Examining Our Large-Scale Research Initiatives and Centers, Including the PSI

There have been a lot of discussions lately at NIGMS about large-scale research initiatives and centers. In these conversations, we have drawn a distinction between initiatives and centers focused mainly on research and those focused mainly on resources. Examples of the latter include our human cell repository, synchrotron light sources, and databases, all of which serve the biomedical community in critical ways and, in most cases, require sustained support. In contrast, many of us feel that the primary purpose of research-focused initiatives and centers is to open untapped scientific areas, providing an initial, targeted investment that enables the research to develop sufficiently so that it can be sustained through other grant mechanisms, such as R01s and P01s.

Our discussions have led to the question of whether, when and how research initiatives and centers should be ended. Should all new research initiatives and centers have hard “sunset clauses” built into them, for example at 10 years, similar to what is done for projects funded by the NIH Common Fund? Or should it be possible for them to continue indefinitely as long as they are sufficiently productive?

An additional consideration is that many of our currently funded initiatives and centers were developed during the period in which the NIH budget was doubling (see figure). With a large infusion of new investment into biomedical research, it made sense to use a significant portion of the funds to open up new scientific territory through large-scale exploration in ways that were not previously possible.

Center Funding as a Proportion of the NIGMS Budget
Fiscal Years 1998-2012
Growth of NIGMS funding for centers (blue bars, left axis) for Fiscal Years 1998-2012. The total NIGMS budget each year during the same period is also shown (red line, right axis). The numbers on top of each blue bar represent the percentage of the total NIGMS budget committed to centers in that year. The data for 2012 do not include the funds for the Institutional Development Award (IDeA) program or the Biomedical Technology Research Centers program, which were transferred to NIGMS from the former National Center for Research Resources in that fiscal year.
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Growth of NIGMS funding for centers (blue bars, left axis) for Fiscal Years 1998-2012. The total NIGMS budget each year during the same period is also shown (red line, right axis). The numbers on top of each blue bar represent the percentage of the total NIGMS budget committed to centers in that year. The data for 2012 do not include the funds for the Institutional Development Award (IDeA) program or the Biomedical Technology Research Centers program, which were transferred to NIGMS from the former National Center for Research Resources in that fiscal year.

In the current budget environment, in order to start a new program or bolster support for existing priorities such as investigator-initiated research, other programs must be adjusted or ended.

These issues will be central as we begin a strategic planning process to ensure that we are using the most effective and efficient mechanisms to invest the taxpayers’ money in fundamental biomedical and behavioral research. We have already begun carefully examining our existing portfolio of research initiatives and centers and considering how to balance continued support for them with other priorities and opportunities.

At last week’s National Advisory General Medical Sciences Council meeting, Council members and staff discussed the future of one existing large-scale program, the Protein Structure Initiative (PSI). The Council heard the results of a midpoint evaluation of the PSI’s third 5-year phase, PSI:Biology. The evaluators found that PSI investigators have determined an impressive number of high-quality protein structures and that some of the program’s accomplishments, including methodological ones, could not have been readily achieved through R01-type investigator-initiated grants.

The evaluators concluded that the PSI will reach a point that no longer justifies set-aside funding and, as a result, strongly recommended that NIGMS begin planning the sunset of the PSI, being careful to identify resources developed by the initiative that should be retained for use by the biomedical community.

After numerous internal discussions and consultation with the Council, we have decided to follow this advice and begin planning to sunset the PSI in its current format after the completion of PSI:Biology in 2015. We are setting up two transition-planning committees, one made up of NIGMS staff and representatives from several other parts of NIH, and a second made up of scientists from the research community. These committees will work together to recommend the best methods for phasing out the program and identifying critical resources that should be retained. The committees will also suggest emerging challenges and opportunities in structural biology that may require new, smaller-scale targeted support.

The committees and NIGMS will need a great deal of input from the biomedical community as this transition-planning process moves forward. I hope that you will freely share your thoughts and suggestions with us, now and in the future.

11 comments on “Examining Our Large-Scale Research Initiatives and Centers, Including the PSI

  1. I found these big center grants or big projects are particularly unhealthy in terms of fairness for competition, especially for junior faculty. Usually these projects are held by crocodiles who are not friendly to new brain/blood to the field. Many times, they actually waste lots of money, because they form a small circle to get these easy money. Easy get, easy go.

