NIH Announces Major Policy Shift: Agency to Impose Cap on R01s Held by Grantees

On May 2, National Institutes of Health (NIH) Director Francis Collins announced that the agency would be initiating a new approach to grant funding designed to “optimize stewardship of tax payers’ dollars.” Essentially, the new policy would limit the number of investigator-initiated (R01) grants held by grantees to three. According to NIH, this change would affect approximately 6 percent of current investigators but would free up resources to support nearly 1,600 additional grants. Announcing the policy change, Collins stressed that the new policy would ensure that the funds given by NIH “are producing the best results from our remarkable scientific workforce.”

According to the NIH director, the change in policy would take advantage of “new and powerful ways to assess the effectiveness of NIH research investments to be sure that the funds we are given are producing the best results from our remarkable scientific workforce. We would pursue this strategy regardless of the level of budget support.” The agency intends to address the issue at each of the institutes’ and centers’ quarterly national advisory committee meetings. Prior to Collins’ official announcement, NIH Principle Deputy Director Larry Tabak held a conference call to brief the scientific community on the forthcoming changes.

NIH’s Deputy Director for Extramural Research Michael Lauer also addressed the subject in his May 2 Open Mike blog post, “Implementing Limits on Grant Support to Strengthen the Biomedical Research Workforce,” where he noted: “To improve opportunities for early established mid-career investigators, [NIH] 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.” Lauer states that NIH will use a mechanism called the Grant Support Index to measure grant support (viewed as an adjusted grant count) and “allows for different cost scales across diverse types of research, while at the same time accounting for the differing levels of intellectual and leadership commitment entailed by various NIH grant mechanisms.”

Lauer wrote that over the coming months NIH will examine the following questions: “How should the Grant Support Index be calibrated? Should we assign more or fewer points to certain grant mechanisms? What headline metrics should we follow? How will we know whether we achieving desired effects of funding more early career investigators and stabilizing their trajectories? How do we assure that we don’t inflict unintended harms on scientific progress, on the productivity of highly productive consortia, or on the stability of the research ecosystem? When would it be appropriate to allow exceptions to caps on individual researchers? How will decisions on exceptions be made? And what analogous steps should be taken with NIH’s Intramural Research Program?”

NIH has not announced a formal comment process on the on the policy change but is directing people to comment on Lauer’s blog post.

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Posted in Issue 10 (May 16), Update, Volume 36 (2017)

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