There are some pretty big funding changes being proposed at the NIH that many people may not be aware of. A concerned NIH grantee has sent along some links and comments about these, and I think that they’re worth bringing up. Here’s a blog post by Mike Lauer of the NIH going into some details:
We will continue our work in monitoring, on a trans-agency level, the number and characteristics of the researchers we support with the idea that by doing so we can broaden and diversify the enterprise. We will take additional efforts to identify funding for even more early stage investigators who submit meritorious applications. When necessary, we will encourage use of bridge funding to offer additional stability and chances for obtaining an award.
To improve opportunities for early established mid-career investigators, we will take special steps to identify meritorious applicants who are only one grant away from losing all funding. Prioritizing these applicants for funding consideration may alleviate the squeeze being felt by mid-career investigators.
And we will monitor, on a trans-agency basis, investigators’ Grant Support Index, with the idea that over time and in close consultation with the extramural research community, we will phase in a resetting of expectation for total support provided to any one investigator. We plan to implement a Grant Support Index cap of 21 points, essentially the equivalent of 3 single-PI R01 grants. Over the next few weeks to months, we will meet with NIH Advisory Councils and other stakeholder groups to explore how best to phase in and implement this cap – so that formal assessment of grant support can be used to best inform, on a trans-NIH basis, our funding decisions.
It’s that last one especially that has some people cheering and some people booing (as you’ll be able to see from the extensive comments section that the post has already accumulated). The “Grant Support Index” is explained in more detail on this page, but what it comes down to (as in the quote above) is that the total support to any one PI is going to be basically three grants. And that will be that.
What has many people worried is that this seems to be a deliberate step away from any sort of merit-based funding. In fact, if the current granting system has any bias towards merit – as it is presumably supposed to – this is, in a way, an attempt to institute a bias against it. I completely understand that NIH grant review, as it is practiced in the real world, has problems. But it does at least attempt to fund what the agency and its committees believe are the best proposals.
Moreover, many grantees are objecting that the NIH has its thumb on the scale when it makes the case for this policy. Shown are two graphs – the one that the agency itself presents as evidence of diminishing returns from multiple grants, and an annotated version. The second one points out that the axes for these graphs are quite different – the Y axis is a straight log-10 scale, while the x-axis is more like a log-2 scale, which is an odd choice (as is the whole idea of plotting on two different log scales in general). It appears that in reality a lab with two R01 grants has roughly four times the impact of a lab with only one, and a lab with three has six times the impact. That straight dashed line, since it’s a straight line in a weirdo log world, seems to imply that a lab with two R01 grants would need to have about thirty times the impact of a single-grant lab in order not to be considered some sort of waste-of-money failure. What is bizarre.
I think a good airing-out of the criteria for R01 grants might end up doing everyone some good (although the opposite could happen, too). The NIH is completely within its rights (and in fact, its responsibilities) to keep an eye on how its grants are evaluated and awarded. But this proposal seems arbitrary and disingenuous, a good shot at getting the worst of both worlds. We’ll see how this plays out. . .