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Building the next generation of biomedical researchers

Building the next generation of biomedical researchers

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.

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Posted by Concerned senior scientist on May 31, 2017 - 2:52 pm

I fully support identifying methods to ensure the success of young investigators. However, the proposal to re-distribute funding from the most experienced and talented investigators to less well supported investigators will impede scientific progress in the United States. Established investigators with NIH funding have spent tens of thousands of hours over many years, developing skills and expertise that facilitate their ability to define the most innovative and important scientific questions that advance biomedical science. The proposal to limit grant support to individual investigators is analogous to restricting the number of operations performed by the most experienced and skilled surgeons, to provide more operating opportunities for less experienced younger surgeons. Patients deserve the best clinical care available. Similarly, taxpayers should have their tax dollars awarded to the most innovative, important, and impactful science, especially if it was proposed by the most expert, capable, and experienced investigators. NIH has published evidence suggesting that increasing amounts of funding per investigator result in fewer publications per unit of money. However, these analyses may not reflect that more experienced and senior investigators are conducting riskier and more difficult research later in their careers. The comparison between publications per unit funding between early and late career scientists is likely flawed. For example, in clinical research, observational studies are more likely to be performed by young investigators. Observational studies allow opportunities to ‘mine’ the data and produce lots of publications. Later, experienced researchers may be using their observational study findings to conduct randomized trials. Randomized trials are more complex and difficult to carry out. Results are not available until the end of the trial (often years after the start of the study). Because outcomes are all pre-specified, there is not opportunity/ the ability to ‘mine’ the data. If the trial is negative, there are fewer publications. Yet a negative trial is often an extremely important advancement of biomedical science. In summary, more complex, difficult to complete, risky research may yield fewer publications per dollar. This type of research is likely conducted by more senior and experienced investigators. Similarly, the most expert and experienced surgeon may operate on fewer patients and have worse outcomes because he/she is operating on the sickest and most complex patients. This still would not warrant handing off operations to younger less skilled surgeons. Furthermore, the metrics on publications per NIH funding unit do not consider influence on clinical practice guidelines. Negative randomized trials can have important implications for clinical practice but yield fewer publications. Yet this type of research is no less important and is more likely to be conducted by the most senior, experienced, and well funded investigators. The grant support index will curtail research from the most talented, expert, and experienced scientists in the United States. Why not fund the best science, the best ideas, even if the idea happens to be from the most experienced and expert investigator? Alternatives methods exist to assist younger investigators. For example, the CURES ACT might set aside funding specifically for younger and less well supported investigators. Instead, the current proposal to limit grant funding to the most successful scientists will most certainly slow the pace of biomedical scientific advances in the United States. I urge you to consider alternative methods to ensure funding of future scientists. The current plan to re-distribute funds away from the most talented scientists will be detrimental. I am sure that the senior and expert scientists will be happy to work with you on alternative methods to assist less well funded investigators.

