Tuesday, August 5, 2014

NIH-proposed investigator awards may enhance innovation, but at what cost?

By Elizabeth Little, PhD, PDA Public Affairs Committee

Individual investigator awards are believed to promote creativity by offering long-term funding for established and successful scientists.  However, decreasing support for traditional grant proposals may concern early career researchers.

Following the leads of the National Cancer Institute (NCI) and the National Institute of General Medical Sciences (NIGMS), the NIH is encouraging each of its institutes to initiate funding “person” awards similar to those offered by Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) rather than the traditional project-based grant. The most advanced proposal so far is the NCI’s Outstanding Investigator Award, a 7-year-long grant (with a possible 3-year renewal) offering $600,000 in direct costs each year. It’s estimated that Outstanding Investigator Awards will take up approximately 15% of the total NCI grant budget. The debate between investigator awards and project proposals lies in how the new proposals will particularly affect young investigators. 

The benefit of person awards is that they offer funding without stipulations, allowing for increased creativity in designing and implementing projects. With a relatively large amount of money per year and more long-term funding, scientists can pause from grant-writing and focus on research. Furthermore, studies comparing the NIH Pioneer awards (another investigator-based award) to traditional RO1 project grants has shown that Pioneer awards publish more papers overall (although papers/grant-dollar are comparable) and publish more innovative studies in more highly ranked journals.  

On one hand, the “fund people, not projects” theory seems like an excellent plan to finance the nation’s scientific studies. After all, these investigators have already demonstrated their ability to produce good work through peer-reviewed publications. However, while people awards are intended to reward productivity for established researchers, they will take money away from the pool available to more obscure or beginning investigators. As it is, the NIH research project grant review committees already consider the principal investigator’s publication record, and previously successful scientists are more likely to maintain well-funded labs. Even if younger investigators are evaluated by different criteria from their more-established colleagues, their productivity will be largely assessed based on publication records as graduate students or postdocs, which may or may not be indicative of their abilities as independent scientists. 

The individual investigator model will only allow for a select few to receive the awards. NCI estimates that fewer than 50 Outstanding Investigator Awards will be given a year. No doubt this is partly because the NIH does not want to entirely abolish its project-based proposals. While open-ended investigator awards have been highly successful for some groups such as HHMI, other institutions like the Wellcome Trust are planning to restructure their people awards to create more funding prospects for younger researchers. 

Overall, by freeing investigators from constant grant writing, longer-term funding would help boost creativity and scientific progress. Rewarding these grants to proven scientists with superb track records seems like an obvious choice. However, given the current funding situation, now is not the time to test out these theories. Right now, we need to be more concerned about young, promising researchers turning away from the field because of a lack of opportunity.  A 15% decrease in available funding would further hurt our scientific future and, by shutting out new researchers, lead to increased “graying” of investigators and a loss of smart and driven students who see a better future outside of the laboratory. We need to focus on encouraging new, developing labs because, inevitably, that is the long-term future of science; new investigators are vital for increasing scientific creativity and for maintaining the lifeblood of research for future generations. While the current NIH review process is by no means perfect, it seems easier to evaluate project proposals rather than investigator promise. Certainly, established and successful researchers are already favored in this process. It may be difficult to improve a system that already evaluates both the investigator and the proposed research, though research-based proposals tend to rely on less innovative projects. Rather than focus on long-term grants so that a few investigators can reduce grant writing time, we need to streamline the grant process and increase funding so that more scientists can support labs by actually winning grants and not just writing them. This year, the NIH allowed grant applicants with unsuccessful A1 grant resubmissions to apply the same ideas as a new A0 grant, hoping to  encourage applicants to refine and strengthen all application submissions”. This is the sort of streamlined process that will allow scientists, particularly new investigators, to hone their grant skills and focus their projects for improved lab funding at this difficult financial time. 

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