    Put more to R01.

  2. I just looked at the graph, as any scientist would. The data are striking. What might have been understood as a venture investment to leverage the doubling has now become status quo. Why is it so hard to back off?

    Nearly overnight, NIGMS went from a tradition of not supporting large, targeted initiatives to a reliable funder of big multi-investigator, high direct and indirect cost, arbitrarily targeted centers. The NIGMS budget never actually doubled, but the investment in centers increased nearly twenty fold!

    What do you think we should do? Honestly, how many investigators’ funding who are involved in centers is now down to that one sub-project vs. the number of former NIGMS grantees now surviving on fumes? How well vetted are those sub-projects vs. R01s? What about the relative success rates?

    We are in very difficult times. It is time to make some tough decisions that reflect NIGMS priorities. If science goes a bit “slower” on some targeted area, so be it. The sad part is NIGMS finds itself competing with other institutes to fund centers pursuing similar goals. If NCI or NIGMS gets credited with advancing some field, great, we still all benefit.

    So, even as a beneficiary of NIGMS center largesse, I am willing to say that times are very different. My position is that NIGMS should eliminate nearly all multi-investigator projects on a scale larger than R01s, until funding returns to levels compatible with sustainability.

    Good luck to all!

    Steve

  3. I agree with the two previous comments and share the concerns that NIGMS transitioned, with the best of intentions, into a supporter of large initiatives at a time of excess funds. But that time has passed and it is important to rapidly reverse this trend. It would help to list more of the details to get a more informed response. Data on the productivity of the large projects compared to investigator initiated applications would also help in analyses. It has always been my conclusion, admittedly from small anecdotal data, that the larger initiatives are less productive, less innovative, and often politically driven.

  4. As a junior faculty, I concur with the first comment. I have seen little “trickle down” from larger programs.

    It is sad that the NIGMS budget is ~1/3 that of our last commissioned aircraft carrier. The chart shows the 2012 budget at just over 2 billion, but the Office of Budget lists NIGMS at 2.4 billion, why the large discrepancy?

    • Sean,

      The reason for the discrepancy in the budget for FY2012 is that we did not include in the graph funds transferred from NCRR to NIGMS to support the IDeA and BTRC programs (see the figure legend).

      Jon

  5. You and all of NIH fund upside down. You fund programs first, and then R01s get whatever dog bones are left. You should fund rightside up: fund R01s to the 22 or 23rd percentile FIRST. After that, it does not matter what you fund. But in my experience these center grants are not worthwhile

  6. The major problem/paradox of PSI from the beginning was a disconnect with the structural biology community. One can find it at multiple levels from the typical false perception of a “rivalry” between giant centers and single labs to NIH policies to single out structural studies from new program calls due to separate funding already allocated to PSI. Promoting PSI as isolated (from the rest of structural field) centers undermines the whole idea of a technological advance.
    Technological breakthrough should empower, not outpower, the research community. Take for example a DNA sequencing project evolved from sequencing of “the human genome” to the technology affordable by many universities and hospitals to sequence individual genomes and even at different disease stages. Synchrotron radiation, which revolutionized structural biology, is also opened to every research group, even though there are only few synchrotrons.

    If the technology developed by PSI will not benefit the entire field of structural biology and will not be accessible to the diverse research groups, it will undermine the PSI purpose and the NIH spending. Instead of continuing limited collaboration with limited number of big groups, PSI should start more active integration into a wider structural biology community. Single labs from universities and medical centers represent a perfect place to connect PSI with the rest of the biomedical world, to increase the impact of the solved structures beyond the quest for “new folds” and to promote educational venue. Even today among thousands of new structures of proteins with unknown function there are high impact structures silently hiding in PDB because PSI researches have no time and incentives to dig into the specific field (even with all that crazy funding), while their collaborators do not have sufficient expertise to analyze submitted to PDB structures and to continue follow up structural studies. The efforts to bridge a “single lab”/PSI gap may be the only way to resolve most of the problems outlined by the review committee and should be the main focus of a “sunset” phase.

  7. If NIH administrators enjoy benefits to their careers from large-scale initiatives, there is a basic COI in the decision making process.

  8. The priority of NIGMS should always be to support innovation and originality of individual investigators through the RO1 grants, which have historically worked until the past ten years. All one needs to do is check out how major discoveries in biomedical science were made.

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