NIG fundingThe National Institutes of Health (NIH) has announced that it will be devoting $1billion a year specifically to funding proposals from early and mid-career investigators.

The news comes after the agency announced a one month-old plan to cap the amount of support an individual scientist can receive in order to spread funds to more investigators. The controversial news dropped on 2 May, and was largely based on an NIH study finding that productivity gains per grant slow as labs get bigger, writes Science.

NIH planned to tally an individual’s support using a metric called the Grant Support Index and set a cap of 21 points, or the equivalent of three standard RO1 research grants. Money from grants held by those over the cap would be redirected to early and mid-stage investigators, who are a flat or shrinking fraction of the NIH workforce.

The plan caused a stir amongst many scientists, with some concerned that a rigid cap would trim significantly productive labs. NIH then tweaked the grant point system, lowering the fraction of PIs who would be over the cap from 6% to just 3%. The change also reduced the number of grants the agency could fun, from about 1,600 to 900.

However, this still didn’t settle the critics. Responding to the uproar, the agency has now set aside the GSI, NIH officials said yesterday (8 June) at a meeting of the NIH Advisory Committee to the Director (ACD). It is being replaced with what NIH director Francis Collins call an “even more bold” program, called the Next Generation of Researchers Initiative.

NIH will set aside $210 million this year to fund proposals from early and mid-stage investigators who score well in peer review but fall short of the funding cut-off. The beneficiaries will include young researchers seeking their fast grant, those in mid-career who are renewing an initial grant, and mid-career “rising stars” who are seeking a second grant what would stabilise their careers.

The program will gain momentum over five years, reaching $1.1 billion a year targeted to this group. That is enough to fund about 2400 grants, far more than the GSI program would have funded, NIH officials say.

NIH’s individual institutes will have to find the money by reprioritising funds or shifting the mechanisms they use to free up funding. And some of it could come at the cost of funding proposals from large labs and older investigators. Collins said, “It has to come from somewhere.”

Overall, ACD members seemed generally supportive, although some suggested NIH should first study the matter more, asked about NIH’s ultimate targets for redistributing funds, or wondered about potential adverse consequences, such as even fiercer competition for grants.

The new plan will go into effect immediately for investigators who are currently awaiting a funding decision. Collins concluded, “There are investigators who weren’t going to get funded and now will.”