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Following Up on Your Feedback on How to Strengthen the Biomedical Research Workforce

We appreciate the many thoughtful comments posted to the blog about working together to improve NIH funding support for early- and mid-career investigators to stabilize the biomedical workforce and research enterprise using a measure called the Grant Support Index (GSI). Some clear themes have emerged, including:

  • Possible unintentional adverse consequences
  • Possible deleterious effects on collaborative research
  • If/how institutional training grants should factor into the GSI
  • Other ways to support a larger number of scientists
  • Other approaches to measure PI effort
  • Discussion of the GSI values (point scale)
  • Having us look internally at NIH’s intramural program

Based on community feedback from the blog, council meetings, and other discussions with stakeholders, we have made changes to the planned policy to include additional measures beyond GSI to strengthen NIH funding support for early-and mid-career investigators. We will also provide greater flexibility in the use of GSI as a measure for guiding NIH funding decisions, and will make other changes to be sure that this approach does not discourage collaboration and training. These updates will be presented at the June meeting of the NIH Advisory Committee to the Director. We encourage you to tune in via NIH videocast to the presentation on Thursday, June 8.

To provide us with additional feedback, please post comments to this blog or send an email to PublicInput@od.nih.gov.

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36 thoughts on “Following Up on Your Feedback on How to Strengthen the Biomedical Research Workforce

  1. NIH support of research is limited by dollars—not by the numbers or types of grants. It is hence critical that the numbers of dollars be considered in any discussion of funding more investigators or more projects. One clinical project can cost the same as 100 individual RO1 level basic science projects.

  2. there need to be better and more generous funding mechanisms for “early career” MD and MD-PhD researchers…the funding needs to be made available to nurture the MD leaders of tomorrow…please give the next generation a chance…don’t stomp on our futures…

    • Fine, so we recruit a lot of 30-40 year olds who get funded for a few years. What happens next?
      How can we encourage smart researchers to enter a field that leaves them stranded in mid-life?

    • Your request should not limit to MD and MD-PhDs only. This reflect a mind-set that Ph.D. don’t do research or should not do research while they are equally trained for research.

  3. As a mid-career scholar, I honestly haven’t seen any mention of efforts to protect the careeers of mid-career researchers. Some of us are close to the GCI (after years of trying without success) but not senior enough to have the types of junior investigators working with us who could become PIs of our grants should we exceed 21 points. I spoke with a program officer just last week who told me “This is a really great idea, but you may not be able to come in with this unless you transfer one of your grants to someone else. It’s too bad, because this policy was really meant for much more senior scientists, who have junior people laboring in their groups long beyond the point of independence.” Why not state that the GCI will be applied only to PIs who received their first R01 more than 10-15 years ago? This might encourage those who are senior enough to devote more time to being Co-Investigators, but wouldn’t penalize mid-career investigators who might be in a growth phase.

    • Anyone close to the GCI should consider themselves lucky. There are many more who are struggling to get their main project funded – in my case, it has been 5 years….

  4. The 6 points assigned for serving as a non-contact multi-PI are nearly the same as the 7 points assigned for serving as a single PI. This effectively limits PIs to 3 R01s on which one would serve as multi-PI, even in a non-contact role. It’s not clear, but the points don’t seem to apply to Co-investigators; I believe this would drive investigators towards single-PI grants. NEI, in particular, has a penchant for holding large-scale multi-PI grants to smallish budgets that are similar in size to single-PI R01 budgets. In that context, the net effect of the new policy, if implemented as proposed, will effectively end multi-PI proposals from institutions like mine that require faculty to cover large percentages of their salaries on grants, since multi-PI grant budgets don’t allow high salary coverage for each PI that would be required to achieve high salary coverage. This would not be a problem if NIH would fund larger-scale multi-PI projects with larger budgets, but they don’t seem to be willing to do so. P30s and training grants generally don’t allow for significant PI salary, but are assigned a significant number of points, which is a strong disincentive to lead those grants if salary coverage is a requirement at one’s institution. It seems that a better metric would include both the number and type of award, but also strongly consider PI effort requirements overall and in each role. One option would be to establish a PI effort floor (single- or multi-PI) for each grant type, say 2.4 calendar months (20% annual) for PI roles on R01-equivalent grants, and 1.2 months (10% annual) on training and core grants. That would serve to limit the number of grants a single PI could hold through the total effort funding limit of 90-or-so%.

