The National Institutes of Health is worried that middle-aged investigators are being crowded out of the research workforce.

NCATS/NIH

NIH scales back plan to curb support for big labs after hearing concerns

Faced with a barrage of criticism, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) has scaled back a plan to cap its support for individual labs in order to free up funds for more scientists. The changes did not appease scientists who gave NIH a tongue-lashing this morning at a meeting of NIH’s Council of Councils.

Council member Jonathan Epstein described the “serious concerns” about the policy as “more than I’ve ever seen before in my scientific career.” He came close to resigning in protest because NIH did not consult the council first, said Epstein, who is chief scientific officer and executive vice dean at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine in Philadelphia. Many researchers “feel that this was thrust upon them,” he added.

The policy announced on 2 May would assign points to various types of grants and give individual investigators a total score called a Grant Support Index (GSI). NIH would aim to limit a person’s GSI to 21 points, or the equivalent of three standard R01 grants. The objective, NIH explained, is to free up funds now held by 6% of the 1950 lead investigators over the cap so that NIH could support 1600 more grants for early- and midcareer investigators.

Many worry, however, that this plan would pare back highly productive labs and discourage collaborations, among other concerns. In response to more than 360 online comments and many letters from individuals and scientific societies, some supportive and others critical—NIH is tweaking its analysis practically ”every single day,” said NIH extramural research chief Mike Lauer at today’s council meeting.

For example, NIH is now excluding training grants, clinical trial networks, and infrastructure awards from the GSI and has lowered the points for a multi-investigator R01 from 6 to 5. After these revisions, just 3% of investigators are over the cap, and the number of additional grants that could be funded has shrunk to 900, according to Lauer’s presentation. 

[The proposal] has caused enormous anxiety.

Eric Boerwinkle, University of Texas Health Science Center

Those changes didn’t satisfy some council members. Epstein said the plan has caused “serious concerns” among the 70 investigators at the University of Pennsylvania at or above the (original) GSI cap. He said that as a result, faculty have abandoned plans for at least two collaborations; he is pleading with two others who are considering a move overseas to stay. He urged NIH to put a hold on the policy, which is to be implemented starting in the fall.

Eric Boerwinkle of the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston called the policy “rushed out” and said it “has caused enormous anxiety.” And Paul Johnson, director of Emory University’s Yerkes Primate Research Center in Atlanta, worried that it will “have a devastating effect on our ability to do collaborative science” in areas such as AIDS vaccine development.

Lauer defended the policy as “a leadership decision” that follows years of discussions at NIH. He also put some blame on Congress: during negotiations over the 21st Century Cures Act that provides $4.8 billion in new NIH funding over 10 years, lawmakers expressed concerns that “too much of [NIH’s] money is being concentrated in certain places,” Lauer said.

Some scientists have also questioned an NIH analysis underpinning the policy that finds that as investigators’ GSI rises about 21 (or three R01 grants), their increase in productivity begins to taper. (One such critique was posted on Medium earlier this week.) Today, NIH posted an online preprint and supplemental materials for that analysis.