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A one-grant limit: NIH institute puts squeeze on flush investigators

In the latest example of budget stretching at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the agency’s basic science institute is imposing a strict one-grant limit on scientists who already have plentiful no-strings support. The move could free up at least $6 million, or 25 grants for other scientists.

The National Institute of General Medical Sciences (NIGMS) announced the belt tightening on 13 January: “Investigators with substantial, long-term, unrestricted research support may generally hold no more than one NIGMS research grant,” a notice says. The rule will apply to researchers who already have at least $400,000 per year in research funding not tied to a specific project (not including salary or overhead costs).

The new limit “will enable NIGMS to fund additional labs, increasing the likelihood of making significant scientific advances,” NIGMS says. The rule takes effect in January 2016. (It comes on top of an NIGMS policy giving extra scrutiny to proposals from investigators whose proposals would bring their overall direct funding to at least $750,000.)

The most notable group affected by the policy is the elite scientists supported by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI). NIGMS Deputy Director Judith Greenberg estimates there are at least 22 HHMI investigators who hold two or three NIGMS research grants. Limiting them to a single grant could free up $6 million for 25 to 30 grants for established or young investigators, she estimates. The policy potentially applies to other investigators as well, such as those with endowed chairs at universities.

“Everybody in the biomedical community realizes how tough it is these days and the need to spread funding around,” Greenberg tells ScienceInsider. At the same time, “I’m sure we’ll be getting lots of phone calls about this,” she says.

Harvard University molecular biologist and HHMI investigator Johannes Walter says he's not thrilled about having to give up one of his two NIGMS grants—he will have to drop the work if he can't find other funding. At the same time, he understands the need for the policy because many “superb” labs rely solely on federal funding. "A policy that makes sure these federal dollars reach a maximum number of deserving labs seems very reasonable to me," he writes in an e-mail.