The National Institutes of Health (NIH) is now subjecting to enhanced scrutiny applications for Research Projects Grants (RPGs) submitted by investigators who already have been awarded more than $1.5 million by the agency in a special pilot program to improve its investment in biomedical research.
A similar review policy is already followed by the National Institute of General Medical Science (NIGMS). The NIGMS provides additional scrutiny for applications from all investigators with more than $750,000 of NIH or non-NIH funding. As a result, several blue ribbon applications for resource awards that would have otherwise been slated for funding have been rejected.
Approximately 547 of the 1221 current holders of RPGs could be affected by the new NIH $1.5 million special review policy, according to former NIGMS director, Jeremy Berg.
The goal of the new policy is to help distribute the investment of the agency more evenly and increase the number of applications that are funded by the agency. Benjamin Corb, public affairs director for the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology (ASBMB), said: "If we can't get more money, then we have to change the way we cut the pie. While continuing to reward labs and universities with good track records may advance and accelerate their progress, it may not open new doors. Often times some of the more innovative research comes from the least expected locations."
"Whether two big labs or 10 small labs produce more bang for the buck is indeed today's $64,000 question," summed up University of Pittsburgh neurological surgeon Paul A. Gardner.
University of Chicago geneticist Stephen J. Kron said that most scientists believe that in a healthy research environment, somewhere between one-quarter and one-third of qualified research grant applications. should be funded. "We are not even at one-half of that at NIH now."
"Personally, I think [the new policy] helps research. It's much better to have smaller laboratories," argued Randy Schekman, cell biologist at the University of California, Berkeley. At smaller labs, the principal investigator can effectively supervise about a dozen researchers, while "with these very large labs there is an absence of leadership," said Schekman.
While the new special review pilot program may be a first step toward grant realignment, others more radical policies have also been proposed. For example, the ASBMB has suggested that NIH impose an absolute cap on how much money any one investigator can get, and a sliding scale in which applications deemed very good but not the best would get partial funding. Other proposals include eliminating the annual inflation-adjustment increases for multi-year grants and tying the top salary that principal investigators can receive to government pay scales.
In the end, Kron said: "I've nothing against this review, but much, much more painful things need to be considered."