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Formula for Innovation: People + Ideas + Time

In these times of tight budgets and rapidly evolving science, we must consider new ways to invest biomedical research dollars to achieve maximum impact—to turn scientific discoveries into better health as swiftly as possible. We do this by thinking strategically about the areas of research that we support, as well as the process by which we fund that research.

Historically, most NIH-funded grants have been Montage of researchers, neurons, and  a molecular structure“project-based,” which means that their applications have clearly delineated aims for what will be accomplished during a defined project period. These research project grants typically last three to five years and vary in award amount. For example, the average annual direct cost of the R01 grant—the gold standard of NIH funding—was around $282,000 in FY 2013, with an average duration of about 4.3 years.

We often hear from investigators at all career stages that they spend a significant portion of their careers writing grant applications, consuming precious time that could otherwise be spent conducting research. This grant-writing treadmill is fueled by several factors: fierce competition for limited research dollars, made worse by the current funding situation, which has caused success rates to fall to historic lows; the need to support multiple research projects in a productive laboratory; and desires to pursue new research directions when opportunities arise.

To meet the changing needs of the biomedical workforce, NIH is piloting the concept of awarding longer grants that provide more stable support for investigators at all career stages. It is our hope that with more sustained support, investigators will have more freedom to innovate and explore new lines of inquiry. The NIH Pioneer Award, supported by the Common Fund, represents a compelling example of such an approach. Pioneer Awards supports individual scientists of exceptional creativity, who propose pioneering – and possibly transformative approaches – to major research challenges. This award allows for $500,000 annually in direct costs for five years, and, in a recent evaluation, was shown to facilitate a high level of innovation and productivity.

Moving forward, several NIH Institutes and Centers (IC) will be developing new funding opportunities to offer more sustained support to investigators’ research programs. These longer term awards will not follow a one-size-fits-all approach; leaders of each NIH IC will decide if they wish to embark on these awards based on the balance of their portfolios and their strategic planning needs. In addition, each IC will decide the appropriate size and duration of their awards. While applications for these awards will not require specific aims in the traditional R01 format, investigators will describe their research plans and will demonstrate how they will leverage and translate their prior accomplishments into approaches that will shape their future research.

First out of the chute is the National Cancer Institute’s Outstanding Investigator Award, which will provide long-term support to investigators who have extraordinary records of cancer research productivity and who propose to conduct exceptional research. Applicants may request up to $600,000 annually in direct costs, for up to seven years. The National Institute of General Medical Sciences (NIGMS) recently issued a request for information to obtain community feedback on their concept of the “Maximizing Investigators’ Research Award.” This award would support all NIGMS-funded research in an investigator’s laboratory. Funding would range from $150,000-$750,000 in direct costs annually for five years (the current average for an NIGMS R01 is about four years). Other NIH ICs will likely follow soon with their own funding opportunities.

NIH is not alone in employing models of sustained support. For many years, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) has promoted the philosophy of supporting “people, not projects.” The HHMI Investigator Program provides five years of renewable support to individuals who have the potential to make significant contributions to science. The Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) is in the midst of piloting their Foundation Scheme, which supports a broad base of researchers across career stages, areas, and disciplines. CIHR Foundation Scheme grants vary depending on the research field and scope of research activities. Established investigators are awarded seven-year grants, while new/early career investigators receive five-year grants. Other organizations using similar approaches include the Medical Research Council Programme Grant, the Wellcome Trust Investigator Award, and the MacArthur Fellows Program.

Because NIH’s overall budget is not affected by the introduction of this new type of award, the research community might ask if these awards will come at the expense of other programs. We are very mindful of this concern, and each NIH IC will carefully consider its budget as it decides whether to use this funding approach. We expect that some ICs may issue a small number of awards at first, as they dip their toes in the water.

It is important to note that these awards will support talented people from a range of career stages, backgrounds, and disciplines. Furthermore, these new awards will complement other NIH funding opportunities that give applicants more flexibility with their research approaches. For example, the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) Biobehavioral Research Awards for Innovative New Scientists (R01) support the research and career development of outstanding scientists who are in the early, formative stages of their careers and who plan to make a long-term commitment to research in NIMH’s specific mission areas. The National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences Outstanding New Environmental Scientist Award (R01) helps talented early-stage investigators launch innovative research programs focused on the understanding of environmental exposure effects on people’s health.

