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NIH's Millionaires to Get Extra Scrutiny

Hard look. NIH will give extra scrutiny to proposals from investigators with at least $1 million in direct research support.


Some well-funded biomedical researchers may have to tighten their belts under a new funding policy announced yesterday by the National Institutes of Health (NIH). The agency plans to give extra scrutiny to proposals from researchers receiving more than $1 million a year in direct support from grants—and may not fund them if the research overlaps with what they're already doing.

After years of flat budgets and declining grant success rates, NIH has been searching for ways to stretch its research funding further. One idea it floated last fall was to limit how much grant money a principal investigator (PI) could hold. Although some worried that this would hamper productive labs, in February the agency announced that it was moving ahead: High-quality applications from researchers with at least $1.5 million in total annual funding would get an extra layer of review from the funding institute's scientific council. The council would make sure that the research is "highly promising" and "distinct from" the PI's other projects.

After piloting the plan during its May round of grant reviews, NIH has made a few tweaks. One big complaint was that because indirect costs vary by institution, those with a higher indirect cost rate would be disproportionately affected. So the final policy will cover PIs with at least $1 million in direct costs. That adds about 19 grants to the roughly 70 to be reviewed in September using the $1.5 million cutoff, writes NIH Deputy Director for Extramural Research Sally Rockey in her Rock Talk blog. NIH won't ask large multi-PI grants to undergo special reviews unless all the individual PIs are over the $1 million threshold. And councils can make exceptions, for example for clinical trials, which tend to cost more than lab research.

Last fall, NIH estimated that about 1600 PIs, or 6% of the total it funds, would be above the $1.5 million total costs threshold. But with the restrictions in the final policy, less than 1% of all proposals going to the councils will get the extra review, NIH tells ScienceInsider. And because the policy is not a cap, it's unclear how much money it will ultimately free up. (The May pilot was meant to gather feedback; it didn't result in any funding decisions.)

Howard Garrison of the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology, which last year wrote to NIH in support of the policy, says it's important anyway. "It's not necessarily going to solve all our problems. But people felt it was an appropriate step," Garrison says. One blogger, however, is dismissive of the policy: "This will do nothing to feed all the hungry mouths," DrugMonkey writes.