  5. Could we limit the study section reviewers to only early-and mid-career investigators? The younger scientists can be more innovative in review. To encourage PI collaboration, the study sections need to be collaborative first, broaden the expertise. Early investigators have not got the time to narrow their minds, and are more suitable as reviewers. This opinion is based on my 30+ years of research experience.

    • Old PI, that is an excellent solution. After what I have witnessed on Panels/Sections it is the only solution. The US stands to lose an entire generation of scientists because they wont get Tenure at Institutions champing at the bit for Money.

    • Oh my gosh, yes.

      I agree that this would solve so many problems. The innovative idea often come from the younger people. The older people are set in their ways and place much more emphasis on “who they know” then on actually reading the damn proposals.

  6. The point system doesn’t make sense, as similar dollar amounts yield vastly different total points. A single PI R01 is worth 7 points, but a grant with a PI and 2 co-investigators is 19 points (7 + 2*6), probably for a similar dollar amount. Why not have the PI divide the points amongst the project leaders at the time of submission? (E.g., in the above example, 4 for the PI, and 1 or 2 for the co-investigators, as is appropriate for their contributions) The total number of points per grant could be linked to the dollar amount (though this has issues due to the different costs of different fields), or better yet, to the total number of PIs on the grant (awards tend to be larger if there are more PIs, but certainly not almost twice as large for two PIs…).

  7. The younger scientists also have more innovative ideas; so they can potentially take up new ideas during reviews. It is really frustrating when people are getting several A01s for similar or very close ideas. How can we see new science in future? The idea of only three A01s per researcher is excellent to me. Give a chance to the new generation!
    This opinion is based on my 10+ years of Biomedical research experience.

  8. I am excited about this discussion. My funding has been very successful as an early career scientist, and as soon as I became a mid career scientist, the funding has been really difficult. I felt like I am being penalized as a mid career person. I love science, and I want to continue to be an NIH scientist, but I have been feeling desperate and hopeless. Each day, I spend so much time working on the proposal to make it “perfect,” but I also know that it may not even be funded! I really hope that there are more support and funding available for mid-career scientists.

    • When you are an early career scientist you follow others, as soon as you became a mid career scientist you have independent thinking. That is why. The system is designed to follow.

      • “When you are an early career scientist you follow others, as soon as you became a mid career scientist you have independent thinking. That is why [it has suddenly became hard to get funding]

        An excellent point, but the conclusion is frightening: the NIH peer review system, by its very nature, suppresses genuine innovation, by favoring well settled (may I call them “stale”?) ideas the majority is comfortable with.

  9. In reply to “Old PI”, I have my doubts. My experience says a subset of younger investigators are too interested in the past achievements of applicants, and need to be trained to balance this tendency towards profound respect unduly influencing the priority score. This happens in a mixed-seniority group where a subset of Old PIs have the confidence to correctly complete the sentence “when a great scientist writes an average grant…”. In my years on multiple study sections, I’ve seen both new and very seasoned reviewers stand up for innovation, in the face of relatively high risk. I acknowledge that all current mechanisms to fund high-risk applications are flawed, and this needs more thought. But I don’t think favoring inexperienced reviewers is a solution.

    • This is not a perfect solution, but how do you perfect it? I thank you to “acknowledge that all current mechanisms to fund high-risk applications are flawed.” If Darwin proposes evolution, no reviewer could be found in seasoned experts. The “Reform NIH” in the previous blog on 5/5/17 may be the ultimate solution but few could consider it. The change takes steps, imperfect one at a time.