When discussing research funding paradigms, it’s often said that one either supports people or projects. But we think these are not mutually exclusive concepts. NIH has always supported researchers and their ideas for advancing scientific discovery and improving public health. Ultimately, we need to know what’s the right balance of different types of awards in the NIH portfolio. To answer that question, NIH plans to evaluate these new sustained award programs and closely monitor their effects on the scientific community.

Biomedical research is a complex enterprise that is constantly evolving. So, for the good of biomedical research and all of the people whom we are trying to help, NIH must be always on the lookout for new ways of fostering the vibrancy of this enterprise. We think it’s time to move forward with this new formula for innovation, keeping in mind these words from Winston Churchill: To improve is to change.

Note: Francis Collins, M.D., Ph.D., is the director of the NIH.

14 thoughts on “Formula for Innovation: People + Ideas + Time

  1. I wonder if one unanticipated consequence of a PI receiving such an award would be the PI then using this extended time frame of funding to invest MORE time in grant writing and have the complete opposite impact the NIH is hoping for. In the current funding environment, if I were a PI who was awarded one of these 7 year, 500K/year award, I would spend the first 3 years dedicated to generating preliminary data and the next 4 years cranking out grant applications to get several more grants to keep the chance of a funding lapse at a minimum. Maybe some of these grant applications would contain innovative science, but most would probably just have “safe” aims likely to get a more fund-able score. Has the NIH considered this possibility, namely that instead of using this grant mechanism to work on bold innovative science, PIs would just use this as an extended funded period to go after more R01s with little innovation?

    Also, would there be any protections in place to prevent a PI on one of these awards from also getting similar funding from HHMI or similar grant mechanism (ie funding a person not a project)? It would seem likely that the PIs who already have these types of funding sources (ie HHMI) would be likely candidates to get these special NIH awards, thus increasing their market share of very limited grant funds in an already strained system. The consequence continue the trend occurring where smaller labs are pushed out of science at the expense of larger labs with multitudes of grad students and postdocs with little to no mentorship and career development and training. I suppose that this could facilitate a desperately needed restructering in the biomedical training model to a more stable employed staff scientist work force, which would not be a bad thing. I would love to hear the Rock team’s thoughts on this.

  2. It sounds like each IC will implement the ‘people not projects’ grant mechanism differently. I wonder if the ICs will each review and score the applicants differently too? How will they design the review process when they are judging applicants instead of research projects?

  3. The preeminent issue in science is of course ‘soft-money’ based livelihood.

    Under this system, scientists bombard NIH with grants, not to pursue their genuine scientific interests, but to feed, cloth, and house their families.

    This directly and potently disincentives innovation. Change is science is slow and difficult, often requiring individuals to endure the burn of scientific unpopularity for many years … even whole careers. This is simply no longer possible.

    Under the current system, being unpopular means being unemployed. This necessarily excludes the most innovative, risk-taking, and forward minded individuals from participating.

    Think about it … under a soft-money system, scientists no longer have the freedom to be unpopular. How many of our past innovative achievements would have survived this system? How many are being prevented today?

  4. I appreciate the good intentions behind this idea, and in abstract I think it would be a great thing to have more time to do science and write papers. But the devil is in the details and I am concerned that this will be yet another mechanism for big established labs to get more money, or at best a funding mechanism for new investigators. The problem is that those of us in the middle (such as myself) are getting left behind and shutting our labs because, while we have had some major funding (e.g., a first R01), we are then left to compete with senior researchers who have 20 years or more on us and are therefore more likely to get additional funding, irrespective of the fact that their ideas may not be particularly novel or that they should have retired 15 years ago. At the rate NIH is going, PIs will either be new investigators or old guys and there won’t be anyone between the ages of 42 and 55 left!

  5. The NIH leadership should be lauded for their continued efforts to fuel innovative research and these initiatives are likely to produce some exciting results. But in reality, these efforts may dilute the overall funding for smaller labs which have traditionally fueled many of the biomedical innovations, since the NIH appropriation has remained flat for some time. Big money, big data may not translate to big discoveries. The institutions and investigators who have been successful in attracting these innovators, transformative and pioneers grants are already blotted with extraordinary funding from private donors/ foundations, biotech companies and other philanthropic organizations in addition to federal funding. This elite class of scientists has a huge research enterprise of 20 or more people in the lab with little time for mentoring or directing research directions and many of them in a big grinder end their careers in nowhere. In a way, many of the young investigators are being wasted in these big operations.
    Now the question is how to address the current funding crisis, especially in some NIH institutes. We need to find the way to fund more R01 grants and stabilize the funding for productive labs. Productivity should not be judged by the number of publications or the journals they publish their papers – it should be judged by the contribution of new knowledge to the field. This judgment does not require a rocket scientist.
    R03 or R21 grants should be phased out; they are waste of money, time and efforts, ultimately producing more frustration and fueling failures. Secondly, NIH should think seriously to implement sliding scale of indirect costs for individuals with more than one grants, although universities and institutions will resist this move.
    The ultimate solution will be to increase funding and visionary leadership of the NIH – this leadership perhaps should consist of individuals of all stages of careers to formulate an harmonized and more sustainable system with exceptional outcome, but not imposed by only the elite class.

