Update on Proposed Pilot to Support NIGMS Investigators’ Overall Research Programs


NIGMS Advisory Council meetingAt last week’s Advisory Council meeting, I presented a report on the comments we received in response to our request for information (RFI) on a potential new program for research funding.

As described in the blog post announcing the RFI, the Maximizing Investigators’ Research Award (MIRA) program would provide a single award in support of all of the projects in an investigator’s lab that are relevant to the NIGMS mission. A MIRA would be longer and larger than the current average NIGMS R01 award.

We received more than 290 responses through the official RFI comment site. We heard from individual investigators as well as several scientific organizations. Most of the responses were positive, and both established and early stage investigators indicated that they were very likely to apply.

The respondents identified the most valuable aspects of the proposed program as:

  • Increased flexibility to follow new research directions as opportunities and ideas arise,
  • Savings of time and effort currently spent on writing and reviewing applications, and
  • Enhanced stability of research support.

However, some responses expressed concerns, which we are taking into consideration. Despite the intention of the program to optimize the distribution of NIGMS resources, some respondents thought that it could lead to funds becoming concentrated in fewer labs at the most elite institutions. This was in part a reflection of the phased implementation plan, which would focus initially on investigators with more than one NIGMS grant. Respondents urged NIGMS to broaden the eligibility criteria as quickly as possible following the initial pilot phase. Other concerns that were raised related to peer review and program evaluation.

For more about the RFI results, including a breakdown of responses by question, watch my presentation, which begins at 2:18 on the archived videocast.

The Advisory Council discussed the MIRA proposal and then approved plans to proceed with developing the program. We plan to issue a funding opportunity announcement in early 2015, with the first awards being made in Fiscal Year 2016. We intend to evaluate the MIRA program and if it is successful, will broaden it.

18 Replies to “Update on Proposed Pilot to Support NIGMS Investigators’ Overall Research Programs”

  1. I thought overall that the presentation and thought behind the MIRA proposal were excellent. However, I have genuine concerns about the idea to roll it out first to either well-funded labs or early stage investigators. From what I can see, where it is most needed is in mid-career labs that do not have multiple R01’s, which in many cases are imploding in the present environment. These are the PI’s who are writing 10 grants to get 1 funded right now. The well-funded empires are doing just fine, and I have not found the PI’s of such labs to be the egalitarian types would would give up a dime so that someone else could keep a lab running.

    For ESI’s, this could be an interesting experiment in how to launch successful careers. Many of us who endured the system of the last decade are discouraged and demoralized. Personally, I will never live up to my scientific potential after so many years of wasting time on failed proposals and preliminary results for projects that were never funded.

    1. Wow…this describes my thoughts and situation exactly! I’ve run a lab for 13 years, I’m a full professor, I’ve had multiple NIH grants simultaneously in the past, I’ve published in top journals, and, unless I get lucky on the current reviews of two grants, all my experienced personnel will soon depart, and I will be forced to shut down my lab in my mid-40s…My wife has seen the depression and demoralization first hand, and states that no way does she want our son to follow my path. If two PhD parents cannot with any confidence encourage their own child to teach or do research, what kind of future does this country have…?

      On a somewhat different note, it has been documented in numerous places that the administrative structure of our universities has exploded…I cannot help but wonder if this is because we’ve trained too many PhDs for academic careers. There has been this overwhelming push at NIH to support young investigators (definitely an honorable ideal), and review panels know they need a grant to get tenure…but lost in the shuffle is tenured faculty who simply cannot continue their work due to lack of funds…and what happens to them – hmmm, perhaps we will see a new explosion of administrative titles…

      1. I agree entirely with the previous two comments–my situation in a nutshell as well. I also have repeatedly published in top journals, have had multiple simultaneous R01s, am in my late 40s and a full professor, and am currently watching my lab implode due to lack of funding.

        It is incredibly depressing that there is not a safety mechanism, to make it possible to get a least modest funding to keep going. In this regard, the Canadian system seems much better–easy to get basic funding to keep your lab going with 1 or 2 people in it, and more competitive grants if you want to grow.