    • Nick Crispe has a point in reply to “Old PI”. The expertise and biases of reviewers, as in any other biological populations, exist on a spectrum, regardless of whether they are “new” or “old”. Perhaps peer reviewers should be asked to constantly review each other’s performance (anonymously?) during study section – that way, reviewers know they are accountable to their peer group as well . . . from my many years on different study sections, it’s usually obvious which reviewers are fair and open-minded (willing to change their minds, admit their own limitations, etc.), and which reviewers are dogmatic or have an axe to grind (or like to only hear only themselves speaking). Importantly, I think it’s also relatively easy to recognize which reviewers consistently try their best to provide CONSTRUCTIVE criticisms as opposed to those that provide knick-picking reviews in some misguided effort to satisfy their own intellectual ego (or worse, exact vengeance on competitors). Reviewers constantly being ranked high (a set of simple criteria would need to be established) should be asked to stay for the full term (or asked to become standing members if they are ad hoc) whereas those that consistently rank low (after 2-3 section meetings), should have their term on the study section cut short. I’m not saying this is easy to operationalize, but having some sort of accountability for our performance on study sections may gradually improve the fairness and objectivity of a complex process.

  10. Hi,
    Apology at the outset if this is too long, since I have many issues to mention. Please do not take it as ” Grapes are sour”. I am describing real life experiences.
    Migrated from an Asian country almost 32 years ago.
    Educated in Canada and USA in premier institutions.
    Performing more than 25 years of biomedical research including microbiology, stem cell biology, genetics and cancer biology.
    Was a junior PI for a brief time.
    From my personal experiences issues I noticed are many. Extreme exploitation by senior investigators / PI. They force us to write grants in their name (when I asked if I can be a co-PI or collaborator no response received). Even when the grants were very successful (PO1, RO1, R21 etc, I wrote them personally) even then rarely received any compliment and or promotion rather I noticed their salary increased along with promotion. Too many unqualified scientists with much less salary paid recommended by NIH or country’s guidelines are seen. Nepotism, fear of problem if I whistle the blow and your career will be doomed is rampant. In fact I myself am a victim of such a case. Essentially the scientific culture looks like is very medieval. The culture of I like you and so you will be promoted even not qualified is so pervasive, sometimes I feel whether it is worth to practice science anymore. Investigators who are in their 80s and 90s, even they are not productive still are forcing decisions and not taking everybody along with them. Many of these investigators are drawing very high salary (like a RO1 grant for 5 years) / year and nobody can say anything about this because of their job. These old PIs even do not have any productive NIH grant. The whole scientific cultures (both clinical and basic) need to be revamped completely. As presidential candidate Bernie Sanders once said that US systems are rigged. I notice at least in scientific culture it is indeed very true. The whole culture need to be revamped such a way that scientific discovery / innovation and its fruits will not be enjoyed by just few but whole biomedical community and society as a whole.
    Thanks very much

    • Share your concerns. “Studying” the problem, a tact that the NIH has seemingly adopted to create diversity in its workforce, will not really help those who are confined within the system. “Studying” this problem actually takes away resources for advancing science.

  11. One way to encourage early-stage/new investigators may be to have a higher payline for these investigators but reduce the funding amount by x%. PI can submit the grant asking for the full dollar amount and check a box saying they will accept an x% lower dollar amount if the higher payline is used to fund them. i.e., one can doubledip; play in the big league and if funded, one keeps the entire paycheck. if one uses the bonus feature, one accepts a bigger cut in funding. NIH now funds more ES/N investigators, they get their first R01s and tenure-track positions, they generate data that allows to compete for full R01s next time. may be even allow reduced-rate R01 a second time (aimed at mid-career investigators). after two rounds of reduced-rate R01 funding for 10 years, it’s hard to call oneself a mid-career investigator; so two strikes and you’re now a veteran senior investigator…

  12. I am personally extremely disappointed by the decision of the NIH to scrap the GSI idea due to a “backlash” from the scientific community. First of all I highly doubt that the backlash came from the 94% that would benefit from the idea and more likely it came from the 6% who need to maintain > 3 RO1 so to keep institutions hostage to their caprices. 3RO1 worth of money is enough to do stellar research and if the capped PI in question is so wonderfully prolific and so undeniably incredible there would be no limitations to get more funding from the private sector, pharma, DOD, VA, which frequently offer 10M direct cost grants. The creation of a money pool (Next Gen) for investigators that have been funded for less than 10 years is a bad fix. How about those of us that have been PIs on MPI grants for 5 years? without having our own sole RO1?. How about those that got less than 100,000 a year (so they could make it through tenure via MPI) and lost their new investigator status? Will MPI also be considered a limitation when competing for Next Gen funding ?. Unfortunately the super funded will once again be protected at the expense of mid-career scientists condemned to the limbo of extinction

