Cap NIH funding for individual Investigators to save the future of biomedical science
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It’s an exceptionally exciting time for biomedical science, as new tools drive exciting discoveries about the living world and offer new treatment strategies for disease. Some nations, like China, are embracing these possibilities and increasing research investment. However, in the US the budget of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) has been basically flat in inflation-adjusted dollars for well over a decade. Further, research dollars are distributed in a very unequal way— 1% of scientists get 11% of NIH funding, 10% get 40% . As a result, we have watched tightened grant funding threaten the careers of early and mid-career scientists as they attempt to obtain or renew investigator-initiated research grants (R01s) in competition with the leaders of their fields. Productive scientists are faced with closing their labs. This is discouraging many of our best trainees from pursuing a research career. Simply put, it is a crisis [2-4].
NIH has taken action. The National Institute of General Medical Science (NIGMS) and the Office of the Director did an exceptionally thorough analysis of the distribution of research project grants across the scientific spectrum, and how productivity and scientific impact scale with the amount of grant funding possessed by each lab. While no data source is perfect, the analysis has been performed across many samples, using many different metrics . Each analysis tells a similar story. First, it is clear that impactful science costs money—a lab without grant funding cannot have an impact. Second, the data suggest that at a certain level of grant funding, there are generally diminishing returns in scientific advances per unit dollar. Third, it is impossible to predict from where the most important discoveries will emerge—thus the best approach is to bet on the highest number of qualified investigators. Finally, highly funded labs are no more likely to produce trainees who go on to grant-funded careers and thus help drive forward biomedical science—the human capital produced by NIH dollars is as important as the scientific advances made.
In response to these data, NIH proposed a bold solution—the Grant Support Index. This proposed to cap the number of concurrent grants NIH would provide to a single Investigator—roughly three Research Project Grants per lab head. They calculated this would affect only 3% of all investigators, and the funds freed up could fund 900 new grants for PIs who did not have other grant funding . They listened to community feedback and tweaked the formula to exempt training grants and encourage collaboration . This change was bold, addressing a key issue head on. Of course, there was pushback, much of it seemingly from a small number of very well-funded scientists who were not willing to give up their hold on a disproportionate amount of NIH funds. Some of their rhetoric was heated—one was quoted in the Boston Globe  as saying “If you have a sports team, you want Tom Brady on the field every time. You don’t want the second string or the third string." However, NIH seemed to be moving ahead with this program.
We were stunned to learn that NIH has abandoned the Grant Support Index . While other new initiatives to support early and mid-career scientists are welcome, they don't have the same impact because they do not put a cap at the top. Without this, we may be simply rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. It is a zero-sum game, and the proposed Next Generation Researchers Initiative will cost money. 70% of all NIH-funded scientists have only a single R01 grant. Without the GSI, it may simply take one grant away from other 6-12 person labs with only one or two grants, and leave labs with 30-50 "trainees" untouched. This approach is less likely to increase the number of investigators or the efficiency of the research enterprise. Our ultimate goal is to have a less highly skewed funding distribution, opening up the field to more talented folks of all ages, while ensuring that taxpayer dollars are spent wisely. The GSI was a route forward, but other mechanisms that reach this goal, similar to the NIGMS 750K policy, are welcome.
The reversal of the GSI policy suggests that a small number of powerful scientists can drive key policy decisions, to the detriment of the community and to the efficiency of the enterprise. This sends a severely demoralizing message to the whole field. We thus urge you to reconsider imposing a cap on individual Investigators, a critical tool to ensure a future for American biomedical scientists.
The petition will be delivered to Dr. Francis Collins, NIH Director, with copies to Dr. Michael Lauer, Director of Extramural Research and Dr. Jon Lorsch, Director of NIGMS. If applicable, please include your role (e.g., Professor, Assistant Professor, Postdoc, Graduate student) and Institution in the “I’m signing because…” box.
We strongly encourage supporters to also make their views known by emailing Dr. Collins at: email@example.com with copies to Drs. Lauer and Lorsch: firstname.lastname@example.org and Michael.Lauer@nih.gov
1. Presentation by Jon Lorsch at NAGMS Council, May 2017. https://drive.google.com/file/d/0B-TGzynElXw4NlQ2QWZJejRYZmM/view?usp=sharing
2. Alberts B, Kirschner MW, Tilghman S, Varmus H. (2015). Opinion: Addressing systemic problems in the biomedical research enterprise. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 112:1912-3. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25691698
3. FASEB: Sustaining Discovery in Biological and Medical Sciences https://gs.ucdenver.edu/fobgapt2/workshops/General/FASEB_2015.pdf
4. Kimble et al. Point of View: Strategies from UW-Madison for rescuing biomedical research in the US. https://elifesciences.org/articles/09305
5 . Boston Globe Article about the GSI. https://www.bostonglobe.com/business/2017/06/07/local-scientists-worry-about-nih-proposed-cap-funding-for-individual-labs/8qv6ydg4xBT32Y4a7LkVfN/story.html
6. NIH Advisory Committee to the Director - June 2017
Of particular note is the critique by an audience member (4:11:54-4:23:38)
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