A New Paradigm for NIH Grants

Giving out smaller grants, but for larger periods of time, will fix a system in distress.

Aug 1, 2007
Nejat Düzgünes, Nejat Düzgünes
Credit: Mike Bentley
Credit: © Mike Bentley

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The NIH grant funding system is in distress. The success rate for nonamended applications was less than 10% in 2005, 1 with the system overwhelmed by a large number of grant applications that are impossible to distinguish in terms of their significance and merit. Multiple resubmissions are common.

Although the NIH has introduced a new structure for review committees and some pilot changes, success rates have not improved. This crisis cannot be solved by tinkering with peer review, whose many problems I delineated in these pages eight years ago. 2 At the time, the NIH stated that it was seriously addressing these issues by emphasizing innovation, expediting the funding of recently reviewed grants, and improving study sections in its "Boundaries" process. Such minor changes have not improved the funding of biomedical research, and I therefore challenge the NIH to completely shift its paradigms, in the following ways, which are a revision of my original proposal.

Scientists opting not to play the grantsmanship game, and who have a track record of solid publications, evaluated by international panels of established scientists as well as their younger colleagues, will be awarded $300,000 per year for 10-year periods. These researchers will save precious time by not writing grant applications, avoid the anxiety of uncertainty, focus on their research, take risks, and be able to be creative. NIH will save millions of dollars and time on the review process, since investigators will not have to submit and resubmit applications every few years. The reviewers will save precious time to spend on their own research, and I would also suggest that the panels not be forced to travel to the NIH to participate in reviewing, to save the world tons of carbon footprint.

Funding 10,000 such grants will cost $3 billion in the first year. As the number of awardees is increased to 40,000 over a four-year period, the sum will increase to $12 billion per year. Assuming that 2,000 new long-term awardees are added each year, which is more than double the number of new R01s awarded in 2005, 1 the direct costs will increase by $0.6 billion per year.

The scientists on this program will not be eligible for traditional grants from NIH, but can participate in shared instrument grants and seek funding from nonfederal agencies, such as the American Heart Association and the American Cancer Society. The constant NIH funding will give them the leverage and productivity to obtain private funding.

The indirect cost rate will be reduced to 30% for all institutions, eliminating disparities between universities and saving large sums of money that will then go directly to laboratory research. The big research universities have already reaped the benefits of high-percentage indirect costs, and they can certainly adjust to the lower rate. With this rate, the total cost for the 40,000 grants in place four years following the initiation of this program will be $15.6 billion per year, slightly more than half the current NIH budget.

Young scientists with a proven postdoctoral track record, evaluated again by international panels, and starting out in a university or research institute position, will receive $50,000 per year for five years to establish their own research programs. This steady source of funding will facilitate productivity and help them obtain supplemental funding from nonfederal sources. The cost of 10,000 such grants is $650 million per year including indirect costs; this is about 2.3% of the current NIH budget. Even if 10,000 new grantees were added each year, the cost during the fourth year would be only $2.6 billion, less than 10% of the NIH budget.

The total costs in that fourth year would then be $18.2 billion, which is a bit more than 60% of the current NIH budget. That will leave about $3 billion for the NIH itself, and billions more for large program grants and R01s.

The productivity of scientists on the new funding system will be compared after 10 years with those who struggle through the traditional process. Regardless of the outcome of the comparison, the new system will be a more humane and reasonable way of funding biomedical research.

Nejat Düzgünes is chair of the Department of Microbiology at the University of the Pacific's Arthur A. Dugoni School of Dentistry.

References

1. H.G. Mandel, E.S. Vesell, "Declines in funding of NIH R01 research grants," Science, 313:1383, 2006. 2. N. Düzgünes, "Science by consensus: Why the NIH grant review system must be changed," The Scientist, 13:13, April 12, 1999.