The Grant Support Index (GSI).
At the moment, if you bring up these words around NIH, you are guaranteed an extended conversation, meetings that run long and late, and strong emotions bubbling throughout. I suspect much the same is happening on many campuses.
What is the GSI?
First a refresher: Numerous authors have pointed out the perilous age distribution of the current NIH-funded research workforce (see Mike Lauer’s recent blog). The only group growing in number is grantees aged 60 and over. While we cheer late-life productivity here at the NIA, we too are uncomfortable looking into the rear-view mirror for what is coming behind this group. Across NIH, current budgets are not working as well as we’d like to build a research workforce that sustains research productivity over the long term. At the same time, our research dollars are increasingly concentrated among a relatively small group of well-funded investigators. Prior efforts to shift this distribution—to spread the wealth, if you will—have had only marginal success. Measures of research productivity show a decreasing marginal rate of return for additional grant support given to already well-supported investigators, either measured in dollars or by number of awards (more than three).
And that takes us to the Grant Support Index.
The GSI is an effort to spread the wealth in order to maximize productivity as well as to sustain the present and future research work force. In the GSI, being a principal investigator carries a point-load. When an investigator reaches 21 points, under this policy new awards can be made only when a management plan is in place that explicitly commits the investigator not to renew other award(s) so that the point total remains at 21 or fewer.
The current state of the GSI
The details of the policy remain in flux, even though the plan is to implement it beginning with applications submitted for September 2017 deadlines. That means that implementation planning is moving quickly, even while the details are changing in response to feedback, including from the research community. We are hearing the feedback that “service” awards (training grants, center awards, and a few other specialist programs) should be taken out of the count. We are also hearing feedback that the GSI should apply to research grants only. Points awarded for multiple principal investigator awards (team-directed research) are in flux. An exceptions process is promised—and exceptions are promised to be rare—but the rules around it and the details of implementation remain to be worked out. An important meeting is happening next week that may help to give final form to this initiative. The Advisory Committee to the Director, NIH is considering the GSI proposal at its meeting on June 8. Discussion is planned for the early afternoon and you can listen into the meeting on a conference line.
The overall goal
Again, the point of the GSI policy is to spread the wealth – to diversify our portfolio so as to maximize productivity and assure a robust research workforce across all career stages. NIH is indeed supposed to address this issue—the recent CURES Act now requires NIH to increase the number of new and early-stage investigators we support. I am one of several at NIH who are working to try to make sure that funds recovered through this policy do indeed benefit early-stage and new investigators. We hope that our work will allow this effort to succeed in helping to build the coming generation of researchers. I welcome your comments both on the GSI policy and on the broader need to build a sustainable research workforce. I want to learn your perspective as we head down this path.