        The situation right now is such that all my students/post-docs look around, and are inclined to leave science. We’re destroying diversity, and the nation’s future research capability.

  2. I just watched the report presented at the Advisory Council Meeting…the most important message I got is that funds are needed to support the MIRA program, and the only way that these funds will be obtained is if investigators supported by multiple RO1s are willing to give up some of their support in return for increased flexibility and stability. I’m not convinced that much funds are going to be recovered in this way. I think that the people most likely to apply for a MIRA award are those renewing but for which one of their current funded RO1s are unlikely to do well enough to get refunded. If this is the case, then MIRA awards would grant them more funds than they would get otherwise. In short, despite complaits about the difficulty of abtaining funds, I find it hard to believe that most people would willing accept less funds than they can obtain in current competitions.

    NIGMS can solve this simply be enforcing higher standards/criteria on ALL individuals that have multiple RO1s, i.e., make it significantly harder to obtain a second R01. This puts everyone in the same boat. Either apply for a second R01 that is much harder to get than the first, or expand your program with a MIRA grant.

    There was overwhelming support for the MIRA program. Implement it across the board and allow everyone to submit. Investigators overwhelming agree that MIRA is the way to fund science – most negative comments are uncertainty in implementation or favoritism (of currently big labs).

  3. This may be the most naive comment in the thread but why do we allow labs to have multiple R01s? This policy is without exaggeration destroying science. 1 RO1 per lab would obviate this program and go a long way toward solve the funding crisis.

  4. I actually like the idea of focusing on the labs with substantial current funding. These labs generate a lot of grant submissions now (how else do they get more than 2 grants at a time?) and do take up quite a bit of resources. A single MIRA grant takes them out of the RO1 game and allows other people to apply. The level of the MIRA grant will reflect what the NIH believes is a fair level of funding for giving up the current grants/size of the lab etc. In any case, MIRA needs to start somewhere and opening up the floodgates to everyone right away will lead to extremely low success rates and general dissatisfaction.

  5. The MIRA program will fill a much needed gap in creating steady funding that will greatly benefit many research labs. It will cut down on grant submissions and their time for review, as well as lesson the burden on PIs to spend so much time writing for projects that are extremely hard to get funded in the 10 percentile era.

    One important question that may have not been addressed (unless I missed it somewhere) is: how do you grow your lab once you receive a particular level of funding? This may be especially the case if you only received one R01’s worth of sustained support but have new ideas and want to grow your lab larger. Here is my thought, if you were given, for example, 1 R01’s worth of funds, you should be able to apply for a R21 that is a new project. If that grant is competitive and awarded, then the success of the project after two years can lead to sustained increased funding. This seems like a good idea, and this approach would allow new and creative ideas to be funded, and so a lab can growth to their full potential.

    One side note: it would be great if NIGMS would offer R21’s now. This would provide an option for labs to move into new directions, and support innovative and risky ideas that a traditional R01s will not support.

  6. I agree with the comments on broadening eligibility. Recognizing the need to have established (multi-R01) labs buy into the program, it seems this type of research support would optimally benefit those who are in the early/middle phase of research. Say those with 1 funded R01, they’ve obtained results and demonstrated that an approach works. That is when additional flexibility and support is needed to expand the research. It is also when new ideas and creative approaches are likely to be developed as we strive to establish new collaborations and cross disciplines. But mechanisms of support for fostering these efforts are hard to come by (especially as that is when start-up funding for new labs has run out).

    While there are now several programs to support ESI and new investigators (e.g. Common Fund programs geared to those without R01s as well as the K99/R00, K awards, etc), once a lab is established, funded and things are working, the only option from NIGMS is the standard type of grant (R01). I do not have not statistics on this, but it seems the funding priorities are taking on an hour glass shape without much consideration for what happens in the critical middle phase, which again is where it seems some of the most dynamic programs are being pursued.

    Open up the doors to keep the creativity in the pipeline, and support the critical middle stages of our scientific programs.

