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

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NIH tweaks plan to award more grants to younger researchers

U.S. biomedical research leaders are pulling back from a plan to fund 400 additional grants each year from a narrowly defined set of young and midcareer researchers. The agency is tweaking the plan after hearing concerns that the policy was too arbitrary and could shut down productive labs.

Instead of focusing on midcareer scientists who are no more than a decade into their independent careers, the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, Maryland, will instead seek to steer funds to any researcher whose lab is at risk of folding, NIH officials said. “Age should not matter,” NIH Principal Deputy Director Larry Tabak said at a meeting today.

The move is the second time this year that NIH has revised its strategy for halting the aging of its workforce. This May, the agency announced that it would free up funds for early and midcareer researchers by capping the number of grants a principal investigator could have. But a month later, the agency dropped the so-called Grant Support Index after senior scientists with big research programs vigorously objected.

To replace that policy, NIH said it would fund 200 more high-quality grants per year for early stage investigators (ESIs)—those no more than 10 years out from completing their training. Another 200 grants would go to proposals from a new category called early established investigators (EEIs) who have had NIH funding for 10 years or less and are at risk of losing all funding or seeking a second grant. The Next Generation Research Initiative (NGRI), formally announced in August, would effectively shift $210 million a year to researchers in these categories, or eventually $1.1 billion over a decade. (NIH now has a $34 billion annual budget.)

Many scientists disliked the NGRI, however, because it did not call for NIH to explicitly set aside funding for the initiative. They worried that the NGRI would come at the expense of established researchers with small labs. An NIH working group formed to help implement the policy “hated” the ESI and EEI definitions, Tabak said at a meeting of the NIH advisory board today. They were “too arbitrary” and could leave out investigators who missed the cutoff because of life events such as having a baby, he said.

Adding to concerns, an NIH analysis this fall found that for every additional grant to the ESIs and EEIs, an investigator would lose their only funding. The projected result was “a wash,” Tabak said.

NIH’s plan to implement the NGRI this year flopped, too. Because NIH had only a month to identify eligible proposals before the fiscal year ended on 30 September, many NIH institutes had already spent their budgets and couldn’t make their targets. In the end, NIH only funded about 100 new ESI grants, half its goal, and a few EEI grants, Tabak says.

Adding to the problems, many young researchers incorrectly assumed that because NIH had said that proposals scoring on average in the top 25% would be funded, their grant should qualify. The actual cutoff will vary by institute, however. The misunderstanding led to a flood of emails to NIH from young scientists wondering why they weren’t funded, Tabak says. Such communication missteps have “eroded the trust” of young investigators, NIH Director Francis Collins said at today’s meeting.

A new plan

The agency hopes to win them back with changes to the NGRI. NIH is still aiming for 400 additional grants to younger and at-risk investigators this year. But instead of using a 10-year cutoff for ESIs, officials will try to be “flexible,” Tabak said. And for investigators who already have a grant, the favored status will go to anyone at risk of losing all funding.

Asked by ScienceInsider whether a 70-year-old investigator at risk of losing their only grant could benefit from the policy, Tabak said that “is an extreme case.” But he did not rule out that agency officials could conclude “that might be the person you want to make your investment in.”

Jessica Polka, president of Future of Research in San Francisco, California, a group representing young researchers, said she personally welcomes NIH’s decision to drop the 10-year cutoff. It appeared to create “a ‘cliff’ for investigators to fall off of once they age out of a protected group.” But, she added, the details of NIH’s new plan are “very hazy.”

NIH expects to further refine the policy when the NGRI working group releases a report in June 2018.