NIH realizes that, as stewards of the American investment in biomedical sciences, we must do all we can to protect the future of the biomedical research enterprise, taking additional measures regardless of our budget situation. In the opening pages of this blog, we noted that our increasingly hypercompetitive system is threatening the future of biomedical research and of the hundreds of thousands of scientists who we look to for discovering tomorrow’s cures. This is a strange irony, given that the last 25-50 years have been times of extraordinary discovery and progress in basic, translational, and applied science. Death rates from cardiovascular disease have plummeted, and death rates from cancer are falling steadily. Scientists have a much deeper understanding of human biology to the point where this knowledge can drive the design of drugs and biologics. Big data and high-throughput technologies now enable rapid development and testing of hypotheses that previously would have taken years. The successes are myriad. But so are the problems, problems so real that some have gone so far as to write, “It is time to confront the dangers at hand and rethink some fundamental features of the US biomedical research system.”
In these pages and elsewhere we have seen:
- Concerns that the core problems besetting biomedical research are “too many researchers vying for too few dollars, [and] too many postdocs competing for too few faculty positions”
- Data showing that since the NIH doubling ended, the number of scientists seeking NIH funding has increased at a much higher rate than the number of scientists NIH funds
- Concerns that we are not paying enough attention to the number of investigators we support, as, given the unpredictable nature of science, we are more likely to generate transformational discoveries by funding more laboratories and research groups
- Data showing that the supply of scientists continues to outstrip demand
- Data showing that a relatively small proportion of scientists are receiving a large proportion of available funds; other data showing that there may be an increasing concentration of funds going to relatively few institutions
- Data and models showing that the scientific workforce is aging at a much more rapid rate than the general workforce, leading to concerns that promising younger and mid-career investigators risk being crowded out
- Data suggesting that scientific productivity tracks only weakly with funding; larger scientific groups or greater degrees of funding may not generate as much additional scientific output as expected due to the impact of diminishing returns
- Data and concerns suggesting that the group of scientists who are most seriously affected by all these trends are young faculty, who see the need for funding as the biggest threat to their long-term success
These many concerns have drawn much attention – and perhaps of greatest concern is the wellbeing of the next generation of scientists. The US Congress, in the 21st Century Cures Act, has called on NIH to develop and promote policies that will attract and sustain support for diverse groups of outstanding young and new investigators.
What can be done to relieve the pressures of hypercompetition, to offer a brighter future for today’s early and mid-career investigators, and to minimize the impact of diminishing returns? How can we increase the number of independent early career scientists and stabilize the career trajectories of those who do high quality work? While we have seen some success with the implementation of our Early Stage Investigator policy, the concerns persist.
Going back to the opening pages of this blog, we noted a few of the recommendations that others have put forth: these included capping support for individual laboratories, capping salary support, supporting programs as opposed to projects, supporting more staff scientists, raising post-doc salaries, training scientists for non-academic careers, and assuring more efficient funding of expensive core facilities.
Shortly after we released that post, FASEB, which represents 30 scientific societies that count over 125,000 members, released a detailed report with extensive recommendations on how to sustain discovery in a strained biomedical research system. These recommendations included a call on research sponsors to “monitor the amount of funding going to a single individual or research group to ensure a broader distribution of research funding.” The report goes on to say, “Limiting the amount of funding awarded to any individual scientist or laboratory would enable more people to be actively engaged in research. With more ‘hands at the bench,’ the number of ideas would increase, and this could expedite progress in many areas of science.” A possible cap could be $1 million of RPG funding – such a cap could potentially free up enough NIH money to fund an additional 2,000 scientists. Kimble et al wrote, though, that any “redistribution” of funds from well-funded to unfunded (or nearly unfunded) investigators “will be painful, especially for established senior investigators, but necessary to support the next generation and cutting edge research.”
We and others have noted, however, that focusing on money alone as a measure of support may be problematic, as different areas of research entail different levels of expense: it is inherently more expensive to run clinical trial networks and large-animal research facilities. Therefore, we developed and described a different measure of grant support, which we called the “Research Commitment Index,” and will now refer to as the “Grant Support Index.” 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. Consistent with what others have found with money or with personnel, we find that increasing levels of the Grant Support Index are associated with diminishing incremental returns.
Again — What can be done to relieve the pressures of hypercompetition, to offer a brighter future for today’s younger and mid-career investigators, and to minimize the impact of diminishing returns? How can we increase the number of early career funded scientists and stabilize the career trajectories for those who do high quality work?
NIH Director Francis Collins has announced that NIH is proposing several steps to set us on a stronger, more stable path, and to assure that NIH is maximizing the impact of the public dollars we spend. We will continue our work in monitoring, on a trans-agency level, the number and characteristics of the researchers we support with the idea that by doing so we can broaden and diversify the enterprise. We will take additional efforts to identify funding for even more early stage investigators who submit meritorious applications. When necessary, we will encourage use of bridge funding to offer additional stability and chances for obtaining an award.
To improve opportunities for early established mid-career investigators, we will take special steps to identify meritorious applicants who are only one grant away from losing all funding. Prioritizing these applicants for funding consideration may alleviate the squeeze being felt by mid-career investigators.
And we will monitor, on a trans-agency basis, investigators’ Grant Support Index, with the idea that over time and in close consultation with the extramural research community, we will phase in a resetting of expectation for total support provided to any one investigator. We plan to implement a Grant Support Index cap of 21 points, essentially the equivalent of 3 single-PI R01 grants. Over the next few weeks to months, we will meet with NIH Advisory Councils and other stakeholder groups to explore how best to phase in and implement this cap – so that formal assessment of grant support can be used to best inform, on a trans-NIH basis, our funding decisions.
In our conversations over the next weeks and months, we will need to consider carefully a number of issues and details. 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? And what analogous steps should be taken with NIH’s Intramural Research Program?
We recognize the serious challenges and dangers that we face given increasing degrees of hypercompetition and scientific complexity. Yet, NIH is committed to assuring the robustness and stability of the next generation of investigators. We have a responsibility to the public to assure that we are optimizing the use of our limited resources to obtain the maximum impact possible. We look forward to working with you to figure how best we can use the tools available to us to “bend the curves,” including resetting expectation on support provided to any one research group. Finally, we will monitor and track data to assess progress, make corrections as needed, and mitigate unintended consequences.