More on My Shared Responsibility Post

Thanks for all of the comments and discussion on my last post. There were many good points and ideas brought up, and these will be very useful as we consider additional policy changes at NIGMS and NIH. I hope these conversations will continue outside of NIH as well.

Several people asked about the current distribution of funding among NIGMS principal investigators (PIs). Here are a few relevant statistics:

  • In terms of the NIH research funding of NIGMS grantees, in Fiscal Year 2013, 5 percent of the PIs had 25 percent of this group’s total NIH direct costs and 20 percent of the PIs had half of it. A similar pattern was recapitulated NIH-wide.
  • NIGMS PIs who had over $500,000 in total NIH direct costs held approximately $400 million in NIGMS funding.
  • The figure below shows the distribution of total NIH direct costs for NIGMS-supported investigators as well as the average number of NIH research grants held by PIs in each range.
Graph representing distribution of NIGMS investigartors' total NIH direct costs for research in FY2013
Figure 1. The distribution of NIGMS investigators’ total NIH direct costs for research in Fiscal Year 2013 (blue bars, left axis). The number below each bar represents the top of the direct cost range for that bin. The average number of NIH research grants held by PIs in each group is also shown (red line with squares, right axis). The direct costs bin ranges were chosen so that the first four bins each included 20 percent of NIGMS investigators.

With regard to changes NIH might make to help re-optimize the biomedical research ecosystem, NIH Director Francis Collins recently formed two NIH-wide working groups to develop possible new policies and programs related to some of the issues that I highlighted in my blog post and that were discussed in the subsequent comments. The first group, chaired by NIH Deputy Director for Extramural Research Sally Rockey, will explore ways to decrease the age at which investigators reach independence in research. The second, chaired by me, will look at developing more efficient and sustainable funding policies. Once these committees have made their recommendations, Sally plans to set up a group to consider the question of NIH support for faculty salaries.

As I mentioned in my post, we at NIGMS have been working for some time on these issues. We’ll be discussing additional changes and ideas with the community in the coming weeks and months on this blog and in other forums, including our upcoming Advisory Council meeting.

4 comments on “More on My Shared Responsibility Post

  1. I would be interested to see how the right side of that graph tails off. For example, 5% of PIs have total direct costs of $1M and around 3 grants; that’s $330k a piece. Nothing to snub one’s nose at, but not staggering. If you were to continue binning at $250K increments beyond the $1M mark, what would the graph look like? At the highest levels, is it a question of (presumably senior) PIs being able to amass >5 grants, all of modest sizes, or are PIs earning few grants worth several million?

  2. Jon, thanks for more facts to mull over.
    Following on the previous comment, some of the statistics given in your text are enlightening. The 5% receiving more then $1M also receive 25% of the total. The top 20% receive 50% of the total, so the bottom 80% also receive 50% of the total. This means that the average top 5% receive 8 times as much as the bottom 80%. The graphic suggests that the average for the bottom 80% is about 250K, so the top 5% average looks to be about 2M.
    Probably those investigators are doing really important clinical work that garners massive support from other institutes, and they may have only one fundamental research grant from GM. But given the difficulty of junior academic investigators getting a grant from any institute other than GM, I would argue that those well funded investigators should fold their fundamental research into their non-GM grants, thereby freeing up GM grants for others.

  3. The concept of “Shared Responsibility” described in this blog has focused on the distribution of NIH/NIGMS resources “more equally” across the biomedical community to optimally leverage the taxpayers’ investment so that the creative output can be optimized. As a community our responsibility is to ensure that the taxpayers receive the greatest achievable return on their investment.
    However, an important point that has been missing in this discussion is that in this age of genomic information the nature of science has changed dramatically as the complexities of biology have become more apparent. No longer is it always appropriate to dissect a complex system into its simplest components to fit the conventional R01 paradigm—multiple experimental approaches must be integrated to understand the underlying bases for biomedical problems. Investigations of this type require a broad range of expertise—computation, engineering, genetics, cell biology, enzymology, drug discovery, structure determination—that are beyond the capabilities of any single investigator/laboratory. These problems can only be solved by multidisciplinary groups of investigators working together as an integrated team.
    While I am a enthusiastic proponent of focused R01-supported endeavors, it is disingenuous to argue that large-scale biological challenges can be tackled only with R01 grants—their scope is too large. Nor are these challenges, that are central to pushing basic and translational research to the next level, appropriate for a collection of R01 grants with different PIs—an integrated management strategy needs to be in place to make difficult decisions about the course of the science and how to change emphasis when necessary. Only by recognizing the value of science at all scales can the taxpayers’ investment be best served.
    I ask that those who advocate “Shared Responsibility” realize that Program Projects and Center grants do, in fact, have an important place in contemporary biomedical science. The reflexive response that large-science is wasteful science does not reflect reality, and does not tell the entire story. I recognize that some large programs have been poorly managed so did not significantly advance our scientific understanding; but, many R01-funded programs also have not provided a significant return on the investment. Notwithstanding, there are countless examples of major scientific advances that were possible only as the result of the establishment and support of well-organized, large multi-disciplinary teams.
    R01-Supported programs are, and should remain, the backbone of the NIGMS portfolio. However, NIGMS, more than any other NIH Institute, has had a tradition of supporting multidisciplinary science via Program Projects and Centers, and American biomedical science has benefitted considerably from this vision and leadership. But, if “Shared Responsibility” takes the course that I am reading on this blog, the preeminence of NIGMS supported science will be irreparably damaged. True progress and the service deserved by the taxpayers can only be achieved by identifying the most important biomedical problems and fairly allocating the resources required to address these challenges, whether they be large or small.

  4. I would like to add my support to the previous comment, which discusses some aspects of current and proposed government funding policies in a fair and balanced fashion by focusing on maximizing scientific productivity.

    My research program has benefited from both R01-based and larger types of NIH-based support mechanisms. As the previous post stresses, science cannot be viewed as a one-size-fits-all enterprise. Resources need to be accorded in relationship to the specific requirements of each program. I believe that this is true of both “large” and “small” programs. Not all R01s are equally resource-intensive, and those R01s addressing problems of great biomedical significance need to be afforded sufficient resources to fulfill their potential. Similarly, some of the most important challenges in biomedical research require multi-disciplinary multi-investigator teams, which can only be supported through P01 and larger center-oriented mechanisms. I want to reiterate my belief in the importance of (properly funded) R01-based programs for the health, vigor and continued evolution of science in the US; however, for many of the most critical problems it is both appropriate and necessary to support larger initiatives. Only by enabling the most meritorious programs (of all types) can the greatest value of the entire scientific enterprise be achieved. While I am very sensitive to the need to ensure the viability and sustainability of the US academic biomedical research community, it would be short-sighted not to support the widest range of cutting-edge programs through the full range of appropriate funding mechanisms.

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