The National Institutes of Health have proposed a cap on the level of funding that individual investigators can be awarded from NIH. In “New NIH Approach to Grant Funding Aimed at Optimizing Stewardship of Taxpayer Dollars“, NIH Director Francis Collins announced the move in an attempt to redress imbalances with funding, and to particularly focus on early- and mid-career investigators. Indeed, as the post states:

While we have made progress in reversing the decline in grant funding to early-career investigators through various programs and policies, the percentage of NIH awards that support this group remains flat. Unfortunately, gains for early-career investigators have been offset by a decline in the percentage of NIH awards that support mid-career investigators. The only group for which the percentage of grant funding is increasing is late-career investigators.

Further information is described in Michael Lauer’s Open Mike blog post on the subject.


What’s up with the early- and mid-career investigators?

Not funding rates, and that’s the issue. As Michael Lauer recently discussed at the National Academy of Sciences, the NIH recently intervened to attempt to halt the declining funding rates of early-career investigators, and while they were successful in stabilizing the level of funding of early career investigators, as the success of the senior investigator pool continued to increase, mid-career investigators now started to see a downturn:




Why would NIH want to introduce this cap?

10% of NIH investigators receive 40% of the funding. This may not seem like a problem to those who feel the best science should be rewarded, but the problem is inherent in defining what the best science is, or what the desired outcomes of NIH investment are.



The first priority for NIH that we perceive is the need to “produce” science, and this is usually correlated with paper output, and the new use of the NIH’s metric, the Relative Citation Ratio (RCR), which aims to adjust use of citation metrics to balance the dependence of citation on the field of study, rather than just using the number of citations researchers receive. The NIH has provided evidence claiming that from the perspective of productivity, there is a point above which the returns are diminishing, and those with most funding are not producing any more than those with funding at a certain lower level (for further reading see citations 1-8 at the bottom of Francis Collins’ post).



The other priority we see for the NIH is producing investigators. The goal is not only to produce science, but to produce investigators, and here the labs with the most funding are also not pulling their weight. Michael Lauer recently presented data to the National Academies study, the “Next Generation Researchers Initiative“, suggesting that labs with the most funding are not producing any more investigators than labs that receive less funding.



Therefore, it would seem that from the perspective of NIH, if the most well-funded labs are neither producing more science (under the metrics used) nor producing more investigators, then a cap is necessary to maximize investment.

Congress is also concerned about this issue and this has been expressed in the 21st Century Cures Act, which mandated steps such as the National Academies study, the “Next Generation Researchers Initiative“, to address concerns about early career researchers.


What do the changes involve?

The NIH doesn’t want to have a simple cap on funding, recognizing that different fields or experiments require different amounts of funding. They have proposed making use of a Grant Support Index, largely based on the Research Commitment Index, essentially giving points for different kinds of awards, as suggested by the table. The cap proposed, equivalent to capping at around three R01-equivalents, would currently affect 6% of NIH investigators.


Some concerns that we have with this, that have been raised by others in the community, are the disincentive to collaboration that could arise as a result of the points given to multi-PI projects. There is only a slight decrease in the points given to these versus individual PI awards, and yet it is quite likely that the funding and potential to produce from these multi-PI awards could be much less than the points indicate. Indeed, these concerns have been noted – the note at the top of the post on the Research Commitment Index indicates that the table given is not finalized, and is a particular place for comment.


What next?

If you have comments, you should make them known. Feel free to email us at info[at] but also the Office of Extramural Research at NIH through following the Open Mike blog updates and commenting/contacting them as directed. This post at Edge for Scholars gives an excellent summary at the end of the post on steps to take if you are concerned. Please feel free to comment below.


All images used are from Michael Lauer’s slides in the presentation to the “Next Generation Researchers Initiative” and are available here.


Further reading and citations:

NIH to PIs: In Current Funding Climate, Three R01s Is Enough, Edge for Scholars

NIH to limit the amount of grant money a scientist can receive, Nature

NIH to impose grant cap to free up funds for more investigators, Science

Basson, J., Lorsch, J., Dorsey, T.Revisiting the Dependence of Scientific Productivity and Impact on Funding Level. NIGMS Feedback Loop Blog. (2016)

Doyle, J.M., Quinn, K., Bodenstein, Y.A., Wu, C.O., Danthi, N., Lauer, M.S. Association of percentile ranking with citation impact and productivity in a large cohort of de novo NIMH-funded R01 grants. Molecular Psychiatry (2015) 20:1030-1036.

Lauer, M.S., Danthi, N.S., Kaltman, J., Wu C. Predicting Productivity Returns on Investment: Thirty Years of Peer Review, Grant Funding, and Publication of Highly Cited Papers at the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. Circulation Research. (2015) 117:239-243.

Lauer, M. Following up on the Research Commitment Index as a Tool to Describe Grant Support. Open Mike Blog. (2017)

Fortin, J.M., Currie, D.J. Big Science vs. Little Science: How Scientific Impact Scales with Funding(link is external). PLoS One. 2013 Jun 19;8(6):e65263.

Cook, I., Grange, S., Eyre-Walker, A. Research groups: How big should they be?(link is external) PeerJ. 2015 Jun 9;3:e989.

Javitz H, Grimes T, Hill D, Rapoport A, Bell R, Fecso R, Lehming R. 2010. U.S. Academic Scientific Publishing(link is external). Working paper SRS 11-201. Arlington, VA: National Science Foundation, Division of Science Resources Statistics.

Fortner, R. Diminishing returns?: U.S. Science Productivity Continues to Drop(link is external). Scientific American. December 6, 2010