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Most medical research is funded by either government or philanthropic organizations. The vast majority of these make their funding decisions based on a rigorous peer review of the scientific merit of a specific project. In the United States the National Institutes of Health (NIH), by far the largest source of funds for biomedical research, dispenses over 30 million dollars each year. The majority of grant proposals to the NIH are reviewed on a multipoint scale, which examines both the project and the investigator. However, for most of these it is the merits of the proposed project that carries the greatest weight. NIH peer review of most grants is characterized by a rigorous analysis of the strengths and weaknesses of an application and requires the applicant to provide great detail about the rationale for the study, its potential impact, the anticipated outcomes and the pitfalls of the proposed research.


However, not all granting agencies base their decisions to fund on a project-based paradigm. In the United States the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) has, for most of its existence, based its funding decisions on the productivity and creativity of the investigators it supports. The rationale for this approach is that such a program frees scientists to be more creative and risk-taking, while decreasing their need to write multiple grant applications. In 2004 the NIH Director’s Office initiated the Pioneer Award Program as an experiment to see if a similar approach would produce more innovative and higher impact science. A 2012 report to the NIH concluded that this was the case (1). Based on the success of the Pioneer Award Program, the NIH is now encouraging all of its 27 institutes and centers to initiate similar programs. In a recent Science magazine news account, Sally Rockey, NIH Deputy Director for Extramural Research, was quoted as saying the objective of this program is to “…unbridle scientists a bit”, allowing them to “…step off the grant treadmill” (2).


The National Institute of General Medical Sciences is currently seeking feedback about the possibility of giving all its investigators (about 3300) the ability to switch from a project-funded award to one that is longer-term and based more on productivity. The National Cancer Institute recently announced that it would begin to fund a new 7-year award that will replace project-based grants. It eventually hopes to fund about 16% of its budget through such awards. Other NIH institutes are being more cautious and, as reported in Science magazine, NIH Director Francis Collins noted that the Wellcome Trust in the United Kingdom shifted a few years ago to a more investigator-focused awards process but is now reevaluating this strategy.

One concern is that it takes many years to establish a productive and creative track record. Hence, focusing funding decisions on an investigator-centered strategy may skew awards to more senior researchers at the expense of junior scientists. Hence, particular effort needs to be made to identify junior investigators of high potential and then invest in them early in their careers. The Howard Hughes Medical Institute has been successful in this approach and any attempt by NIH to initiate an investigator-oriented funding program needs to take similar care to nurture junior investigators.


In truth, both the investigator- and project-oriented approaches have flaws as well as unique advantages. The ideal funding program would be one that is a mixture of both, which, I suspect, is the goal of NIH Director Francis Collins in exploring this initiative. It will be interesting to see how it develops and affects United States biomedical research.


Joe Lorenzo

Farmington, CT, USA

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Hi Joe

Thoughtful and interesting comments. The ASBMR Science Policy and Advocacy efforts have for many years been making the very arguments you are outlining for a mixture of project- and investigator-driven research opportunities. As you so rightly identify, a fear is for the development plan of young/new investigators getting into the pipeline for success.


With continued advocacy by all ASBMR members, I am hopeful of an improving horizon for research rather than a sunset. It is on on all of us to be aware of the NIH and other funding agencies efforts and do everything we can to inform their decisions and continue to let our legislators know we are actively involved in the process.


Thanks again for your commentary and leadership in this area for the Society.


Larry Suva

Chair, ASBMR Advocacy and Science Policy Commiteee

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