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Give Input on Strategies for Optimizing the Impact and Sustainability of Biomedical Research

Dr. Jon Lorsch Dr. Jon Lorsch is director of NIH’s National Institute of General Medical Sciences and a frequent contributor to the NIGMS Feedback Loop blog.

An important, recurring discussion topic on our blogs is ways to maximize the impact and sustainability of NIH-funded biomedical research. In 2011, a Rock Talk post on managing NIH’s budget in fiscally challenging times solicited many comments and led, in part, to an NIH-wide policy on special council review for applications from PIs who have more than $1 million in NIH funding. We have also implemented new programs that provide more stable support for investigators over longer time periods. A more recent example of the “maximizing impact and sustainability” theme is an NIGMS Feedback Loop post that discussed ideas for how to optimize the biomedical research ecosystem.

We’re each leading an NIH-wide working group focused on topics key to this important theme. One group (chaired by Sally) is exploring ways to decrease the time it takes investigators to reach research independence, and the other (chaired by Jon) is looking to develop more efficient and sustainable funding policies and other strategies.

Recently, NIH solicited your comments on an “emeritus award” concept as part of activities of the group chaired by Sally. The group is now in the midst of analyzing all of the comments it received to see what the next steps will be in regard to this type of award.

To inform the efforts of Jon’s group, NIH has just issued a new request for information (RFI) seeking your:

  • Input on key issues that currently limit the impact of NIH’s funding for biomedical research and challenge the sustainability of the scientific enterprise.
  • Ideas about adjusting current funding policies to ensure both continued impact and sustainability of the NIH research enterprise.
  • Ideas for new policies, strategies and other approaches that would increase the impact and sustainability of NIH-funded biomedical research.
  • Comments on any other issues that you feel are relevant.

While we read and consider comments responding to our blog posts, in order to make your input part of our formal analysis of RFI responses, it needs to be submitted via the RFI by May 17.

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22 thoughts on “Give Input on Strategies for Optimizing the Impact and Sustainability of Biomedical Research

  1. Very interesting idea and NIH should conduct a thorough evaluation and portfolio analysis of NIH funded (R01, P01, P50, P60) investigator initiated multiple- PI awards to see whether deliverables mentioned in the initial abstract project have been accomplished or not. Over the course of renewals of these prestigeous grants, implementation science needs to be taken into consideration whether projects have fulfilled the promised goals, objectives and metrics of translating their basic, clinical, translational and population based deliverables into profound applications for the betterment and greater good of the human health services. More scrutiny, oversight, and goverance is needed to find out how to discern productive exceptional scientists into two categories such as “Transformative researchers” and “Emiritus researchers”. Both have a unique role to train, educate, and produce next generation of cadre of outstanding biomedical diverse workforce for this nation who would be well prepared to address the challenges and demands of making “Precision medicine” come to fruition aligned with objectives of the Healthy People 2020.

  2. ” One group (chaired by Sally) is exploring ways to decrease the time it takes investigators to reach research independence…”
    -I know this isn’t the main point of the post, but this is a red herring the NIH throws up all the time. The delayed acquisition of independence is a symptom of the off-kilter workforce, not a root cause. Unless the NIH has a means to increase the number of PI level positions, they can’t really do much about this for the people already in the bottleneck (i.e. the next 10 years of new PIs). Long-term, the only solution will be to limit the number of postdocs either at the postdoc or predoc levels. Will they be discussing mechanisms to do this?

  3. We need to put an end to corruption in academia all of the abusive PI should be fired from receiving funding from NIH. That would probably increase the available funds by like 25%. Also we should lunch transparency and anti corruption campaigns to protect the next generation of American students. We also should launch anti cultural nepotism campaigns to end labs that reverse discriminate against US citizens. What normally happens when an abusive PI is reported by a student (victim), is that the professor that he/she reported it to will report the incident to the abusive PI instead of to the dean, no good faith effort to investigate or prevent future abuse will be made. The student is then thrown to the wolves, abused, underfunded, isolated by intimidation, defamation, and fear, until they are pushed out of the program because they are too honest and all of the corrupt people feel threatened by it.

    • Yup. I’ve seen that exact sequence of events happen to a grad student who had been victimized by their professor when they tried to tell someone about it.

