April 2011

ASBMB members meet with NIH leadership

PAAC suggests revisions to maintain the long-term health of scientific research

At the heart of the research funded by the National Institutes of Health lies the investigator-initiated grant. Designed to “support a discrete, specified, circumscribed project to be performed … in an area representing the investigator’s specific interest and competencies, based on the mission of the National Institutes of Health,” this funding mechanism has allowed basic researchers to lay the groundwork for advances in medical cures and treatments for more than 60 years.

Unfortunately, since 2003 (when the NIH budget doubling was completed), support for investigator-initiated research has declined markedly. Compared to 2003, 1,000 fewer grants were funded in 2010, while application success rates have dropped below 20 percent. Adding to the strain on resources is a stagnation of growth in the NIH budget. During its biannual meeting last month, the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Public Affairs Advisory Committee met with officials at the NIH to offer proposals on how to reverse this trend and optimize the agency’s resources. The PAAC suggested the following revisions to NIH policy:

1. Rebalance the NIH budget portfolio back toward investigator-initiated research.

Approximately $20 billion of the NIH’s $30 billion budget is allocated as research funds, of which 50 percent (approximately $10 billion) goes to investigator-initiated grants. Raising this amount to 55 percent of research spending would return the research portfolio balance to its 2003 proportions. Moreover, this rebalancing could easily be achieved by reducing or eliminating funding for inefficient, non-investigator-initiated programs.

2. Adopt a competitively based sliding scale.

Various formulations could be used to institute this proposal: One example would be 100 percent funding for the 1st through 5th percentiles, 90 percent funding for 5th through 10th percentiles, 80 percent for 10th through 15th percentiles, and 70 percent for 15th through 20th percentiles, assuming that, with all measures taken, funding would occur up to the 20th percentile. Under this policy, success rates would inevitably rise, allowing more investigator-initiated grants to receive at least partial funding.

3. Restrict the amount of funding for any individual investigator.

To identify an acceptable cap, the research community would have to work with agency officials to strike a reasonable balance between impeding new research and making funding available for more grants, given current research initiatives. This proposal also requires recognition of the broad range of support that individual investigators receive and the vastly differing types of research performed. One possible model comes from the National Institute of General Medicine Sciences, which institutes an automatic review of grant applications from any investigator already receiving more than $750,000. The efficacy of such a proposal has been illustrated by a recent study conducted by NIGMS Director Jeremy Berg that indicated researchers with funding at or below $500,000 in direct costs were as productive or more productive than researchers receiving higher amounts.

The PAAC stressed that these proposals were not meant as permanent measures but rather to serve as emergency actions that must be taken during this perilous financial period to maintain the long-term health of scientific research in this country. Failure to retain our brightest minds in research today will lead to wide-ranging problems tomorrow and result in fewer innovations and decreased American competitiveness in the global arena. The recommendations made by the PAAC represent logical, pragmatic solutions that will allow a larger number of investigators to continue what they always have done: drive America forward.

Geoffrey Hunt (ghunt@asbmb.org) is the ASBMB science policy fellow.

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