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Balancing NIH's Funding Portfolio

Road map initiatives provide new opportunities, but some worry it's at expense of R01 grants

November 8, 2004 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 82, Issue 45

Some researchers are concerned that NIH's road map will divert funds from R01 grant mechanisms, which are vital to the scientific enterprise.
Some researchers are concerned that NIH's road map will divert funds from R01 grant mechanisms, which are vital to the scientific enterprise.

As the National Institutes of Health continues to promote the transagency program called the Roadmap for Medical Research, many scientists who count on the agency for research funding worry that the cost of this program may reduce the money available for traditional, investigator-initiated research grants--known as R01s. These fears are compounded by the modest budget increase expected from Congress for NIH in fiscal 2005, leaving scientists who count on R01 funding fearful that the agency will have to rob Peter to pay Paul.

The road map was launched a year ago and has received a lot of attention (C&EN, Oct. 6, 2003, page 10). It is designed to improve medical research capabilities and speed scientific discoveries from bench to bedside. To effectively meet this challenge, the road map is divided into three broad themes: new pathways to discovery, research teams of the future, and reengineering the clinical research enterprise. Each of these themes is composed of a set of trans-NIH initiatives.

In the first year, NIH spent $129 million in support of the road map's initiatives. Of that money, $35 million came from the NIH director's discretionary funds, while each of the 27 institutes and centers contributed 0.34% of their individual budgets. In fiscal 2005, the agency plans to increase its investment to $238 million, with the director contributing $60 million and the institutes' and centers' contributions expected to approximately double. At the end of the program's six-year lifetime, NIH expects to have contributed a total of $2.2 billion, with the maximum input from the institutes and centers for any year not to exceed 1% of their budgets.

"The main point is that in fiscal 2004 the road map was 0.34% of the individual institutes' budgets, and that will grow somewhat but will always be less than 1% of the institute budget," says Jeremy M. Berg, director of the National Institute of General Medical Sciences (NIGMS)--the largest funding source for chemistry within NIH. The investment in the road map is as large as it is because it's an NIH-wide activity, he explains.

But some in the research community--specifically scientists at academic institutions who are involved in mostly individual-investigator-initiated research--see the amount of money being applied to the program as money that would be better served funding more R01 grants.

"I am concerned that R01s will be lost," says Samuel J. Danishefsky, a researcher at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center and a chemistry professor at Columbia University. "It sounds to me like $129 million, to a first approximation, would translate into about 200 to 250 R01 grants per year" based on a typical modular grant of $250,000 including overhead and administrative costs, he explains. "That's a steep price to pay for a totally unproven initiative," he argues.

Berg acknowledges that it is true that the money contributed to the transagency program could be used instead to fund more R01s, but then "you would be losing the opportunity to do the activities that are associated with the road map--activities that will have a substantial impact for many investigators."

THE LOSS of R01s to the road map also worries Vern L. Schramm, biochemistry professor at Albert Einstein College of Medicine. He points out that while funding is being directed to the road map, the number of R01 grants, as well as the grant success rate, is down.

Although Berg acknowledges that the number of new R01s dropped in fiscal 2004, it's not because of a lack of dedication to this grant mechanism. "If you look at the transition from FY03 to FY04, the NIGMS budget increased by 3.1% (or $58 million), but our commitment base--that is, the amount of money committed to grants that have been previously funded--increased by $96 million," Berg points out. "So, money is already committed to existing grants, we have less discretionary funding for FY04, and the number of applications that we have been receiving has gone up more than anybody had anticipated," combining to cause the drop in new R01s and success rate, he says.

For Schramm, however, the core issue causing this drop in R01s is what appears to be a shift in NIH priorities from individual-scientist-initiated research grants to more large-scale group initiatives like those in the road map. He worries about the impact of this shift on scientists just entering academia.

"Young investigators must decide whether to join a group of investigators right away and try to get hooked into a program like the road map or to develop a new individual research program," Schramm explains. If NIH plans to continue this shift to larger scale initiatives, he asks that the agency clearly communicate that fact to the scientific community. "That's something we don't really know but is important for the future of science in this country," he says.

Schramm also worries that the shift in focus he is seeing from individual research projects to group science will cause a decrease in scientific productivity. "We in the academic arena know that there is no way to get the same kind of novel frontier science from large groups of people working together as there is from individual labs where people are free to develop novel ideas without having to filter them through a group of any sort," he explains.

But according to Berg, the implementation of the road map initiatives does not mean NIH's commitment to R01s has changed. "If you look at our research portfolio in the same way you look at how a fund manager would manage a mutual fund, you can understand how you want a mixture of different sorts of investments," Berg explains. "The road map was a process to try to add a little something new to the mix, not because the R01 mechanism wasn't doing lots of wonderful things, but because there were some things missing. It is simply untrue that NIH is moving away from individual investigator R01-sorts of mechanisms," he says.

IN FACT, Berg points out that the high value of R01s is evident by NIH's investment in them: In the case of NIGMS, R01s constitute about 85% of its funded research grants. "It's not a question of moving away from R01s to do the road map; it's a question of spending 0.34% of the total NIGMS budget on new initiatives that were developed with a very well thought out process to look at areas of research that are of interest across all of NIH's institutes and centers," he says.

Berg notes that the program includes opportunities for R01s. "The intent of the road map is not to just do everything on the largest possible scale but rather to pick a mechanism that's going to most effectively address the scientific questions." He adds, "There are problems that you can address with centers or other large-scale initiatives that you really can't address very well with R01s. And there are problems the other way around, where center mechanisms don't work well. It's a question of targeting the right areas and finding the mechanism that fits." He says again that it comes back to portfolio balance.

In fact, Berg notes that as the road map is envisioned and as it develops over its lifetime, he expects to see a push from a number of areas toward individual-investigator mechanisms. For example, in the road map area of membrane structural biology, there was a focus in the first year on center-based initiatives. But in the plans for the second year in this area, the focus will shift more toward individual-investigator-grant mechanisms.

In the end, Schramm points out, "I'm not trying to take a swipe at NIH, because it is the mother of us all in a way. But if we really want to be part of a dynamic and active science that provides strong support for young investigators, we need to work together."


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