NIH Releases Notice - Implementing Limits on NIH Grant Support to Strengthen Biomedical Research

In response to a major challenge of ‘hypercompetition’ for NIH awards, Director Francis Collins has recently announced steps that will be implemented over the next several months to implement limits on NIH Grant Support for individual laboratories.

In its Open Mike blog post of May 2, 2017, NIH cites concerns with “too many researchers vying for too few dollars, [and] too many postdocs competing for too few faculty positions”. Data analyses over the past several years have shown that the number of applicants for NIH funding far exceeds the number of awards NIH is able to make. Further, NIH cites data indicating that 10% of NIH-funded investigators hold 40% of NIH funding. Other findings indicate that promising early- and mid-career investigators are at risk in terms of their ability to complete for limited funds and that productivity of laboratories is reduced once the equivalent of three single-PI R01 awards is reached.   

To address these and related challenges, NIH will monitor, on a trans-agency basis, investigators’ Grant Support Index (GSI, originally termed the Research Commitment Index), with the idea that over time and in close consultation with the extramural research community, the agency will phase in a resetting of expectation for total support provided to any one investigator. The plan is to implement a GSI cap of 21 points, essentially the equivalent of 3 single-PI R01 grants. This is effectively a modified grant count, one that allows for different cost scales across diverse types of research, while at the same time accounting for the differing levels of intellectual and leadership commitment entailed by various NIH grant mechanisms. Implementing this limit is expected to enable funding of 1600 additional research project grant awards.

NIH expects to continue to seek input and to refine the index over the next few months and to implement this cap in potentially in September 2017 with May 2018 Council considerations. Key questions in this process to finalize the policy on limits will include:

    • How should the Grant Support Index be calibrated? Should we assign more or fewer points to certain grant mechanisms? What headline metrics should we follow?
    • How will we know whether we achieving desired effects of funding more early career investigators and stabilizing their trajectories?
    • How do we assure that we don’t inflict unintended harms on scientific progress, on the productivity of highly productive consortia, or on the stability of the research ecosystem?
    • When would it be appropriate to allow exceptions to caps on individual researchers? How will decisions on exceptions be made?
    • What analogous steps should be taken with NIH’s Intramural Research Program?

Key clarifications that have been issued are that the policy will not affect current funding – NIH Deputy Director for Extramural Research Mike Lauer has stated that there is little immediate to short-term impact. Once the policy is in place, it will be applied to incoming applications. Applicants currently holding the equivalent of three single-PI R01 awards will still be able to submit, but there will need to be a plan in the new application for adjustment of the existing grant load. Grant funding from other non-NIH sources will not factor into the GSI. Guidance on changing PIs for existing awards because of GSI will be developed prior to implementation.

For more complete details, please see consolidated information, data sources, and other initiatives to stabilize biomedical research at the NIH’s Open Mike blog post: View article...