NIH Is Firm on Plan to Limit Per-Person Grant Awards

May 17, 2017

Despite facing protests, the National Institutes of Health promised Wednesday to move ahead with a plan to impose a general limit of three major grants per researcher, persuaded by data linking quantity to declining effectiveness.

"We are determined to take some action now that we have this data," the NIH’s director, Francis S. Collins, told a House appropriations subcommittee. "When you’ve seen that data," he added after the hearing, "you can’t just walk away and say, ‘Oh, that’s fine.’"

Dr. Collins was referring to statistics compiled in recent months by Michael S. Lauer, the top NIH official in charge of external grant awards, showing that researcher productivity as measured by journal citations tends to decline once a scientist holds at least three major NIH grants.

The proposed three-grant limit is the latest in a series of attempts by the NIH, made over the years with limited success, to help younger researchers compete against more senior colleagues who have both the personal connections and the scientific experience to win relatively larger shares of federal grant support.

As with the past attempts to prioritize younger researchers, Dr. Collins described the NIH as facing "vigorous" pushback from some of those senior scientists. Some of that pushback is coming this time from members of his own NIH Advisory Committee to the Director, which has been studying the issue.

Several members of the Advisory Committee declined to comment. Those who did expressed a recognition of the problem and a willingness to address it, along with a wariness of potential complications and drawbacks.

One member, W. Ian Lipkin, a professor of epidemiology at Columbia University, said he agrees "that there is an inflection point for most investigators at which additional investment may be less productive than allocation to other less-well-funded investigators."

"I am not yet confident that we have identified the best way to define this inflection point," Dr. Lipkin added. "However, we are getting closer to doing so."

Another, Brendan Lee, a professor and chairman of the department of molecular and human genetics at Baylor College of Medicine, said he also agreed "that some type of cap is reasonable" to help the many meritorious researchers unable to win NIH support in the current budget environment.

But he too urged limits to the policy in cases such as scientists whose grants fund training of other researchers or finance multi-investigator centers.

Dr. Collins said he agreed that some exceptions should be allowed. He was less welcoming, however, to the idea of researchers arguing for exceptions based on individual data showing they remained effective even with four or more major NIH grants. "We can’t have too many of them — otherwise everybody becomes an exception," he said.

Budget Questions

The Advisory Committee is due to take up the matter at its session next month, with the plan expected to go into effect in the fall.

The more fundamental solution to the problem of researchers lacking federal funding involves increasing the NIH budget, Dr. Lee said. The NIH made major progress in that direction earlier this month when the Republican-led Congress approved a budget for the remainder of the 2017 fiscal year that raised NIH spending by $2 billion.

That vote was an explicit rejection of the fiscal 2018 budget plan outlined in March by the Trump administration, which proposed cutting NIH spending from $31.7 billion down to $25.9 billion.

At the hearing Wednesday, lawmakers from both parties repudiated the administration’s proposal. But one member — Rep. Andy Harris, Republican of Maryland — expressed at least some sympathy for the administration’s suggestion that the $6-billion cut could be accomplished by refusing to pay indirect costs. Indirect costs are the roughly 50 percent in additional money tacked onto NIH payments to help universities cover the administrative and infrastructure costs of supporting their scientists.

Dr. Collins pushed back, warning that many institutions might find themselves unable to work with NIH grant support if their actual costs are not largely reimbursed. Speaking after the hearing, he said a full ban on indirect-cost payments might leave all but the 20 largest private American universities from being able to accept NIH grants.

Correction (5/18/2017, 8:59 a.m.): This article originally described Rep. Mark Pocan, Democrat of Wisconsin, as expressing some sympathy for the administration’s plan to stop paying indirect costs. While Representative Pocan did raise the topic of indirect costs, his comments did not amount to offering support for ending such payments. The article has been updated accordingly.

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