NIH Grant Funding Reform – Past Time

Over the last few years much has been written regarding the loss of US preeminence in the biomedical sciences. Indeed the most recent and oft-cited example is the field of embryonic stem cell (ESC) biology, where it is (loudly) claimed that the US trails the rest of the world due to the restrictions placed on that type of research.

The US is indeed in danger of losing it’s stature in the life sciences. However, the major reasons for this decline are both the inequitable distribution of research grants, and the over-emphasis/over-funding of very specific fields of research. Consider the stem cell funding debate. ESC research is a very small portion of the entire body of biomedical research in the US, yet the widely-publicized clamor for more federal funding of this research overshadows the true problem facing American science today – funding individual scientists in diverse research fields.

The greatest asset American science has is the individual scientist. This strength has been consistently ignored while the NIH has focused on “Master Programs” such as the Human Genome Project. This grand scheme took about 12 years to complete at the cost of approximately 12 billion dollars, a feat which was equaled by the private sector in 2 years at a fraction of the cost. At an average of 1.2 million dollars for a 3-5 year project, this amount of money would have funded 10,000 individual scientists working on unique research projects. Since many researchers were already discovering and sequencing new genes during the course of their research, most of the human genome would have been sequenced anyway during the normal course of research. In the time it has taken to put $1,000-individualized genome sequencing within our reach (with no value to the public), thousands of individual scientists became stuck in interminable postdoctoral scientist positions, more advanced researchers have seen their work come to a halt or even disappear (along with their careers), and others have just left research altogether.

Currently there are about 17,000 postdoctoral scientists in the US. The “postdoc” is a position that used to be 2-4 years of advanced training beyond the PhD, but which has grown to 4 to 6 to 8 or more years, with no end in sight except for the nebulous ‘research scientist’ position, as too little funding is available for individual scientists to set out on their own. In turn the ‘research scientist’ is supported by someone else’s grant (a Principal Investigator – that is one who was successful in obtaining a grant). Ultimately ‘research scientists’ end up under-contributing to scientific advancement as their responsibilities to the Principal Investigator precludes developing their own studies. Eventually these individuals just leave the research field altogether, as do more advanced scientists when they are unable to obtain the necessary funding to continue their work.

If one considers the 7-plus years to obtain a PhD in the life sciences, the extended post-doctoral tenure, and the unlikelihood of obtaining funding necessary to pursue a research career, then one ends up with a really good reason why young Americans are not choosing science as a career. Watching scientist parents, relatives, or friends in the overly-difficult struggle to survive in their profession and seeing careers vaporized because of a lack of funding is not going to encourage anyone to embark on a similar career.

In order to turn this around some serious measures are needed to get more funds to individual scientists. A more equitable distribution of existing funds is necessary to accomplish this goal, not an increase in the NIH budget. The future of American science depends on young people taking up research careers and on keeping current scientists from leaving. This will only happen when individuals can envision a reasonable chance of success. That vision is now absent.

The main instrument for funding individual investigators is the RO1 grant. The RO1 investigator has been described as ‘the heart and soul of America’s biomedical research’ and is responsible for having made the US the world leader in the life sciences. This was possible because a large number of scientists were to solve a broad range of biological questions. In recent years, while the RO1 grant did get more NIH budget dollars overall, these awards have become concentrated in the hands of fewer individuals who hold multiple awards. These grants must be distributed more equitably.

The NIH does not need to identify “grand challenges and targets” as American scientists know what these “grand challenges” are (as embodied in the names of most of the Institutes of Health). For the NIH to identify “targets” of research is to automatically preclude from funding individuals whose innovative ideas don’t fit within the NIH framework. The word “tunnelvision” might be substituted for the current NIH use of the phrase “grand challenges and targets”.

The following over-lapping points identify a few problems with NIH distributed funding and potential steps that could be taken to increase funding for individual investigator-initiated and investigator-run research. Only by doing so will American science thrive in the coming years.

1. Scrap the Mega-Projects such as the Human Genome Project. If embryonic stem cell researchers obtain their dream of restriction-free Federal funding will a demand for a Human Stem Cell Project be far off? This should not be allowed to happen as the loss of grant dollars to individual scientists will stymie novel ideas and innovative approaches in the broader realm of biomedical research. Lest we forget all biomedical research does not revolve around stem cells and stem cell scientists, just as it should not have been allowed to revolve around the Human Genome Project. Any scientist who utilizes human tissue for research purposes, especially fetuses or earlier tissue, knows there is controversy attached. Live and work within the Federal restrictions or seek funding from the ever-growing bankroll of private sources. Many American scientists are getting tired of catering to the ‘special interests’ of biomedical research, of being overshadowed by the so-called ‘hot areas’, and of forgoing research funding for their sake.

2. Reduce or eliminate the Center/Program grants. The Wall Street Journal’s excellent reporting has demonstrated the abuse and potential for abuse in large grant awards. This type of large grant award diverts funds away from individual researchers, which is further compounded when the Center/Program Leader hoards the money (and in certain types of grants, facilities and equipment) for his/her own use and career advancement.

Any concerns about the loss of research area concentration will be forgotten as colleagues with related interests pick up the phone or type an email to forge collaborations – thus ‘centers’ of research will form spontaneously, be more widespread geographically, and will use research funds more carefully and with far better accountability than now seen in ‘Center’ grants.

