The National Institutes of Health’s neuroscience institute plans to free up funds for young and at-risk investigators by limiting support for large labs.

iStock.com/Hotaik Sung

NIH’s neuroscience institute will limit grants to well-funded labs

Big laboratories are back in the crosshairs at the National Institutes of Health (NIH). NIH’s neurological institute plans to pare back the number of investigators it supports who have $1 million or more in NIH grants.

The policy “will allow us to fund more early stage investigators and help people who just missed the pay line [funding cutoff] and are about to drop off the radar screen,” says Robert Finkelstein, extramural research director at the $2.1 billion National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS) in Bethesda, Maryland, NIH’s fifth largest institute.

The 27 April policy brings to mind a hugely controversial proposal a year ago to limit the number of NIH grants an investigator could hold at the equivalent of three basic R01 awards. The cap, called the Grant Support Index (GSI), was meant to free up funds for early- and mid-career researchers. The GSI drew an outcry from many researchers, however. NIH replaced it with the Next Generation Researchers Initiative, which will direct $210 million a year to 400 early stage investigators and others at risk of losing all support.

Finkelstein says NINDS’s plan is “not an attempt to bring back the GSI.” But the institute needs to find the money to meet its targets for the next generation initiative. NINDS’s council is also concerned that some scientists with multiple grants are devoting as little as 3.5 weeks per year to a particular grant. That’s “ridiculous,” Finkelstein says, because it’s not enough bandwidth to manage rigorous research and mentor trainees.

To fix these problems, starting in January 2019 NINDS will tighten a 6-year-old, NIH-wide policy that requires institute councils to give extra scrutiny to proposals from labs that already have $1 million or more per year in direct funding (not including overhead costs). Because that policy is “too subjective,” the council has rejected only a handful of proposals from such labs, Finkelstein says.

Now, at NINDS, the special review will be more stringent: It will apply to investigators whose proposed grant will push them over $1 million in total NIH support—not those at that level already. (Nonresearch awards such as training grants won’t count.) To win funding, the proposal will have to receive a peer-review score in the upper half of the overall NINDS cutoff for funding. The funding cutoff this fiscal year is the 15th percentile, so such a proposal would have to fall in the top seventh percentile.

“We will make very few exceptions” for inherently expensive projects such as clinical trials, Finkelstein says. If all goes as planned, the policy could free up $15 million a year, which should be enough to fund more early-career and at-risk investigators without cutting into NINDS’s overall pay line, NINDS says. Only one other NIH institute, the National Institute of General Medical Sciences, has a similar, even more stringent policy.

Some research groups applaud the move. “When the GSI went away the problem of funding more investigators didn’t disappear. So something has to be done to fund more people,” says Howard Garrison, director of public affairs at the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology in Bethesda. Cell biologist Mark Peifer of the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, who has pushed to bring back the GSI, adds: “Of course the key is in actually implementing it.”

*Correction, 3 May, 11:45 a.m.: This story has been updated to correct the name of the National Institute of General Medical Sciences.

*Correction, 7 May, 12:27 p.m.: The description of the funding cutoff for the new policy has been clarified.