      • You make an important point. Often the bullying professor has spent years subtly bullying and intimidating colleagues as well, to the point where they don’t trust their own judgement of the situation. As a tenured faculty member I do try to stand up for mistreated students, but it can be hard to figure out exactly what is going on in someone else’s lab, and it has sometimes cost me politically. I wish I had a better answer for you.

        • I once worked in a NIH research lab as an international postdoc fellow about 8 years ago. During the time, I had been seeing too many abusive words coming out of the PI’s mouths and there is no way for the fellows to report to. I ever saw a PI threatened to an international postdoc to revoke his visa if he did not want to do the ideas that he pushed the postdoc to perform. Actually, those ideas were not the best one if not the most stupid ideas. That postdoc left the lab in about a couple of months. What a shame for NIH that is supposed to be one of the best research organization.
          The current academic system in the US is so corrupted that it gives the PIs in NIH intramural labs or Universities as a dictator inside the lab although they received the research funding from public money sources. These PIs continuously lie to and recruit the international postdoc fellows to the US and waste the tax payers’ money for training the postdocs for the positions that do not exist in the current funding climate in the US.
          Postdoc position is supposed to be a training process that NIH is paying RO1 funding money for. However, the training result is not be evaluated at all. This incompetent funding evaluation system is basically a slavery system in which postdocs are working as cheap labors. In my opinion, the training result shall be included in the evaluation of RO1 renewals, not just the publication list that only favors the interests of NIH and these “dictators” in the academic labs. As part of the evaluation system, a report system for the abuse cases shall be implemented for the PIs receiving NIH funding. It’s not only for ethical reasons but also for the productivity of NIH funded projects and the reproducibility of the results generated by using NIH money. I am able to see that the really good mentors coming out of this new evaluation system will be beneficial for the academic recruiting the next generation scientists who will empower the US competition in the coming decades.

  4. How about if the U.S. does what virtually every other country (and most private funding agencies) does and limits institutional indirect costs to 8-10%?

    Many of the U.S. biomedical system inefficiencies arose as biomedical ‘research’ became a way for institutions to make money rather than actually do science. If indirect costs were capped, there would be more money to fund research. If indirect costs were capped, there would be less incentive to hire soft money researchers, which would mean more money to fund research. You want to almost double the NIH budget instantly and stop incentivizing waste and exploitation? Cut indirect cost payments.

    Will this be popular with certain well-fed institutions? No; of course they’ll complain, because they’ll be losing some pork. But the overall system will be much better. Give 5 years fair warning, or scale in the change. But make the change. This is the elephant in the room that no one talks about. Time to talk about it.

    In the mean time, other countries will continue to outperform the U.S. with regard to biomedical productivity per dollar/euro/whatever. The divide will grow wider as the U.S. devolves from a great research power into just 2-3 money-bloated inefficient Boston/Bay area institutions surrounded by a continent of starved little schools that make ones from the former Eastern bloc look attractive.

    • Unlike the US, in West Europe governments provide direct support of the universities. I the US, we have another growing problem: While for years the US funding of research in Academia remains essentially flat, there is an enormous expansion in university administrative ranks, with almost a 3-fold rise in the administrative staff-to-student ratio between 1997 and 2007 (see: Ginsberg, B. (2011) Faculty fallout. The Scientist 25 (8), 70-72.). This greatly undermines the research, because to the university administration, research is valued only in terms of the dollars it brings in. Mounting bureaucratization and commercialization of academic research is compounded by increased competition for funding and tenure, which significantly limits academic freedom and pure scientific research, the very bases for advances in knowledge. This tendency of science bureaucratization threatens to spill over to NIH through the hiring of “successful” career university administrators.

      • The increase in the number of administrators is largely due to the increase in the administrative burden from NIH, combined with the funding crunch that makes it rare for individual faculty to have administrative assistants to help deal with it all. For example, simply gathering the information to fill out the tables requested for training grants is truly daunting, especially when the training program is inter-departmental. On top of that, there are increasing well-meaning and well-founded but additionally burdensome demands that training grants also supply programs for minorities, ethics, training in quantitative work, training in rigorous data crunching, etc.
        So … I’m all for limiting overhead, but at least some of it reflects people trying to deal with otherwise-unfunded mandates from NIH itself.

