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A controversial National Institutes of Health plan to cap funding for larger laboratories is aimed at steering more grants to early- and midcareer researchers.

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Updated: NIH abandons controversial plan to cap grants to big labs, creates new fund for younger scientists

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) is dropping a controversial, 1-month-old plan to cap the amount of support an individual scientist can receive in order to spread funds to more investigators. Instead, the agency will eventually devote $1 billion a year—about 3% of its $34 billion budget—specifically to funding proposals from early- and midcareer investigators.

The new plan, unveiled today, is a stunning shift from a policy announced on 2 May that aimed to limit how much money a researcher could get from the agency. It was based largely on an NIH study finding that productivity gains per grant slow as labs get bigger, and that NIH could move funds from large labs to small ones without lowering overall productivity.

NIH planned to tally an individual’s support using a metric called the Grant Support Index (GSI) and set a cap of 21 points, or the equivalent of three standard R01 research grants. Money from grants held by those over the cap would be redirected to early- and midstage investigators, who are a flat or shrinking fraction of the NIH workforce. 

But the plan caused an uproar among many scientists. Some worried that a rigid cap would trim exceptionally productive labs. Others who generally liked the proposal worried that it would discourage collaborations and could have other unintended effects. NIH then tweaked the grant point system, lowering the fraction of principal investigators who would be over the cap from 6% to just 3% (or about 1000 investigators). The change also reduced the number of new grants the agency could fund, from about 1600 to 900.

That change didn’t calm the waters, however. Responding to the “apprehension” caused by the plan, and doubts raised about the NIH analysis, the agency has now set aside the GSI, NIH officials said today at a meeting of the NIH Advisory Committee to the Director (ACD) in Bethesda, Maryland. It is being replaced with what NIH Director Francis Collins calls an “even more bold” program, called the Next Generation Researchers Initiative.

NIH will set aside $210 million this year to fund proposals from early- and midstage investigators who score well in peer review but fall short of the funding cutoff. The beneficiaries will include young researchers seeking their first grant, those in midcareer who are renewing an initial grant, and midcareer “rising stars” who are seeking a second grant what would stabilize their careers.

The plan is based on a review finding that in 2016, 531 proposals from early- and midcareer scientists scored in the top 25th percentile of investigator-initiated proposals but did not receive funding; now, they will. Overall, NIH now funds only proposals in about the top 20th percentile, Collins said.

The program will ramp up over 5 years, reaching $1.1 billion a year targeted to this group. That is enough to fund about 2400 grants, far more than the GSI program would have funded, NIH officials say. NIH’s individual institutes will have to find the money by reprioritizing funds or shifting the mechanisms they use to free up funding. And some of it could come at the cost of funding proposals from large labs and older investigators: “It has to come from somewhere,” Collins said.

ACD members seemed generally supportive, although some suggested NIH should first study the matter more, asked about NIH’s ultimate targets for redistributing funds, or wondered about potential adverse consequences, such as even fiercer competition for grants.

One more skeptical voice came from graduate student Juan Pablo Ruiz of Bethesda, who asked whether NIH’s abandonment of the GSI—which many young scientists supported—was a response to complaints from senior scientists. “There is a lot of disappointment” with NIH’s move among the graduate student and postdoc community, he said. Collins responded that there were “legitimate questions” about the GSI and noted that the new plan will free up even more money for young investigators.   

The new plan will go into effect immediately for investigators who are currently awaiting a funding decision. That means, Collins said, that “there are investigators who were not going to get funded and who now will.”