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National Institutes of Health introduces cap on number of grants a lab head can hold

Tackling the “mega-lab” problem.

By DAVID KENT | MAY 24 2017

Earlier this month, U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) director Francis Collins announced that the NIH would be implementing a new strategy to try and limit the number of grants that a single researcher could hold. The full announcement and some other peripheral details can be found on the NIH website. Finally, we’re seeing some action to tackle some aspects of the major problems facing the biomedical science workforce. I think this is a great idea and have tried to give the basics (and the benefits) of the system below – exciting times ahead!

How it will work

The Grant Support Index (GSI) will count up the support given to any one researcher by assigning a relative point amount for each kind of NIH support (e.g., an operating grant to a single lab is worth many points and a collaborative team grant is worth fewer points.) If a researcher has a score that is above a particular threshold, then they would need to include, with a new application, a plan for how they would be under that threshold by the time any new award would start. According to the website, this will only actually affect about six percent of researchers and would liberate funding for a further 1600 new awards (yes, the NIH funding pool is that large!). So, effectively, if you already get a certain number of grants, you cannot apply for any further support.

Big labs are not efficient

The Collins letter directed me to a 1985 article by Bruce Alberts that advocates for pretty much the exact opposite of what has happened in the funding of U.S. biomedical science over the last 30 years. I encourage all of our readers to scroll through this and think about how our scientific value system is currently set up. Dr. Alberts makes a case for per capita productivity because (as is still the case now) scientific resources are limited and suggests that the research group leader needs to give a sizeable chunk of their attention to each and every scientific problem in their lab. He ends the article with: “Any value system based on acquiring the largest research team, or on maximizing either total grant support or publications, is counterproductive to good science and should be viewed with alarm.” If I think about what gets valued at most institutions these days, it is pretty much exactly what Dr. Alberts suggests trying to avoid.

It’s not a crazy cap

For anyone reading and saying: “But surely we should always give the best and most successful scientists more money,” I have two comments. First, the cap being imposed is one that would still allow a vast amount of resource to be tucked into one person’s laboratory – three RO1 grants is nothing to sniff at. Secondly, big laboratories often hide failure – for every success story, there are often dozens of failures. And by failures, I don’t only mean projects – the people undertaking these “less exciting” projects often get lost in the wake of a successful lab’s barrage of high impact papers. What’s more productive in your mind: A lab that has three high impact papers from 35 people or one high impact paper from five people? A system-wide view would argue the latter, but individuals often argue the former. Funding labs with some restrictions will force the group leader to select the most promising ideas and (hopefully) will result in fewer “lost scientists” along the way.

There are still other sources of funding

What the NIH is proposing is not actually so Draconian when you consider how much scientific research is now funded by non-NIH sources. Successful labs will still be able to attract funding from these sources to supplement their research efforts – charities, state governments, private foundations, etc – all can help to build up the full portfolio of funding and arguably would make labs more resilient to sweeping changes in any single organization.

It gives younger scientists a chance

Freeing up money for more grants will help more individuals run labs right across the career structure, but I would argue that those who benefit most will be the early career researchers. Currently, one of the ways that a lab amasses a large collection of NIH monies is to have promising young researchers drive the grant that a lab head “signs off on” – a sort of ghost-writing that ultimately allows the work to be carried out in a lab with a great reputation. These young researchers are not recognized formally for their ideas and efforts and the GSI metric might actually make some lab heads consider letting their trainees fly on their own merits a little sooner (or be a co-investigator to collect fewer GSI points). Either outcome benefits the next generation of scientists and can only be a good thing.

More science, less admin

Another gem from the Alberts article:

As the size of a research group increases, more and more of its leader’s time has to be spent on such non-intellectual endeavors as helping with job applications, finding and accounting for funds, and other organizational matters. Less and less time is left for thinking about science, let alone keeping up with a voluminous research literature.

In today’s world (remember, this is 30 years later!) – there are many more non-science tasks involved in being a scientist: more conferences, open access requirements, professional development courses, science outreach, public engagement, the list goes on. Moreover, there is exponentially more literature and scientific research to wade through in order to have a deep understanding of any given field (see graph below for my own field of stem cells!) 

If the NIH could find a way to also consider a lab’s “other revenue,” it would be even better. Most importantly from my perspective is trying to rebalance the awful pyramid scheme we’ve set up where early career researchers are first exploited for their ideas and then swiftly kicked out of academic science altogether. The mega-lab phenomenon is a major contributor to this lost cohort of researchers and needs to be curtailed. The NIH has my resounding support for this recent policy move.

David Kent
David Kent is a group leader at the University of Cambridge in the Cambridge Stem Cell Institute. His laboratory's research focuses on fate choice in single blood stem cells and how changes in their regulation lead to cancers. David is currently the Stem Cell Institute’s Public Engagement Champion and has a long history of public engagement and outreach including the creation of The Black Hole in 2009.
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