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NIH considers limits on individual research funding; impacts examined

June 01, 2017
By: Robert Ksiazkiewicz

In Part 1 of this two-part series, SSTI examined NIH’s proposed changes that will place limits on individual researcher funding. In Part 2, impacts of the limits are explored.

In the May 18th  Digest, proposed changes to the National Institutes of Health (NIH) grants funding process were highlighted. The changes – tilted the Grant Support Index (GSI) – would impose a general limit of three major grants per researcher. Since the article was published, the NIH’s director, Francis Collins, announced during a U.S. House appropriations subcommittee that NIH intends to proceed with the GSI proposal. In this second part of the series,SSTI reveals  areas within the field of tech-based economic development that could see the benefits and/or the negative unintended consequences of these changes. In particular, the proposed GSI could raise two important questions for tech-based economic development professionals:

  • Will Institutional Development Award (IDeA) program-supported states see an increase in the number/amount of NIH grant funding received?
  • How will the GSI requirements impact states that have “star scientist” programs or other efforts to support targeted research centers?

Other potentially impacted areas include research capacity at smaller and more diverse research institutions, mentorship relationships, and niche research areas.

IDeA states

Established by Congressional mandate in 1993, the IDeA program’s goal is to broaden the geographic distribution of NIH funding by supporting faculty development and institutional research infrastructure enhancement in states that have historically received low levels of support from NIH. Currently, institutions of higher education in 23 states plus Puerto Rico are eligible for funding through the IDeA program.

While these states have been receiving funding to improve the competitiveness of their state’s R&D infrastructure, most have remained in the bottom half of all states for attracting federal grant funding. In large part, this lack of mobility can be  attributed to the concentration of R&D funding at a select number of researchers at universities in the top R&D states.

Could the GSI approach help institutions of higher education in these states better compete for NIH funding and create economic growth? By potentially freeing up nearly 1,600 new awards for early and mid-career researchers, the GSI would create new opportunities for research in IDeA states to win federal funding that has typically gone to the highest performing research institutions in states well above national averages for attraction of federal R&D funding. However, those institutions would likely need to make strategic investments in NIH-funded research areas that will be impacted by the GSI approach that build off their existing research areas of strength.

The biggest roadblock faced by IDeA states under the new GSI proposal is the potential reduction in research collaboration between institutions. The intent of the IDeA program is to build both intrastate and interstate research collaboration. However, one of the major concerns about the new GSI rules is that research collaboration might be stifled because more established researchers (who have reached their GSI max score) will not be able to co-submit applications with other institutions. Depending on the final rules, researcher institutions in IDeA states might find that the number of institutions eligible to partner with them is reduced.

 “Star scientist” and targeted research centers

Several states (most notably Georgia, Texas, and Utah) have stablished “star scientist” programs that are intended to attract researchers with proven track records of attracting federal funding. The primary economic development goal for these programs is to help universities expand the research capacity in targeted areas that will lead to the creation and growth of industry clusters. In addition to start scientist programs, many states also maintain funding for targeted research centers with similar economic development goals of building research capacity in an emerging or existing industry cluster.

These two types of programs also creates a positive impact because the presence of the star researcher or a leading targeted research center makes attracting other early and mid-career researchers and graduate students easier because they are drawn to the recognition of working with top scientists and the increased funding they bring. These efforts have seen strong results in increased R&D capacity at institutions of higher education as well as economic growth for the state/regions.

The important questions for states focused on recruiting star scientists and targeted researcher centers include:

  • Will NIH build in any exceptions for researchers to exceed the GSI cap?
  • How will collaboration occur between researchers, both internationally and externally with other institutions?
  • What the impact of GSI will have the economic development return that make star scientist and targeted research approach such a successful strategy for building research capacity?
  • Will the investigator caps lead to a lower ROI for these types of programs?
  • If the ROI is reduced, how will that impact state funding for the efforts?

Collins has already said that while he agrees that the GSI should include exceptions, he was less than welcoming of “researchers arguing for exceptions based on individual data showing they remained effective even with four or more major NIH grants.” He worries that every researcher would become an exception due to their own data.

Other potential impacts

Other potential TBED areas that could benefit include increased R&D activities at HBCUs and other minority serving institutions as well as smaller research institutions. In addition to increasing the pipeline of early career researchers, the changes could create a more diverse workforce by creating new opportunities for early and mid-career researchers at these institutions that may have been squeezed out by researchers from institutions with more resources and star scientists. As with many other federal agencies, NIH’s mission includes support for a more diverse STEM workforce and GSI may open up opportunities for these researchers.

On the down side, the GSI system could reduce collaboration as well as mentorship for the researchers that it is intended to benefit. This poses the question: will established researchers be less likely to compete for awards that require partnership with other researchers or mentorships that could negatively impact their cap number?

While the intent of the program is to create good competition, the system might actually create less incentive for researchers to work with each other – especially if they are contributing to the project in a non-primary role. For early and mid-career researchers, mentorship and collaboration with other researchers has long been considered essential in reaching their full potential. When developing the new rules, NIH should consider how to create incentives for collaboration. The proposed rules should consider how to use exemptions that allow established researchers (and others above the GSI cap) to serve as collaborators and mentors to those researchers the changes are intended to benefit.

Finally, the last question that NIH must address is how it will deal with researchers and institutions focused on niche research areas. Across the country, research institutions are home to very specialized research centers that serve as the primary resource and collaborator for other institutions on NIH grant applications. These centers are typically serving as co-collaborators on applications for researchers from other institutions looking to leverage their expertise and play an important role in facilitating research in niche areas. How will GSI limit the interaction with these institutions? Will innovation suffer until new early-career and mid-career researchers gravitate to this field?

The proposed GSI system brings great promise as well as potential unintended negative consequences to the field of university-led, tech-based economic development. While it may create a more equitable allocation of federal researcher dollars and less centralized economic growth potential, there are many questions that remain regarding how it could negatively impact research collaboration and efforts to building research capacity as well as economic prosperity. As the NIH moves forward, it is necessary for it to consider how the use of exemptions will help maintain incentives for research collaboration and specialization of research capacity.