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NIH will limit scientists' grants

New policy seeks to help early- and mid-career researchers

by Andrea Widener
May 4, 2017 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 95, Issue 19

Scientists will be restricted in the number of grants they can receive from the National Institutes of Health under a new policy the agency released this week.

The move is an attempt to spread the wealth to more scientists in the current hypercompetitive research environment, where grant award rates hover around their lowest level in history. The agency estimates the move will free up 1,600 grants to help early- and mid-career scientists, who have been finding it harder to get grants in recent years.

The new Grant Support Index will assign a number value to each grant an investigator has on the basis of the type of research, type of award, and responsibilities, explains Lawrence Tabak, NIH’s principal deputy director. He says the index is an attempt to estimate how much bandwidth each investigator has to continue doing high-quality research.

NIH’s new Grant Support Index by the numbers

maximum number of grants any one investigator would likely receive

1,600: number of grants that will likely become available because of the change

10%: proportion of NIH investigators who receive 40% of NIH funding

1985: year biochemist Bruce Alberts first called on NIH to limit the amount of support to any one investigator

19%: success rate for NIH research project grant applications in 2016

54,220: research project grant applications in 2016

Source: NIH

Although the agency is still working out the details, it estimates the index will limit each investigator to three NIH grants and impact 6% of the agency’s grantholders. The policy would go into effect in this fall for grant applications that would be reviewed in the fall of 2018. Now, 10% of investigators with NIH grants receive 40% of the agency’s funding.

Chemist Jonathan Sessler of the University of Texas, Austin, suspects few chemists will be impacted by the rule. “Among chemists, we consider ourselves lucky to have any NIH funding,” he says.

But he agrees that the policy is moving the situation in the right direction. The third, fourth, or fifth grant from one of the top scientists is probably less likely to involve transformative research than the best idea of an early-career researcher, says Sessler, who has two NIH grants. “The bottom line seems to be that getting a better dispersed funding mechanism for the chemical community” would be worth the cost to high-level researchers, he says.

In the past, NIH had focused solely on each project without examining how many grants any one individual has. But after several calls from the community to level the playing field, NIH studies showed that per-grant publication levels—a measure of a scientist’s productivity—decrease after researchers receive more than three grants. Scientists with huge labs also have a difficult time mentoring large numbers of young scientists, which may put students in those labs at a disadvantage.

“It’s good that they are confronting the issue of hypercompetition,” says Howard Garrison, deputy executive director at the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology, which has recommended a funding limit in past reports. If this can help mitigate competition and support a broader portion of the biomedical workforce that could be “a career saver, a life saver,” Garrison says.

The index might put the most pressure on scientists at research centers who are required to pay their full salary with grants, which is not the case at most universities. Tabak suggests spreading the distribution of grants might actually help those scientists, especially those in early- and mid-career.

Although the NIH has created programs focused on early-career scientists, mid-career researchers applying for their first competitive renewal are also vulnerable. With the grants freed up by use of the index, Tabek says the agency will prioritize scientists who are doing outstanding work but are still on the edge of losing all NIH funding.

“The demographics are such that only the most experienced investigators are thriving now,” Tabak says.


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