Bolstering Our Commitment to Investigator-Initiated Research

As part of an ongoing examination of our grant portfolio to ensure that we invest taxpayer money as effectively and efficiently as possible, we recently analyzed changes over time in the distribution of investigator-initiated research compared to research funded through targeted funding opportunity announcements (FOAs).

Changes over time in NIGMS investments in investigator-initiated research (research grant funds not associated with targeted FOAs) (right axis) and research funded through targeted FOAs (left axis). The analysis does not include fellowship, career development and training awards; programs transferred to NIGMS from the former National Center for Research Resources; and some other programs. For more details about the analysis, which was performed by Jim Deatherage, chief of our Cell Biology Branch, see the NIGMS Funding Trends Web page.

The figure shows that in the early 1990s, 99% of NIGMS’ grant budget supported investigator-initiated research, compared to 80% today. During the budget doubling in Fiscal Years 1998-2003, the Institute’s investment in research funded through targeted FOAs increased dramatically, then continued to increase at a slower rate during Fiscal Years 2004-2009.

As I discussed in a previous post about our large-scale research initiatives and centers, there were many good reasons for using FOAs to target specific areas of research with some of the funds made available by the budget doubling. For example, FOAs allowed the Institute to experiment with catalyzing the development of such new and emerging fields as structural genomics, pharmacogenomics and systems biology.

Since the budget doubling ended, however, maintaining steady support for our targeted research portfolio has made it difficult to maintain steady support for investigator-initiated research project grants (RPGs). Partly as a result, the success rate for RPGs (the number of funded RPGs divided by the number of RPG applications) fell below 20% in Fiscal Year 2013. Although a number of factors have contributed to the declining success rate, a significant one is that targeted and investigator-initiated research grants compete directly with each other. To bolster the success rate, we need to decrease our commitment to targeted FOAs. Furthermore, because none of us knows where the next major advances will arise, the soundest investment strategy is to have a distributed portfolio in which researchers investigate a wide range of scientific questions. History strongly suggests that letting scientists “follow their noses”—which involves a combination of curiosity, expertise, creativity and serendipity—is the most productive route to findings that will eventually translate into medical and technological breakthroughs.

To rebalance our portfolio in order to renew and reinvigorate our commitment to investigator-initiated research, we will be reducing our use of targeted FOAs, generally reserving them for cases in which they are likely to have a major impact on a large segment of the biomedical research enterprise. These cases could include promoting the rapid development of accessible, cost-effective new technologies that enable major advances in understanding biological systems; more efficiently organizing the Nation’s basic biomedical research resources to provide scientists throughout the country access to high-end instrumentation and technical expertise; and, in some instances, using targeted FOAs with defined lifetimes to catalyze the rapid development of emerging research areas.

It is important to note that we are making a distinction between investigator-initiated research and targeted research, not between investigator-initiated research and team science. We strongly support team science, which can certainly be investigator-initiated, and we expect such collaborative efforts to increase as research probes more deeply into the complexities of living systems. Currently, team-based, investigator-initiated research can be funded through multi-PI R01s and can also occur through groups of individually funded PIs working together. In special cases, program project grants (P01s) may be appropriate, particularly for long-term, interdisciplinary collaborations that require dedicated core facilities. As we move forward with our strategic planning process, we will be exploring additional ways to support investigator-initiated team science. I invite you to send us ideas you have for how best to do this.

8 comments on “Bolstering Our Commitment to Investigator-Initiated Research

  1. Jon,

    Thanks for sharing these data. Irrespective of the arguments for or against targeted FOAs, their funding has clearly been putting pressure on NIGMS’ ability to support investigator initiated projects. As your history notes, the FOAs were initiated during a time of plenty. Indeed, there was a short-lived perception that too many (!), and thus some marginal, R01s were being funded. We have been in a very different place for five years. A growing number of investigators who would normally be supported by an NIGMS R01 are running on fumes. If something has to go, better the targeted FOAs, where most awards go to already well-funded investigators. When times get better, taking large bets on emerging fields will be far easier to justify.

    Steve

  2. This report was a welcome sight. In NIGMS in particular, the core of basic science in our nation, top-down targeted RFAs at the expense of investigator initiated research made little sense to me, especially as I sat on Study Section and watched as many promising R01s likely fell ‘below’ funding competitiveness. I applaud Jon Lorch’s effort and commitment to fostering basic science and his thoughtful re-directions of the institute. Bravo.

  3. Very welcome news and nicely articulated. The history of NIGMS support for investigator initiated R01′s is exemplary, a model for other institutes, and needs to be preserved, protected, and encourage. You can’t down size the FOAs fast enough in my view.

  4. Many PIs will (like me) be delighted to hear this news. I would be interested, though, to see a bit more data about the actual amounts of extramural money NIGMS spent on investigator-initiated vs. FOA grants over the time period, and to see what these amounts look like in constant dollars.
    More important, I wonder whether other institutes show any inclination to limit their FOA-equivalent investments — as many of us think they should. (Gratuitous comments on policies of other institutes are surely not your responsibility, but this must be a subject of considerable soul-searching NIH-wide, and we outsiders can’t help but wonder what others think, and what they will do.)

  5. Thank you for sharing this revealing analysis with us. The policy response is very appropriate. Your openness and willingness to engage the extramural community in a dialog about the future direction of NIGMS research funding is commendable.

    Howard Garrison

  6. Thanks very much to you, Jim Deatherage, and the NIGMS staff for this reaffirmation of the importance of investigator-initiated science! Your talk at ASCB Council in December reminded us we have a forceful and effective advocate at NIH.

  7. It is about time someone at the NIH recognized in “public” what everyone else in the grant seeking community has been saying for many many years. Hopefully it will lead to some policy changes at NIH.

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