November 2009

ASBMB Advocates at NIH

Underscores Importance of Basic, Investigator-initiated Research

Update on the New NIH Scoring System

Acknowledging that the National institutes of Health scoring system, implemented this year, was still in its infancy, ASBMB PAAC members asked NIH directors about its effectiveness.

Jeremy M. Berg, director of the National Institute of General Medical Sciences, was supportive of the effort, saying that the distribution of grants scores on the new nine-point scale “isn’t too bad,” despite fears that the vast majority of grants will be given similar, good scores.

Director for Extramural Research Sally J. Rockey agreed, saying reviewers are taking advantage of the full scoring range.

For more information and an initial analysis of the new scoring system, visit the NIGMS Feedback Loop at

In meetings with members of the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Public Affairs Advisory Committee in September, National Institutes of Health directors underscored their commitment to sustaining stimulus-level funding and supporting research efforts by individual investigators.

The committee members met with five institute directors and the director of extramural research this past September to emphasize the importance of funding mechanisms for investigator-initiated, basic research and to find out more about NIH funding priorities under Director Francis Collins. Collins has a history with major research initiatives and led the publically funded effort to sequence the human genome.

“We’re not going to cut into basic science,” said Nora D. Volkrow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse. “That is who we are.”

Jeremy M. Berg, director of the National Institute of General Medical Sciences, and Sally J. Rockey, director of extramural research, echoed Volkrow, assuring the committee that they had seen no indication of a shift away from funding individual researchers.

“[Collins] knows that R01s are the strength of the NIH,” Rockey said.

 Berg noted that although Collins has been involved in large-scale projects, he, like most biomedical researchers, began his career as an individual investigator.

Deputy Director Greg G. Germino and others at the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases pointed to a number of mechanisms the institute has used to meaningfully fund and maintain the pre-eminent role of competitive, investigator-initiated research. Germino said that their priority was to fund the maximum number of individual investigators.

In discussions with Barbara Alving, director of the National Center for Research Resources, the committee members also expressed concerns about a shift in priorities to translational science programs from basic research infrastructure. Alving and other directors said they support the center’s new Clinical and Translational Science Awards, which will fund translational research at 60 institutions nationwide.

Berg assured the committee that basic research and infrastructure could remain a priority. It’s “not necessarily a zero-sum game,” Berg said.

The committee members emphasized that supporting individual investigators also meant cushioning the fall when NIH’s $10 billion in stimulus funding, much of which supported individual investigators, expires after 2010.

According to Berg and NIDDK officials, the large number of applications for the NIH Challenge Grants in Health and Science Research demonstrated an enormous unmet need for individual investigators, some of which could be attributed to decreasing institutional support. Berg said managing the potential 14 percent drop in funding in 2011 is priority No. 1.

While institutes will attempt to administratively cushion the landing, both the directors and the committee members question whether congressional funding will continue to support the new projects.

Kyle M. Brown is an ASBMB science policy fellow. He can be reached at

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