    • I agree with nearly all your points. Phasing out R21′s is not the answer. Small grants can support start up labs and the generation of preliminary results, or they can keep senior scientists going and contributing to the scientific enterprise without depriving young scientists of major funding.

  6. These long-term grants will only serve to further concentrate NIH dollars to a few large labs. What is needed is a small grant program. Efficiency or frugality is not rewarded by the present system. Grant dollars go further in inner city Cleveland or rural campuses or schools with many eager undergraduates. NIH’s support is focused on big science done in the huge labs with a dozen postdocs, 20 grad students and 20 technicians. The acknowledgement slide at every major presentation these days features a lab portrait with 40 or more smiling faces. It should not take a team of 40 scientists to produce the data for a one hour talk. Bioinformatic approaches can generate a similar amount of significant results for one tenth the cost. A small grant program would not tempt the big monopolist labs but would enable the small independent labs to continue functioning and to spread lab experiences for premeds and undergraduates considering a research career.

  7. I think this is a great idea if the person is then limited to 1 or at most 2 such large awards and no other awards from all of the NIH. This will allow the investigator to concentrate and produce. If a person is eligible for an unlimited number of such awards, then the resources will be further concentrated to a smaller number of labs, which is not good for younger people. Large awards create star researchers, which will increase the pay disparity between researchers. It may further delay the entry of young researchers into the field, because it may let to decrease in the number of awards.

  8. Given that investigators funded under the new plan are likely to be desirable to universities, I wonder if a maximum salary could leverage more money for research. Perhaps universities would have to put in more support for such an investigator.

  9. This is a step in the right direction for basic research. However, if the goal is really “to turn scientific discoveries into better health as swiftly as possible” then you should also consider dramatically expanding the SBIR/STTR program. This mechanism is already directly focused on your goal and is incredibly cost effective. It’s just too small of a part of the national portfolio.

  10. Maybe it would be worth considering making small grants readily available to smaller companies with new ideas (the ones that can’t compete with big companies and Universities that have professional grant-writers) take them to the next level. My company has requested grants twice for a new approach to cancer treatment using microwaves that appears 10X-100X more effective than existing approaches, the concept being supported by analytical equations, computer simulations, and some crude physical measurements that are all in agreement. Reviewes rejected the applications for reasons ranging from we don’t have any “real” medical knowledge or a big lab all the way to “it’s not physically possible” – apparently not everyone understands that “measured data” probably means it is possible. Sometimes the best solutions come from people who haven’t been staring at the problem for a long time ……

  11. I wholeheartedly support the idea of funding people not projects and think this approach can stabilize funding, reduce grant writing, and serve to better maximize federal dollars. But, I believe ranking ones past performance must be done in a quantitative fashion and not simply be a study section popularity contest. Another key component is that past results must be normalized to federal funds received, otherwise the rich will simply get richer.

  12. This will create monopolistic labs, overinflated egoes, and far less innovation. In my career I came across numerous times where unknown names had brought the biggest breakthroughs. Also, I heard numerous students complaining for the very low level of training in big labs with big names. And to top it off, I have seen so many grants written by established grantees, but of such low quality, I just wonder how they were funded… Supporting a person, not the scientific project, is a big mistake. With the right connections, you don’t need a brain. Big mistake.

  13. This will be a great thing for the awardees, but not for science or society. Retrospective studies in Canada show that impact is only weakly correlated with funding, and that the largest grant-holders actually provide the lowest impact per dollar spent. So making the grant larger will comfortably support someone’s career, but not improve scientific output. What this mechanism WILL do is concentrate limited funds on a smaller number of brains, a damaging approach.

    People want to believe that they can identify “outstanding” and “transformative” research. (Usually, it resembles their own.) But the cold, hard citation data show that we can’t. Instead of an ‘elephant calf’ strategy, we should have an ‘ant farm’ strategy. Replace the illusory focus on “excellence” with the notion of keeping alive the maximum number of ideas.

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