NIH Next Generation Initiative Plan for Rescuing Biomedical Research

By Vivek Agrahari

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) is the most important funding source for biomedical research in the U.S. In an effort to provide funding support for young (early- and mid-career) scientists, the NIH proposed on May 2, 2017 the Grant Support Index (GSI) to increase funding through a point system that caps individual primary investigators at three R01 research grants. The initiative is called upon to stabilize the next generation of researchers and generate about 2,000 more grants over the next five years. This is intended to balance the grant distribution and harness a greater diversity of creative ideas.

The GSI system assigns a point value to each grant on the basis of its complexity and size. As explained by NIH director Francis Collins, M.D., Ph.D., researchers will be limited to 21 points worth of funding (the equivalent of three R01 grants at a time). Researchers with more than 21 points and seeking an extra grant will need to explain how their existing grants can be modified to accommodate the new one so they stay under the point limit.

The decision was inspired by data showing that the number of scientists seeking NIH funding has increased at a significantly higher rate than the number of scientists with NIH funds. The decision was also backed by NIH study outcomes that productivity slows as labs get bigger. For example, Director Jon Lorsch of the National Institute of General Medical Sciences reported that funding for a first R01 grant ($200,000 direct costs) to the investigator would produce about five scientific publications during the funding period. However, the same amount of funding for a third R01 grant would yield only about one additional publication.

Although promising, GSI received criticism from the scientific community and some important points have emerged, such as possible deleterious effects on collaborative research and if/how institutional training grants should factor into the GSI. Briefly, scientists are pointing out that a rigid cap would trim exceptionally productive labs, including that the GSI system could significantly reduce the research collaboration considering that most of the NIH grants go to collaborative projects involving senior and younger scientists. Also, researchers pointed out that the scientific publications trend didn’t apply to all labs.

Based on the concern raised and keeping the goal of boosting support for young researchers, on June 8, 2017, Dr. Collins announced that GSI is being replaced with the Next Generation Researchers Initiative (NGRI). This will initially set aside $210 million for NGRI fund, and ramping to approximately $1.1 billion per year over five years. The funding will support young researchers seeking their first grant or mid-career investigators (with less than 10 years of experience as a principal investigator [PI]) who are renewing their first grant or seeking a second grant.

However, scientists raised the issue that by restricting the new funds to relatively younger scientists, a large number of senior scientists would lose their grant money to provide support for scientists getting grants through the NGRI mechanism. Another concern is the true definition of young scientists and whether it should reflect one’s career or age. One possible approach is to categorize and help all the investigators who have never received an R01 and/or who are struggling to get their first R01 renewed, regardless of their age or career rank. The creation of a money pool for investigators funded for less than 10 years doesn’t consider the PIs who still don’t have their own R01. This initiative may also affect the recruitment processes and whether organizations should hire the external candidates with startups or internal candidates.

In summary, NIH has greatly emphasized funding mechanisms that consider the wellbeing of the next generation of scientists. Young scientists represent the future of biomedical research; generating innovative ideas and supporting them might maximize the important scientific discoveries. It may also encourage them to do high-quality research. Hence, it is interesting to see how the changes will be implemented and taken by the scientists.

Vivek Agrahari completed his Ph.D. in Pharmaceutical Sciences at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. Currently, he is working as a Formulation Research Scientist at Bayer HealthCare. He is a member of numerous professional organizations and a part of the editorial board of several scientific journals.