NIH Abandons Plan to Limit Per-Person Grant Awards

June 08, 2017

Facing protests from senior scientists, including members of its own advisory board, the National Institutes of Health on Thursday abandoned a plan to help younger researchers by imposing a general three-grant limit.

Instead, the NIH is moving forward with a more complicated formula in which scientists who win a first grant under a program designed to aid first-time applicants will get priority for their second grant.

The agency says it is shifting to a new strategy but not from its goal of helping younger scientists compete for NIH support.

"We are shifting the approach quite substantially," the NIH’s director, Francis S. Collins, told a gathering of his advisory panel, a collection of about 15 senior academic researchers that largely opposed his first plan.

The new plan will still boost younger scientists, Dr. Collins and other NIH officials emphasized. But the three-grant limit was scuttled largely because NIH experts no longer felt confident in the data analysis they used to develop it.

Advocates for younger scientists were not convinced. "It’s really frustrating," said Gary S. McDowell, executive director of Future of Research, an advocacy coalition of junior scientists formed last year. Mr. McDowell’s group had strongly endorsed the three-grant limit. "Now it just appears that this was shoved down quickly by a bunch of senior folks," he said of the grant-limit plan.

Dr. Collins told Congress last month that he wanted the planned limit — scientists would be allowed to hold no more than the equivalent of three full-size NIH grants at any one time — because of internal NIH data showing three grants to be the point where researcher productivity as measured by journal citations tends to decline.

But, Dr. Collins told the advisory panel Thursday, outside analyses raised doubts about that conclusion. In addition, he said, NIH officials heard questions about how exactly to measure a three-grant equivalency in situations such as team projects. And, he said, critics questioned whether such a "formula-driven approach" fit with the NIH’s longstanding commitment to merit-based grant awards.

The NIH’s deputy director, Lawrence A. Tabak, who played a central role in drafting the new plan, described his fear that researchers who manage to win an initial NIH grant face a fundamental disadvantage because they usually lack the internal institutional resources that a senior faculty member can tap to keep his lab alive in the event of a subsequent grant rejection. "They have more resiliency," Dr. Tabak said of older scientists. "They’re able to stay in the game long enough."

"We believe it’s the right thing to do," Dr. Collins said of the new plan, adding that it "was well-received" by the advisory committee.

No advisory panel members overtly criticized the swap of plans and several offered hearty praise, saying they worried about drastically altering a grant system that has worked so well for so long. Several did join Dr. Collins in pledging to keep studying the data to see what effects the new initiative actually has on the success of younger scientists.

That replacement plan, which the NIH is calling the Next Generation Researchers Initiative, will actually put more money into the hands of younger researchers, Dr. Collins said. The three-grant limit would have represented a transfer of between $400 million and $700 million per year once fully in place, while the new strategy will reallocate about $1.1 billion a year.

Unlike the grant-limit plan, however, there was no immediate promise of where that money would be found. "We will figure out where to find those necessary funds by looking across the whole portfolio" of NIH spending, Dr. Collins told a briefing for reporters after the meeting.

Some Doubts Raised

Mr. McDowell, of the Future of Research coalition, was skeptical of that promise. "I don’t know where the money is going to come from for this," he said. "It will probably end up affecting our success rates anyway because the money has to come from somewhere."

Already about 65 percent of NIH-funded scientists hold the equivalent of one full grant or less, Mr. McDowell said. He said he recognized that the new plan might help a cohort of scientists seeking their first grant renewal. "In the short term it could be great," Mr. McDowell said, "but in the long term it could just kick the can down the road."

“In the short term it could be great, but in the long term it could just kick the can down the road.”

His group’s opposition has not found much support among established research groups. Both the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities and the Association of American Medical Colleges put out statements Thursday broadly endorsing the NIH’s concerns for the problems facing younger scientists. The president of the Association of American Universities, Mary Sue Coleman, who is a member of the advisory panel, offered similar comments during the meeting.

As the NIH advisory panel concluded its session, Juan Pablo Ruiz, a graduate student working at the agency with an NIH/Oxford-Cambridge Scholarship, stood to challenge his senior colleagues on the panel. Mr. Ruiz, who works with Mr. McDowell’s group, said junior scientists had been highly enthusiastic about the three-grant limit, and added his concern about the lack of a clear plan for finding the money to finance the replacement strategy.

Referring to Dr. Tabak’s comments about senior scientists, Mr. Ruiz added: "Maybe ‘resilience’ should be relabeled as ‘privilege.’"

Speaking afterward, Dr. Collins said he was impressed by Mr. Ruiz’s courage in making his case before a room filled with his senior counterparts, and said he agreed that the room’s unexpected outside perspective might suggest the need to incorporate younger members onto the NIH advisory panel. "Maybe in the next round of nominations," he said, "we should think about that."

Paul Basken covers university research and its intersection with government policy. He can be found on Twitter @pbasken, or reached by email at