  7. Agree 100% on comments about mid-career scientists, especially those trying to get their first renewal – many are being crushed by the budget crisis on the one hand and by the less wealthy universities. 80-90% of their effort is being spent in writing as many grants as possible and administrative tasks, while the funding situation requires them to also be at the bench to get the work done!

  8. Should every violinist in the orchestra get a chance at the first seat at each concert throughout the season? Should first, second, and third string quarterbacks get equal time in each game? Should the museums contain one painting by each person who feels themselves worthy, instead of shows of the masters? Should all scientists get roughly the same funding, despite striking differences in their discoveries? What do these decisions do for the sound of an orchestra, the ability of a team to get into the playoffs, educating the world about art, and the need for NIGMS to maximize science output for the taxpayers? Our endeavor is but one of many where competition exists. We should be thankful that peer review, for all its issues, makes most of the decisions about priority.

  9. I am in my late thirties and from all indications I have been very successful. I am reasonably funded and I publish in good journals. All of my colleagues say that I will be a star but what they don’t know is that I have been trying to leave the profession for over 3 years. I was extremely gutted when my colleagues gave me tenure. I was hoping that they will do my dirty work for me so that I could leave academia without any guilt.
    I am disillusioned about research in the US and currently highly stressed due to fear of losing funding. My current grants run out in about two years and I am scared that if they are not renewed my life will fall apart. I have been doing high tempo research since graduate school and this is all that I know. Due to this “unreasonable fear” I write many grants every year to maximize my chances. Of course many get triaged and that fuels my extreme unhappiness and anxiety, which then leads to more grant submissions and a never-ending cycle. In October and November 2014, this fear drove me to simultaneously write 4 grants, whiles teaching and doing other duties and when I finally submitted those grants I knew that this craziness can not continue. I will lose my spouse and children if I continue this lifestyle. And it has not been lost on me that a few academics that I know have had failed marriages and I squarely put the blame on our unreasonable working environment. My children hardly see me because I am always working and writing grants. I need an escape route from this crazy lifestyle. How could someone as well educated as me work this hard just to survive in their job?
    I was the top of my class from kindergarten till PhD and got “A” grades in all my classes. I was prodigious in mathematics, physics and chemistry and also did well in biology. I could have chosen any career and any university but decided to do a PhD at one of the best universities in the world, believing that I will save more lives via research. My father was angry that I rejected medical school and for many years we had a strained relationship. I thought I was special and my dad did not understand my talent but now I know that the old man was absolutely right. I am now upset that my former class colleagues, who had inferior grades than me, but who were smarter than me to go to medical school are now surgeons and they do not worry about their careers plummeting before their 40th birthday. I am jealous of my other classmates who went into pharmacy, dentistry etc and do not have any fears about their job. I would have been a gret surgeon (I have always done great in whatever I choose). Basically I was a fool in believing that my talents should be used for scientific research and for the betterment of mankind. I should have been selfish and chosen a career that serves me first. So why should I encourage anyone to choose scientific research? That will be very dishonest of me, considering how I now feel.
    I have thought endlessly about leaving my academic position to go to medical school but I now have two kids and can’t afford to do so. Also I don’t want to disappoint my dad again as he has finally warmed up to me becoming a professor. I feel trapped in this career. I suffer from back pains and I think it is due to the stress and depression of the job. I think about leaving academia for industry or a government job almost everyday, but worry that leaving a tenured position to industrial position is crazy. But what use if tenure without funding stability?

