Sunday, May 26, 2013

Cashing in on being an NIH "New Investigator"

Investigators fresh out of training have a hard time competing for grants against established scientists with proven track records and often backed by large, resource-rich laboratories and armies of postdoctoral fellows and grad students. This problem is compounded by the fact that the NIH grant review system has no formal metric--no system at all really--for just how efficiently these more senior investigators are using their research funds, a topic I won't delve into right now.

The NIH has made an effort to level the playing field for these newbies, who self-identify by checking a box on NIH grant applications indicating that they are a "New Investigator."  This provides various significant benefits in the competitive grant review process. This is all for the best (although I guess one could argue that perhaps, given the current funding situation , the flow of investigators into NIH-grant funded research should be slowed).

So, we have these new investigators who have a minimal track record, and they are given a shot to prove themselves. But here's the thing: until they receive notification that one of their applications has been funded, they can submit as many grant applications as they want with the "New Investigator" box checked off . Furthermore, these young applicants can apply for special, very large, research awards only available to New Investigators.

Illustrative of the kinds of  inefficiencies that result when an enormous government bureaucracy doles out public funds, there is no coordination within the NIH in regards to how multiple applications from the same New Investigator are handled. One part of the NIH can decide to take a chance and give the New Investigator a chance to prove him or herself by awarding them a grant without knowing the applicant has already been awarded funding by a different part. Brand new independent investigators with no track record of running their own research program or administering their own laboratory can suddenly find themselves showered with huge sums of NIH research funds.

As a result of this lack of coordination within the NIH, there are newly independent investigators who are simultaneously awarded two R01 grants along with a DP2 grant, which are very large grants targeted specifically to new investigators. Getting what is called in NIH parlance an "R01" grant is a big deal. Established scientists are finding it very difficult to get R01 grants funded these days.

Here is a real-life example of the grants awarded to one such new investigator all within a few months of each other (since they were all submitted prior to any of them being awarded, they were all accorded New Investigator status):
1. An R01 grant that will cost the NIH $329,000 per year over 5 years.
2. Another R01 grant that will cost the NIH $388,000 per year over 5 years
3. A special grant just for newbies, called a DP2: cost to NIH is $2,320,000 to be spent over 5 years.

So, this new investigator goes all at once from zero NIH funding to $5,905,000 to be spent over 5 years (note: about one third of this total goes directly to the investigator's university to cover overhead costs). And this in a time when established laboratories are closing due to an inability to get their R01 grants renewed. What do you think about that?

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