There have been concerns for years that the National Institutes of Health (NIH) has limited resources for too many researchers applying for grant funding. This situation has created a competitive environment as applications go unfunded, which is particularly challenging for many new- and mid-career investigators to navigate. In passing the 21st Century Cures Act, Congress gave NIH an edict to promote policies that support early-career investigators. To that end, NIH announced a major policy change in May 2017 titled the Grant Support Index (GSI) that aimed to cap the number of research grants an investigator may hold.
GSI proposed measuring grant support not solely by the amount of funding received but rather assigned different types of grants points based on type, complexity and size.
Investigators were limited to a GSI of 21 points, which equated to three R01s. NIH noted that only 6% of investigators receive support above the proposed GSI limit of 21 points and that as funds are freed up, 1600 new grants would be created and steered toward early- and mid-career investigators. By increasing the number of investigators conducting NIH research, NIH sought to improve the stability of the enterprise.
The plan drew criticism for potentially cutting funding for productive labs and for discouraging collaborative research, complex trials, and research networks. Responding to the feedback received from the medical research community, NIH altered the point system, which scaled back the number of principal investigators over the cap to 3% and decreased the number of new grants to 900.
Despite the NIH’s efforts to revise the proposed GSI policy, it remained a topic of controversy, with the medical research community providing comments and concerns to NIH through its Open Mike blog, council meetings, and other discussions with stakeholders.
NIH was receptive to the feedback it received and in June announced that the proposed GSI would not be implemented. In the same announcement, NIH shared that it has shifted to launching the Next Generation Researchers Initiative. The Initiative went into effect immediately and supports early and mid-career investigators by:
Allocating approximately $210 million in 2017, ramping up to nearly $1.1 billion per year after five years (pending availability of funds) to support additional early-stage investigators and mid-career investigators;
Tracking NIH Institute and Center funding decisions for early- and mid-career investigators and assessing their impact;
Emphasizing current NIH funding mechanisms for early- and mid-career investigators with a goal of funding applications that score in the top 25th percentile from early-career investigators; and
Developing and testing multiple methods to evaluate the impact of NIH grant support on scientific progress.
“Like many of my colleagues, I was hesitant when NIH proposed the new GSI policy and the tradeoffs that it entailed, including potentially limiting the amount of funding that highly productive labs could receive and impacting collaborative projects across sites,” said Daniel E. Weiner, MD, FASN, chair of the ASN Quality Committee. “I am pleased that NIH heard the concerns of the community and were still able to support early- and mid-career investigators by launching the Next Generation Researchers Initiative, which prioritizes researchers whomay be faced with leaving research for financial reasons.”
The American Society of Nephrology applauded NIH for being receptive to the medical research community throughout the process and will continue to advocate for increased resources for NIH so that funding can be used to tackle tough research questions and improve the health of all Americans.
Individuals are encouraged to continue to provide their feedback to the NIH through the Open Mike blog or by sending an email to email@example.com. More information on the Next Generation Researchers Initiative can be found by visiting https://grants.nih.gov/ngri.htm.