    • Amen to this. Researchers like me in veterinary sciences do not have a lot of chance of obtaining NIH funding, even though there is more species than just rodents yielding valuable results.
      Most of us obtain research money from smaller foundations that limit overheads and PI salaries severely. We actually use most of the money for research and make it last longer.

      However, the administration still would prefer that NIH grant, which will bring in a lot of money for the University, not so much the research

  5. NIH should support real scientists rather than “celebrities” who lie about or exaggerate their academic success. PIs who have poor integrity and bad personality should be fired and their grants should be terminated. We should also put an end to corruption due to the people in the NIH inner circle who create RFA or PA programs for themselves to apply.

    • Imagine if NIH ranked productivity by lives saved or putative (near term not some obscure notion that maybe in 20-50 years this will improve human health) lives saved and health improved. That would increase impact of bio-medical research in the public’s mind exponentially because there Dad was able to beat late stage cancer due to a breakthrough! Many NIH funded researchers demonstrate productivity by publishing lots of non innovative hogwash work that they exploited there 20 non US citizen subordinates into doing for them.

      • The task of the NIH is not defined. It appears that NIH sees its task in distributing the money for the biomedical research. Thus NIH works for the process rather than results. This policy was OK 20-30 years ago, but not now. The problem of the NIH’ inefficiency is increasingly aggravated by the lack of the reliable peer review and poorly organized feed back analysis of the funded programs. This condemns NIH to manage for process rather than for results, making emphasis on process and input rather than people and outcomes. Not surprising that NIH still does not have policies that help the present to create the future – particularly the policies of systematic organized abandonment of wasteful programs of the past and systematic exploitation of success.

  6. We understand the NIH now has a labor economist, and several economists may be needed to solve the current dilemma of too much good work but too little money to support it. Obviously, you’ll need to look at how much people are paid for what they do. It has been clear for a long time that the reward structure is and remains out of alignment with administrators and physician researchers topping out the pay scale and fellows barely earning janitor’s wages. Can you really expect the young and high quality students to enter a profession with so little chances for reward and long-term stability? Rewarding quality foreign students with green cards and citizenship and a life of opportunity in the U.S. hardly seems equitable for those who have earned a place through a heritage of civil duty and allegiance. It amounts to a system of citizen displacement. I suggest you put the pressure on the awardee institutions to correct the situation. If the administrators want financial stability through large indirect cost recovery mechanisms (eg. acquiring huge research facilities), demand that they give their scientists, including the non-tenured and fellows, financial stability.

  7. If the goal is to optimize the impact and sustainability of NIH-funded biomedical research, then efforts (i.e., funding) should be hierarchically directed toward reducing current (and projected) leading causes of diseases, disability and mortality in the US and globally. Impact should be bench-marked on efficiently (lowered healthcare costs) improving (lowered disability and mortality) and maintaining a healthy and productive population (inclusive of disadvantaged groups).

    Why not simply measure “impact” with improvements in common metrics like Disability Adjusted Life-years?

    Congress would be hard-pressed to cut or deny funding to NIH, a Department of Health & Human Services division, that can demonstrate that its funded biomedical research reduces or prevents major public health problems from occurring and can even develop cures.

    • EEK, we need less of this attitude, not more! NIH-driven improvements in public health have often derived from the very basic science that has long been supported by NIH. With more of the attitude expressed here, even “translational” research will dry up, because there will be no more basic science left to translate.

  8. Like any organization, NIH has distinct strengths, distinct limitations and specific applications, but the operational structure of its ICs is not an absolute. An organization’s operational structure has to fit certain tasks in certain conditions and at certain times. The major problem is excessively high centralization of NIH so that ICs lack initiative and real purpose. This is manifested in commonly seen imitation of initiative, suppressed leadership at the level of ICs. “But unless the leader continues to evolve, to adapt and adjust to external change, the organization will sooner or later stall.” (W. Bennis, On becoming a leader(2009). The example of NCI success clearly shows that only an organized decentralization of NIH, entrusting full responsibility to the ICs, may help to accomplish this critical goal.

