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  • Washington Highlights

    NIH Alters Course on Grant Support Index, Launches Next Generation of Researchers Initiative

    Stephen Heinig, Director, Science Policy

    At the June 8 National Institutes of Health (NIH) Advisory Committee to the Director (ACD) meeting, NIH leadership announced they are changing plans to implement the Grant Support Index (GSI), a controversial proposal to limit the number of NIH research project grants that an investigator could hold at any one time [see Washington Highlights, May 5].

    In place of the GSI, NIH launched a new initiative to directly support early-stage investigators and, especially, mid-career investigators with additional funds to be set aside across all of NIH. Individual institutes will determine how to reprioritize funds to support the new and mid-career investigators most effectively.

    In their presentation, NIH Director Francis Collins, MD, PhD, and Deputy Director Lawrence Tabak, DDS, PhD, informed the ACD that the new Next Generation of Researchers Initiative would dedicate $210 million in the first year to support early-stage investigators and mid-career investigators whose grant applications score very well but are otherwise unable to be funded. After five years, the program would reach over $1.1 billion. The name of the program is derived from language in the 21st Century Cures Act, reflecting Congress’s concern for early and mid-career scientists.

    Under the original GSI proposal, principal investigators were to be capped at the equivalent of three R01 research project grants at any one time. The proposal included development of an index or numeric system to match the NIH’s many grant support mechanisms. Analysis by NIH’s Office of Extramural Research had demonstrated that beyond a certain number of grants, productivity in terms of publications declines (NIH used a weighted citation index to control for variations among fields). By capping the number of grants to investigators, NIH planned to reallocate additional funds to investigators who are just launching or trying to sustain their careers. Mid-career investigators, for example, have been declining as a share of NIH funded scientists.

    However, in the weeks since the GSI policy was first announced, members of the community voiced objections about the GSI’s potential to disrupt large, prominently established labs, as well as its impact on interdisciplinary science [see Washington Highlights, June 2]. Dr. Collins and Dr. Tabak acknowledged that a particularly challenging aspect of the GSI proposal was how to score collaborative research, as more cutting edge investigations are accomplished by interdisciplinary teams with two or more co-principal investigators. In the end, NIH concluded that a change in approach was required, as it continues to analyze productivity and resiliency of investigators across all stages of their careers. Many young investigators supported the GSI to help stabilize funding.

    The ACD supported the change and applauded the NIH for being responsive to public input, being flexible in the policy, and for addressing the issue of declining representation of early-stage investigators and mid-career investigators among NIH awardees.

    In a June 8 statement, AAMC President and CEO Darrell G. Kirch, MD, also thanked NIH for its “renewed focus on early-career investigators and its new emphasis on mid-career researchers.” The statement continued, “We are thankful for the NIH’s responsiveness to the research community as we work together to address opportunities to strengthen medical science. As these efforts progress, we invite the NIH to work with our nation’s medical schools and teaching hospitals to identify strategies to maximize the opportunities for talented investigators in the research enterprise at every career stage.”