This spring, the National Institutes of Health announced a dramatic change to the way it would support biomedical research in the United States. NIH Director Francis Collins offered a bold new approach called the Grant Support Index (GSI) that would bolster funding to early-career researchers and limit the number of major NIH research projects that any individual could oversee to three. This approach to funding was proposed in part to grow a larger research community, and in part to ensure that individual researchers were able to responsibly oversee their funded work.
But then Collins talked to advisors at the NIH and changed his mind. Within a month, the GSI was out, and the Next Generation Researchers Initiative — essentially the current flawed system — was in.
The NIH is the most important source of funding for biomedical research in the U.S., which makes it largely responsible for medical advances here. It oversees a budget of $30 billion a year, most of which goes to labs at universities and research institutes across the country. There is huge competition for NIH grants, and it can take months to prepare a single grant proposal. Getting these grants is a big deal. I recently received word from the NIH that a proposal I had submitted scored in the top 5 percent of applications — this money will allow my lab to continue research on Alzheimer’s disease for the next five years.
Currently, 40 percent of NIH money goes to just 10 percent of the labs it funds. For the last decades, older researchers have been receiving an increasingly greater share of awards compared to younger researchers. The GSI proposal would have spread out funding by providing money to more researchers and supporting research in more labs. It would have stopped new grant money from flowing to well-funded researchers and used it to pay for nearly 1,600 new grants in other labs for work deemed exceptional, outstanding, or excellent by NIH review panels but that had not been funded. These grants could be targeted to the innovative and productive members of the research community who do not have the resiliency to continue doing research without an NIH grant.
More money to more labs means more discoveries. Studies have shown that there are diminishing returns for money given to labs with large budgets. “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,” said Collins when he announced the GSI proposal. And freeing senior researchers from writing and administering more than three large grants means that they would spend more of their time actually doing the important science that they got funded.
If it makes sense for the NIH to distribute its funds more widely for outstanding and excellent grants, why did Collins scrap the GSI?
After the initial announcement, he turned to his advisory committee, a group of scientists selected largely from the best-funded research universities in the U.S. They heard from members of the research community that the GSI would prevent well-funded researchers from developing new team science projects, and that some researchers would even leave the U.S. to pursue their work elsewhere. They heard that not all well-funded labs were the same, and that it was unclear why the number of major grants per researcher would be three. They argued for more study of the issues, which will take years.
These arguments don’t ring true to many of us in the biomedical sciences. The labs with a lot of NIH money will always have access to what they need to do good science of any sort: They compete well for grants from foundations, they are attractive to philanthropists, and they often receive special perks from their institutions so that they don’t move somewhere else. They don’t need a fourth NIH grant to be productive or to continue doing research.
Large labs also have many brilliant junior scientists who could — and should — be trained to grow these research programs. These early-career scientists could — and should — be applying for and receiving their own grants. They will be the ones making the innovative discoveries of the coming decades. But without the freedom that comes with independent lab support, they are vulnerable to doing only the work that their current advisors now deem most important.
The Next Generation Researchers Initiative would leave the current funding system in place, though it would “reprioritize” some money to support meritorious early- and mid-career researchers. However, there is no new money for this plan and it will apparently not come from the 10 percent of labs that receive nearly half of NIH funding. That means competition for NIH money will be as discouraging as ever.
The NIH proposed the GSI for three reasons: to ensure the best oversight of taxpayers’ money, to increase the possibility of new scientific breakthroughs, and to help train the next generation of promising researchers. It now wants to replace this dramatic and concrete plan with a vague alternative that ignores their previous noble goals. That’s not the kind of progress that the NIH should dedicate itself to.
G. William Rebeck, Ph.D., is a professor of neuroscience at Georgetown University. He has received and reviewed NIH grants for more than 20 years. The views in this article are the author’s and do not necessarily represent those of Georgetown University.