NIH Abandons Plan to Limit Per-Person Grant Awards

by SRA International on Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Excerpt from "NIH Abandons Plan to Limit Per-Person Grant Awards," posted on, June 8, 2017.

Facing protests from senior scientists, including members of its own advisory board, the National Institutes of Health on Thursday abandoned a plan to help younger researchers by imposing a general three-grant limit.

Instead, the NIH is moving forward with a more complicated formula in which scientists who win a first grant under a program designed to aid first-time applicants will get priority for their second grant.

We are shifting the approach quite substantially," the NIH’s director, Francis S. Collins, told a gathering of his advisory panel, a collection of about 15 senior academic researchers that largely opposed his first plan.

The new plan will still boost younger scientists, Dr. Collins and other NIH officials emphasized. But the three-grant limit was scuttled largely because NIH experts no longer felt confident in the data analysis they used to develop it.

Advocates for younger scientists were not convinced. "It’s really frustrating," said Gary S. McDowell, executive director of Future of Research, an advocacy coalition of junior scientists formed last year. Mr. McDowell’s group had strongly endorsed the three-grant limit. "Now it just appears that this was shoved down quickly by a bunch of senior folks," he said of the grant-limit plan.

Dr. Collins told Congress last month that he wanted the planned limit — scientists would be allowed to hold no more than the equivalent of three full-size NIH grants at any one time — because of internal NIH data showing three grants to be the point where researcher productivity as measured by journal citations tends to decline.

But, Dr. Collins told the advisory panel Thursday, outside analyses raised doubts about that conclusion. In addition, he said, NIH officials heard questions about how exactly to measure a three-grant equivalency in situations such as team projects. And, he said, critics questioned whether such a "formula-driven approach" fit with the NIH’s longstanding commitment to merit-based grant awards.

The NIH’s deputy director, Lawrence A. Tabak, who played a central role in drafting the new plan, described his fear that researchers who manage to win an initial NIH grant face a fundamental disadvantage because they usually lack the internal institutional resources that a senior faculty member can tap to keep his lab alive in the event of a subsequent grant rejection. "They have more resiliency," Dr. Tabak said of older scientists. "They’re able to stay in the game long enough."

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