    But a system that funds only 10% of basic scientist and expect the 90% to survive is just a crazy system. How can the other 90% survive? Every time that I serve on study panels, I get depressed. We rip each other apart during the review process over trivial things because they is very little to go round. Universities also seem to value us based on how much research dollars we bring in. When new graduate students arrive, I hear some of the non-academic staff gossip about who has funding and who hasn’t. Very embarrassing for colleagues who have fallen on hard times. I literally have nightmares of not bringing in money and the university taking away my lab space. Don’t say this is an unreasonable fear- as if this has not happened before! I once visited an institution for a talk and my host was so annoyed that after 20 years of continuous funding and probably bringing in over $10 million, they were throwing him to the lions because he had lost funding! What happened to loyalty and the several millions of indirect cost over the years? This situation is terrible and I wish someone had told me all of this before I threw my life away to become an academic. Fix the funding system. Give scientists some stability so that they can enjoy science again. All of these professors are very smart people who could have made more money in other professions but chose science because of a higher calling and now the majority are depressed, I think. The system is broken.
    And I haven’t even started talking about the other stress of being an academic when you do not belong to the majority class and trying to get funding. If you factor in that blacks are less likely to get funding than any other group, all things being equal-I am quoting a report in the journal science, then you can multiply the funding stress felt by the majority of academics by 10 to get the magnitude of the stress that black academics are feeling. We are just being crushed!

    1. In reply to ‘Anonymous on January 5, 2015 at 10:02 PM’

      Great post – very depressing but trust me when I say that you voice the experiences and concerns of a significant number of academic independent investigators, both early as well as established. Your thoughts are a recurring theme on science blogs all across the internet. I obtained my Ph.D. first but subsequently decided to go to medical school so that I could ultimately pursue translational research. I was fortunate to have a lot of early success and outstanding mentoring during my graduate school years but this was during the 90s when grant funding was plentiful. After residency and subspecialty fellowship training, I started a research postdoc in a HHMI and NIH-funded lab. At my peak, I loved every aspect of what I was doing in the lab. Tolerating failure and building on success was easy. It wasn’t a job. It was a passion and I thought that this was what I was going to do for the rest of my life. In retrospect, I believe my training in well-funded labs probably caused me to become disillusioned about what it really means to be an independent investigator. I was able to secure NIH K08 funding followed by a faculty position with an independent lab at an Ivy League institution. At that point, I was 40 years old and married with 3 kids. Now, at the age of 45, my funding is running out and my grants are not getting funded. I have also found that limited funding has made it more difficult to establish and maintain productive collaborative research efforts. There is essentially no mentoring for junior faculty at my institution and I am actually competing with (and losing to) senior investigators in my own department for institutional pilot research funding. It’s also depressing that at my age, I am still considered ‘junior.’ My oldest child will be going to college in a few years but since I started my first job only 5 years ago, my wife and I have not been able to save ver much. Even though I am a physician, I am punished for doing science with a salary that is in the 5th percentile for physicians with my level of training. I’ve lost my passion and have become more and more disenchanted with basic science research. We spend months to years working out a basic question on some minuscule aspect of biology only to get it trampled on through peer review. We sacrafice our family for what many refer to as a “noble endeavor.” I only have about one year of funding left. I was so convinced that I was going to become a career scientist that when I came to the realization that it may not happen, I became clinically depressed. I am now coming to terms with my failure as a scientist and unlike many others in the field, I at least have an M.D. to cushion the fall. At this point, I am not convinced that any improvement in funding success rates is going to alleviate the fears and stress that go along with the job of an independent academic investigator. From top to bottom, the system is broken and the job description of a scientist is just not the same as it was when Watson and Crick were making history.

  10. Any possibility of capping the allowable overhead on such grants? Speaking of equal distribution of resources across different institutions/ PIs…

  11. 1. Physician-scientists cannot compete in the new environment where chairs want more grant funding and more clinical revenue. The loss of physician-scientists will be a great blow to American biomedical research, as they bring unique perspectives and creativity. Since physician-scientists must keep at the forefront of both clinical medicine and research, it’s not fair for them to compete head-to-head with PhDs who are singularly focused on a narrow topic. Special study sections should be used to evaluate their science.
    2. Medical schools and universities are partly to blame for having become “indirect-addicts”. Indirect costs have been highly inflated. Furthermore, many have large endowments. They are used to mortgage the future. Laboratories need not have the very best woodwork or open Modern Architecture atria. Reduce indirects to a flat 20%. This will result in more $ available for research.
    3. Big labs are indeed inefficient. No PI can manage more than 3 R01’s or R01 equivalents. Examine those with multiple grants and see the significant overlap between projects. E.g.
    “The Role of X in Liver Cancer.” and “The Role of X in Breast Cancer Metastases” – funded by two different study sections. This is gaming the system and results in waste of research $.
    4. NIH should lead to reduce the ancillary costs of research — the paperwork and the expanding bureaucracies and deanlets in research.
    5. NIH-supported graduate student training slots should be reduced.