    NIH, in addition, practices a “personality cult” of superman directors and is loaded with “good old boys”. The most worrisome is that NIH has locked itself in an archaic administrative paradigm that gives priority to NIH-trained managers rather than natural leaders. Recent appointments of the NIH-trained administrators as “new” Directors well illustrate this point. It is important for the NIH to overcome the cult of super-bosses by establishing the principles of competitive succession of power. This should eliminate the grounds for intellectual arrogance, the major cause of ineffective decision-making and disabling ignorance that negatively affect scientific research today.

    To address these problems, rotation in executive NIH positions should be the rule. No one except the President’s appointees should serve as IC director longer than 6 years and cannot be moved from one executive chair to another. Limited time in office should stimulate the activity of productive executives while limiting losses caused by unfit ones. Six years is quite enough: for example, USA was able to build its robust nuclear program in just 6 short years. A 6-years term helps the NIH IC director not only to select his/her own executive team, but also to correct potential hiring mistakes. A non-competitive R01 modular funding following the scheduled ICs directors resignation may significantly facilitate the healthy turnover in NIH leadership positions. NIH IC directors should not have research laboratories in NIH. Instead, they should be encouraged to run research labs outside of NIH, in Academia. This will be an eye-opening experience that should help them to understand the needs and problems outside of NIH, which must be in the center of executive office concern, and act timely and effectively on this knowledge.

  9. It is a great struggle in many ways for individual investigators to obtain funding for basic research; yet these researchers provide the very foundation of the research system. One way to level the playing field in a fair way would be to require grant applications to list explicitly, for publications listed in a progress report, all grants cited as supporting each paper. The system now allows a PI with four grants that support five papers a year to list five publications each year as supported by each grant (if they acknowledge “support provided by funding from the NIH”, for example)– artificially inflating their productivity four fold. This would be an easy fix.

  10. There are not enough NIH $$ to fund the existing pool of researchers. Payline cut-offs are very arbitrary as the precision of the NIH peer-review system is not +/- 1%, the margin for error is probably around 30%, so many proposals that are not funded do not have a statistically different score than those that are (individual reviewer scores vary widely). Perhaps to help mitigate this problem we should set a target of 25-30% of applications being funded and adjust the budget of each in proportion to the score obtained. For example, in the current system an application with a score of 10% may be funded while one with 15% will likely not be even though scientific review is too arbitrary to reliably differentiate the two. Why not fund both and give the first one 90% of the funds requested and the second one 85% and so on… with such a formula more labs will stay funded, even if it means somewhat smaller budgets.

    • I too have advocated this idea for several years running. Basically grants get either an “A” or an “F”; hardly reflective of the nature of the science within each application, and certainly not reflective of real life. As an example, if a grant has two good aims but one that is subpar, give the PI the option of either resubmitting, or taking the grant at 66% of the requested funds to work on the two approved Aims. I bet 9/10 would take that deal, which keeps the lab doors open for more existing PIs. The in turn would ensure a robust and diversely-trained future workforce of students and postdocs while enhancing research stability within more institutions.

  11. Don’t pit us against each other; reform the system.
    1) More stable and financially more competitive support for excellent staff scientists. Not sure how to do that, but it would work wonders.
    2) Strict limits on the amount of salary recovery allowed. Please insert earplugs when lobbyists from wealthy medical schools, my own included, fight against that. Institutions should expect to pay the people they hire. In the short term, this would make the job crunch worse, but in the long term it would help rationalize the labor market. Currently, whenever the NIH budget does expand, elite medical schools hire more faculty and tell them go to pay themselves, so we end up in exactly the same crunch we were in before expansion.
    3) Strict and equitable limits on overhead (again, please insert earplugs and send the lobbyists home).
    4) Some attention to what happens to the trainees supported by R01s. Currently there are no real disincentives to exploiting students and post-docs as cheap labor. They are cheap because they are allegedly being trained, not just used.

    • I am in the same generation and I agree completely. Rejiggering the types of awards, etc., is completely beside the point (rearranging deck chairs, really). From my perspective, the biggest problem faced by the scientific community is the implosion of NIH grant funding, especially relative to the number of applicants. Meanwhile, science keeps getting more expensive, not less, as peer reviewers often want data that can only be generated using half-million dollar machines and thousand-dollar reagent kits. So I would encourage measures that alleviate this, which either means increasing the total NIH budget, or trying to manage the graceful closure of many labs and drastically reducing the number of faculty positions. Eliminating the incentive for institutions to create soft money positions is one way to do this.

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