  13. The NIH director will have to solve this problem. There should be a balanced solution in the sense that funding should be distributed fairly to early, mid career, and senior investigators. How one defines each group will take real effort and discussion to ensure fairness such that there are no loopholes. In my opinion, 3 R01 awards for any investigator is excessive – no matter their past productivity or perceived current innovation. Big labs and big science should be allowed to continue but they should look to foundations (HHMI or Gates), industry, or other sources. The current NIH budget can not support their luxury.

  14. I applaud NIH’s efforts to increase funding for early and mid-career scientists. I am however deeply concerned about that the proposed GSI scheme will have significant unintended adverse consequences particularly for ‘soft-funded’ research faculty who place 100% of their effort in their research and therefore rely completely on the NIH or federal grants for salary support and research funding. At traditional university departments, faculty are often supported for 9 months by their departments for their teaching effort and only 3 months of summer salary is obtained from the NIH or other funding sources. The GSI scheme would permit faculty with teaching and research commitments to hold up to 3RO1 grants to support only 3 months of research effort per year. On the other hand, research faculty at medical schools, hospital-based departments or other similar ‘soft-funded’ institutions, place 100% of their effort towards research and as a result are expected to obtain all 12 calendar months of salary support and funding from the NIH or other federal grants. The proposed GSI scheme if similarly applied to ‘soft-funded’ faculty, will impose 3 RO1 limit to support 12 calendar months of effort for soft-funded research faculty, while permitting the identical funding limit to support only 3 calendar months of effort for traditional university faculty. This scheme will have extremely deleterious effects on the ability to hire new faculty, and support post-doctoral fellows within soft-funded research institutions.
    I would instead propose a system that sets a minimum level of effort for a PI on an RO1 or R21 grant rather imposing a limit on the total number of grants. I think this would allow a more equitable policy across institutions, while requiring PI’s to commit to a certain level of effort and allowing a better redistribution of funds for ESI and mid-career investigators.

  15. Is it possible that money is not limiting, but that one of the chief culprits is the administrative reallocation of “credit” pre-award, and the resources post-award?

    Personally, I have been able to identify several variables where regulation is warranted.

    The way the NIH funds individual projects and PIs is based on self-reporting of credentials, and time/effort committed to pre-proposal preparation. I wholly empathize (sympathize) with the lament voiced by Dr. Maiti above, because I have personally experienced the same.

    After spending 3 years working on pre-proposal preparation, I was administratively left off the personnel section of the submission of a 20 million dollar proposal by a senior PI. Contrary to the ethics that supposedly govern academic medicine, that senior PI was celebrated, and not ostracized by the academic institution. The “transition” of a “junior” investigator to “mid-career” investigator was institutionally blocked, and the administrative malfeasance was rewarded by the institution.

    So, from a personal standpoint, more due diligence with respect to “integrity” and “allocation” of resources may be warranted. The academic institution simply rewards those who “bring the money in”, without regard to how that money was brought in, and how that money is spent after it was brought in.

  16. First RO1 grant should be made relatively easier, like 25 percentile cut, to get for all scientist, no matter they junior or senior investigator. The additional grants should be made harder, such as the second one needs to be 15%tile and the 3rd one needs to be 10%tile etc. Just a thought.

  17. A key tenet of the Next Generation Researchers Initiative (https://grants.nih.gov/ngri.htm) is that Early State Investigators will be funded out to the 25th percentile. However this statement does not include New Investigators. This extended percentile range for funding would obviously help New Investigators (i.e those with no R01-level funding) as well. Will New Investigators be included in this? The next bullet point jumps to mid-career investigators, without commenting on New Investigators.