  12. Totally agree with that the “indirect cost” should be cut as much as possible. In many places, you see the huge pay/bonus rise in university administrators while the average faculty are scrambling to keep their labs open or even to keep themselves paid. NIH should cap the indirect cost then the universities will find their ways out.

  13. I recently served on a fellowship committee for the first and last time. The evaluation criteria were grossly skewed to favor well funded labs at top places. The few postdoc applicants for labs headed by assistant professors should not have wasted their time. Multiple applications for positions in the same lab had virtually the same “personal training plan” but we were not permitted to even mention that because according to the program officer we cannot “compare applications”. Really? Then what is our point?
    I noted that ALL of the study section members came from universities that like mine – middle to lower ranking institutions. Not a single person from a “top” place. So I spent many, many hours of my time rearanging the deck chairs on the Queen Mary. Never again.

  14. I guess I would be considered a senior/established investigator at this point in my career, and I currently have 2 RO1s, but I have run my lab for most of my career on a single RO1 (or less!). I agree with much of what was said here, and I would like to see a system which spreads the money around a little more…even if that means that I get a bit less. I also agree with the idea of cutting indirect costs. One of the key problems is that individual academics are rewarded for how much money they bring in, and perhaps this could change if the overhead/indirect costs were lower. The one point I would like to raise is that there have been several papers in the past couple years pointing out the irreproducibility of major findings in biomedical research. I believe that this stems from individuals feeling the pressure to have sexy/outstanding data in order to get funded and/or start companies, and they compromise on rigor. Of course, this is disappointing, but I think biomedical researchers need to acknowledge this problem, and create a system that encourages rigor/reproducibility instead of rewarding the number of publications and the amount of money an investigator hauls in. I don’t have the answers, but I believe that dishonesty and compromised integrity are part of the problem.

  15. First of all, I applaud the idea and spirit of the MIRA. I obtained my first R01 within a couple of years of starting my lab, and have been able to maintain 2 R01’s since then (plus substantial other funds), and so I am fortunate. But the system needs adjustment, and I think the idea of MIRA is moving in the right direction. As an eligible PI, I was planning on applying (as were several of my colleagues….but….

    …as I have learned more, I am worried that the great idea is going to be lost within a few details of the implementation. These details that are making me reconsider applying. Two in particular:

    1. There is no guarantee that if I replace my two R01s with a MIRA the total funding stays at least where it is now. I worked very hard to get my funding where it is (and my lab is making the most of it), my people depend on their paychecks, and both R01s were already cut by 20-25% from 4 to 5 years when they were awarded. I talked to several of my colleagues and the feeling was universal: without a guarantee that a MIRA will provide at least the same funding as the two R01s do now, it is a essentially a non-starter.

    2. A PI who is awarded a MIRA is not eligible to apply for any other funding from NIGMS. This is a big problem, because what if I get a little “seed money” from my university to do something very different from my MIRA, and it really takes off? If I want to develop this new project, where do I find the funds? I need a new person, new equipment, etc. to exploit this new discovery. Maybe this new project it doesn’t really fit in the scope of the MIRA…so then what? Maybe I try to “shoehorn” it into the scope of my MIRA. If I do, I must reallocate and reprioritize my MIRA funding, but this would have to be done at the expense of another project that is working – it becomes a zero-sum game within my own lab. Again, I asked several colleagues that are eligible for the MIRA about this; they all said that relinquishing the right to apply for more funding when it is needed to pursue new projects is simply not acceptable. Again, a non-starter.

    So, I think the MIRA concept is simply fantastic, but these two policies are very likely to make many eligible PIs run away, and these are exactly who NIGMS leadership needs for buy in to make this fly.

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