Posted by AEE on Jun 01, 2017 - 11:43 am

Dear Concerned Senior Scientist: Your analysis - while elegant, is the scientific equivalent of trickle down economics. It does not work. It conveniently looks at one side of a very complex issue, protects the powerful at the expense of the vulnerable and creates complex perverse institutional environments in the US scientific enterprise and US research universities. Specifically, the powerful established investigators have the wherewithal to cannibalize newer investigators by recruiting and promoting junior faculty that can be "adequately controlled/manipulated" for the benefit of senior investigators. The current system nurtures long-term dependency rather than independence through genuine collaborations between investigators. Through diverse strategies, senior scientists prevent the infusion of new ideas into the field and manipulates the system to directly advance their own agenda - whether the best ideas or not. That is bad for science and the future of the scientific enterprise we all claim to value. From the perspective of a passionate researcher, PhD and post-doctoral experience from excellent US institutions, a productive scholar (as defined by publication), an Assistant professor at research intensive university here in the US but without NIH R funding, let me help provide the perspective of that it has been to co-exist with many (but not all) experienced and "maybe most talented" senior scientists: a) Most have no incentive to collaborate - often, they want talented junior persons to push their empirical agenda; and become effective slaves. b) In most top research universities, senior researchers negotiate little to no teaching (thanks to NIH $), new assistant professors with extremely heavy teaching loads teach PhD students until those students have sufficient methods to propose a research topic. At that point, the senior scientists leverage their institutional power to intimidate, cajole or force the best students into their labs/research programs while stonewalling their junior colleagues. Failing, struggling or otherwise problematic students are reserved for junior faculty. c) The university institutional environment directly perpetuates the unequal opportunity for success. Senior investigators in addition to their research programs get institutional resources they often have trouble using while junior investigators are not even assured of basic necessities . In my former institution, for example, after teaching 4 courses per semester, junior faculty could not access basic software for analyses and were strongly encouraged to publish in "free, no name journals" because there was no professional development resources for them to publish. Yet, the institution expects them to publish per P&T process?? Meanwhile, senior colleagues had institutionally provided resources for publication they had trouble expending because they weren't publishing as much, analyzing that much data, etc. I was disgusted enough to vote with my feet and leave my former institution when it became abundantly clear that I was the target of professional stonewalling by at least one powerful "senior scientists". The same problems abound in all of US academia because of the crucial role of NIH $. However, the difference is that I changed institutions with the benefit of an understanding I didn't have in my initial appointment right out of a post-doctoral program. It was painful to move my young family but the alternative price was too much for me. Not every junior faculty has the luxury of being able to confidently cut their losses in time to thrive else where. Most have young families and are at a life stage that makes it impossible to engage the injustices created by having a few super-funded senior scientists and a whole lot of junior unfunded colleagues. Even as I am convinced that some junior investigators will ultimately survive, the reality is that most "senior talented" investigators will not mentor junior faculty without a structural incentive to do so. Scientists are not more righteous than wall street CEOs I don't care how much we will like to make that claim. Most will build their own empires, use their power to repress new talent, weed out the competition, divide to conquer junior investigators in the bid to maintain their research kingdoms unless they have a real reason to truly collaborate. Without intervention, the crop of junior people that remain for 10-15 years or more in most US Universities will be those that have been selected to have limited initiative and excellent dependency skills NOT those with the vision, energy and commitment to advance their research programs. So to all concerned senior scientists, I encourage you to examine why you are so threatened by a more equitable system that will ensure you truly collaborate with and mentor new talent. The productivity of all will increase and the society will benefit as the many years of NIH funding a few successful persons has not produced delivered the promised trickle down of success to junior investigators no matter how we measure it. Why is that?

Posted by concerned junior scientist on May 31, 2017 - 4:16 pm

Disagree with the first comment posted by Concerned Senior Scientist. It sucks that we have a paucity of funding for biomedical science, which is a major source of R&D for the country and, indeed, the entire human race. However, if you want a stable force of experienced investigators moving forward, you cannot continue to give the bulk of funding to senior investigators. The same senior investigators will not be around forever. If you underfund newer investigators, you pull the rug out from under efforts to sustain progress making it impossible for newer investigators to ever become senior investigators. What about keeping the 21 point system, but not counting collaborations between highly funded senior investigators and junior investigators? Make an incentive for senior folks to do what they should be doing - imparting!

Posted by EMW on Jun 01, 2017 - 2:15 am

I generally like the overall concept, because I think it is important to make sure that junior investigators can get money to get their research programs going, and that senior investigators should not be able to build empires at the expense of junior investigators (I am a senior investigator, so I am voting against my own group here). Three R01s worth of research dollars as PI seems like a reasonable target. However, I do think that some tweaking is necessary. (1) Penalizing investigators for going in on a multi-PI proposal by "charging" each of them effectively the full amount for an award seems like double-dipping on the part of NIH, and will discourage such proposals. Yet in my experience, having a true collaboration between people with different areas of expertise *and* commitment to a project can make things work in a way that a one-sided apporach cannot. I would suggest pro-rating the accounting for such a project; maybe give 4 points to the contact PI and 3 points to a second PI in a 2-PI situation, for example. I also don't think that service types of grants should count against the 21 points. I am a core leader for one of our center grants. If that type of activity is counted at all towards the 21 points, I will drop that kind of activity entirely. This is a service task, the amount of money provided is not much, and the only reason I do it is because the centers need experienced people to lead the cores. The projects in center grants are a different issues - I would be happy to see them count towards the 21 points, because they are true scientific projects. I agree that training grants definitely should not be counted any points at all towards the 21 points.

Posted by Middle Career Academic on Jun 02, 2017 - 5:37 pm

Could not agree more with AEE. Concerned Senior Scientist's post is the same old rhetoric we have heard our entire careers. Senior does not equal most talented, and in fact, senior often means the most stale and outdated. I have worked at multiple Tier 1 institutions, and have observed the same trend. The most well-funded investigators are the ones that spend the LEAST amount of time in the lab, do NOT mentor trainees, and often do NOT come up with the new/innovative ideas. Often, they are operating in the capacity of a CEO running a business, and all they worry about is the bottom line and productivity at any cost. I fully applaud the NIH for being proactive enough to see the writing on the wall: the next generation of independent scientists is a dying breed and is turning to other career paths other than academia. While I think the GSI is a great start, I personally hope for more stringent restrictions that actually consider non-NIH funding like HHMI, DOD, NSF, etc. A lab with 3 RO1's and multiple other funding mechanisms still is fully capable of becoming an empire, which is the environment that needs to end in academia.

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