  18. Similar to Mid-Career PI, I too thought that sharing points under GSI at stage of peer review with scaled points relative to average budget (including more points for higher value R01s) would be the right fix and would help many faculty at all age groups and seniority who make up 94% of all NIH PIs. In particular, fields such as bioinformatics and statistics would benefit as top performers here might get 2 points on each of 10 grants even if they never have their own R01. This would greatly benefit team science and junior faculty as tenure would likely shift to points rather than number of R01 grants. Further, the points assignment would actually encourage MPI and collaboration as high performing PIs seeking new awards could transfer established grants to more junior members accelerating their independent careers. Sadly, the newly proposed alternative Next Generation Initiative that focuses on those with <10 years faculty again will forego the opportunity to help mid-career faculty. We started our careers trapped between the cancellation of the R29 program and later policies dropping paylines for first time applicants and we were decimated at tenure by changing institutional policies to require multiple grants in the wake of the NIH doubling. Those of us who prevailed are among the best and brightest but are hampered from growth into large highly funded programs (i.e. up to 3 R01s) by low paylines and a very large generation above us that retains a majority of the awards. Many of us at around 13-20 years faculty (or around age 50) are exhausted by demands to raise 75-100% of our salary (policies enacted or deepened just as we were becoming faculty), which has required constant grant writing across our entire careers thus far. This occurs while simultaneously fighting to get work in marquis high profile journals to ensure we can keep labs open. NIH has again noted the problem of diminishing funds to this generation and have now pledged through the Next Gen Initiative to help those behind us to not suffer the same fate while continuing to protect the large grant portfolios of those above us. We have 20 years left in the business but many are stalled out. Many of us now, particularly the most productive, are moving into administration simply out of exhaustion and loss of belief in academic research as a viable, sustainable, 30-40 year career. Next Gen Initiative won't help us. A rethought of implementation of GSI would have.

    • Well stated!!
      However, the predictable NIH response will be that it is the academic institutions who administer funding portfolios who bear the accountability for placing us in this conundrum. Whereas NIH officers have spoken in public forums about the need for institutions to alter the rules governing investigator-accreditation, advancement in academic series, and tenure, many institutional administrations have not heeded those recommendations. Thus, in effect, “mid-career” PIs who see their careers slipping away are effectively caught between dys-synchronized governmental and institutional mandates regarding what measures constitute “expertise” worthy of funding and advancement.

  19. I support the new NIH policy on ESI and mid-career investigators. But the definition of mid-career investigators needs to be clearer.
    According to the original statement, the mid-career investigators are defined as investigators who are within 10 years of receiving their first NIH R01 equivalent award. How about those who have lost their ESI status (within 10 years of receiving their terminal degree) and are still in their early stage of career (being independent for <5 years), but have not received any R01? Will they be considered early stage or mid-career?
    Thanks.

    • This is a valid point. I don’t think that NIH needs reminding that ESIs are beholden to Senior Institutional Investigators for access to critical institutional core services, and for being “team players.” That dichotomy of purpose can be readily exploited by unscrupulous Senior Investigators to exploit the ESIs at individual institutions for their own advancement, to the detriment of “ESIs”. Thus, when it comes to “Independent Advancement” towards mid-career PI status as defined by the NIH, it may never materialize for many ESIs.

  20. I think the NIH should make all successfully funded grant applications public within a certain period of time. Since all grants have a timeline within them, and the research should be completed by that timeline, there should be no problem with making funded grants public. That way the public will know where their dollars are going, and early stage investigators can compare their unsuccessfully funded applications with those that were funded within the same study section. In addition, investigators will think twice before putting in fake data (which I believe is a huge problem because there is very little scrutiny of preliminary data for grants), since they will have to explain why their published results are different from preliminary results used in grant applications.

  21. “The total cost of these measures, to be derived in each IC by rearranging priorities in other categories…”, please define the “other categories”.

    If the “other categories” is from senior PIs who only have 1-2 R01s and are not eligible for R35, this is age discrimination. I am all for restricting to 3 R01 sized grants to free up funds for young investigators, as there are studies showing more funds exceeding 3 R01s do not lead to more productivity.

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