers working on a diversity of biomedical problems, rather than concentrating resources in a smaller number of labs, might maximize the number of important discoveries that can emerge from the science we support and thus, returns on the taxpayers’ investments.

To address this new evidence, NIH will be implementing an additional measure to bring the workforce back into equilibrium by working with NIH grant applicants/recipients to limit the total NIH grant support provided to an individual principal investigator through NIH-supported research.   We call it the Grant Support Index (GSI).  It is not a new concept, although it is a new name (we introduced it as the Research Commitment Index). In fact, in 1985 Bruce Alberts (9) called for the NIH to limit the amount of support it would give to any one investigator, citing both diminishing returns and investigator bandwidth. In 2015, the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology, one of the largest scientific organizations in the world representing over 30 scientific societies, made the recommendation(link is external) to limit the total funding to an individual researcher or laboratory. A similar consensus recommendation emerged from a major stakeholders meeting convened at the University of Wisconsin, Madison (10) later that year.   

The GSI is a measure of grant support that does not solely focus on grant money, since differing areas of research inherently incur differing levels of cost.  Instead, GSI assigns a point value to the various kinds of grants based on type, complexity, and size.  Applications for NIH-funding that will support researchers who have GSIs over 21 (the equivalent of 3 single-PI R01 awards) will be expected to include a plan in their applications for how they would adjust those researchers’ existing grant load to be within the GSI limits if their application is awarded.  While implementation of a GSI limit is estimated to affect only about 6 percent of NIH-funded investigators, we expect that, depending on the details of the implementation, it would free up about 1,600 new awards to broaden the pool of investigators conducting NIH research and improve the stability of the enterprise.

Over the next few months, NIH will be seeking feedback from the scientific community on how best to implement the GSI limit.  There are still many details of the policy that need to be worked out and we want those details to be informed by the community.   You’ll be hearing more about this effort and opportunities to provide input from NIH Deputy Director for Extramural Research Dr. Michael Lauer through his Open Mike Blog.

Francis S. Collins, M.D., Ph.D.
Director, National Institutes of Health


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  2. Doyle, J.M., Quinn, K., Bodenstein, Y.A., Wu, C.O., Danthi, N., Lauer, M.S. Association of percentile ranking with citation impact and productivity in a large cohort of de novo NIMH-funded R01 grantsMolecular Psychiatry (2015) 20:1030-1036.
  3. Lauer, M.S., Danthi, N.S., Kaltman, J., Wu C. Predicting Productivity Returns on Investment: Thirty Years of Peer Review, Grant Funding, and Publication of Highly Cited Papers at the National Heart, Lung, and Blood InstituteCirculation Research. (2015) 117:239-243.
  4. Lauer, M. Following up on the Research Commitment Index as a Tool to Describe Grant SupportOpen Mike Blog. (2017)
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  8. Fortner, R. Diminishing returns?: U.S. Science Productivity Continues to Drop(link is external)Scientific American. December 6, 2010
  9. Alberts, B.M. Limits to growth: in biology, small science is good science(link is external).  Cell (1985) 41: 337-338
  10. Kimble, J., Bement, W.M., Chang, Q., Cox, B.L., Drinkwater, N.R., Gourse, R.L., Hoskins, A.A., Huttenlocher, A., Kreeger, P.K., Lambert, P.F., Mailick, M.R., Miyamoto, S., Moss, R.L., O'Connor-Giles, K.M., Roopra, A., Saha, K., Seidel, H.S. Strategies from UW-Madison for rescuing biomedical research in the US(link is external)eLife. 2015;4:e09305

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