3. The ‘ego’ factor has got to go. Scientists who cannot fathom or accept challenges to established scientific principles, particularly to ones they have been instrumental in developing, are detrimental to the advancement of new ideas. How often has a rejected grant application been returned with comments that include a list of publications (suspiciously – all with the same primary author!) for the applicant to ‘study’? This barrier can be removed as suggested immediately below.

4. The Study Section system of review has to be completely overhauled. At present Study Sections are fraught with numerous weaknesses and, to name just a few, include: individual study section members have far too many grant applications to review and thus could not possibly give the deserved attention to each one; lack of expertise in a specific area (no matter how intelligent a reviewer, none are expert in all the details of their own fields of expertise and would not likely provide a good review); absence of transparency; and of course the omnipresent ego’s and rivalries.

A possible solution might reside in altogether eliminating the Study Sections as they now stand, and allow applicants to pick their own reviewers (after appropriate certification of an absence of a conflict of interest – e.g., no relatives, no financial interests, no collaborators, etc.). This would enable applicants to select scientific reviewers more attuned to the work described in their application. The applicant might pick two such reviewers with the NIH selecting one reviewer from outside the applicant’s field, as a sort of oversight on the process. The miniaturized Study Section could ‘meet’ via the internet or teleconferencing, and possibly even ‘meet’ electronically with the applicant to discuss improvements on the application. After all why does the review process have to be so secretive? If corporations are required to be transparent in their operations then why not make the review process transparent? Openness in the process is likely to be far more fruitful and encouraging than at present (where it does not exist at all).

The considerable savings in funds resulting from not having to assemble large groups of people at a physical location could be better put to use in funding research.

A truly radical approach to funding scientists (radical for Americans) would be to do away with peer review of grant applications altogether and award funds based on achievement as measured by publications! Newer investigators seeking an independent project could be judged on their accomplishments as postdoctoral scientists, with respect to their publications as well as an evaluation by their mentor and experienced associates.

5. Limit the number of major grant (RO1) awards to one per principal investigator. An examination of grant awards at a major medical center in Houston, TX, for instance, shows that 36 scientists are named on 2 or more major grants (RO1’s) and several held more, and in one case an individual is listed as Principal Investigator on 5 grants. In many cases, these multiple-RO1-grant awardees also hold additional (non-R01) NIH grants. This is not limited to this one institution but is pervasive.

Why are so many grants awarded to one individual? Why does anyone scientist need more than one grant? Who is actually running these grants? If a principal investigator makes so many discoveries as to warrant this extent of funding why doesn’t he/she hand the new project over to a senior ‘research scientist’ in the lab to apply for funding? The concentration of a large number of sizable grants in the hands of a small number of scientists keeps funds from reaching other researchers with different ideas. Furthermore this concentration of funds in the hands of a small number of scientists has led to intellectual ‘tunnelvision’.

It is time for grant funds to be distributed more equitably than is the current practice. A good start is one grant per individual researcher. Establish a two-tier system of RO1 funding with a project grant duration of 3-5 years, with budgets of $400,000 – $600,000 for new/junior scientists and $600,000 – $1.2 million for more established investigators. Eliminate all other individual grant categories .

If desired Principal Investigators could obtain additional funding from private sources.

6. Stop funding foreign scientists here and abroad. The NIH has distributed over 80 million dollars for funding research overseas in the current fiscal year. In the previous two years combined over 600 million dollars of NIH funds were distributed to foreign scientists and institutions. (see below).

(83,840,733 – 2006)

(284,337,954 – 2005)

(352,582,195 – 2004)


Funding of grants overseas cited above is in addition to NIH-funding of foreign scientists in the United States, be they graduate students, post docs, or research scientists who are funded off of a Principal Investigator’s grant, or the Principal Investigator him/herself. If these foreign scientists want to study in the US then they should compete for funds in their home country to support their research here. If this seem’s harsh consider the following regarding Asia:

As a result of many years of persistent trade surpluses with the United States, Asian countries now hold two-thirds of the $4 trillion of foreign exchange reserves worldwide. China now has a record US$854 billion reserve, recently overtaking Japan as the world’s biggest holder. Japan’s reserves too have reached a record USD 852.03 billion as of March 2006. South Korea holds about $200 billion. India at about $137 billion. Obviously these countries have the funds to support their scientists and science graduate students seeking to work or study here. Just as obvious is that this would free up more funds for American scientists.

It has been suggested that current initiatives to boost American scientific competitiveness, focused heavily on secondary school education, will not bear fruit for many years and that in the meantime the United States will have little choice but to look foreign sources for help. This is not so. There is a pool of American scientists out there that can immediately fill this country’s needs for maintaining it’s leadership in biomedical research. These individuals come from the groups of advanced post-doctoral scientists, research scientists, and unfunded faculty. Furthermore as funding for individual scientists becomes more readily available we might just see a new migration back to the benchtop, coming from those scientists who left the field in frustration over lack of funding. Seeing the reality of a more rewarding career in scientific research might also encourage the young people of today to become our future scientists.

If something is not done soon, we may just as well send all of the NIH budget overseas.

The material in this press release comes from the originating research organization. Content may be edited for style and length. Want more? Sign up for our daily email.