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222 NIH grants: 22 researchers

Grandee grantees are sitting pretty through agency cash crisis.

A whopping 200 scientists received six or more grants each from the US National Institutes of Health (NIH) in 2007, according to data analysed by Nature. One principal investigator was awarded 32 grants, the data reveal, and many others got eight or nine (see Table).

The amounts awarded to some of these grandee grantees held some surprises too. Robert Sherwin of Yale University in Connecticut received eight grants totalling US$14.5 million last year for his research into diabetes; Harold Varmus, president of the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, New York, received grants of $13 million for work on cancer; and cell-death researcher John Reed of the California-based Burnham Institute for Medical Research received nearly $11 million in 11 grants.

The data that Nature analysed include all types of NIH grant, including supplemental grants and small grants awarded to organize conferences or run training workshops. Closer inspection reveals that some researchers received a wealth of grants for precisely these reasons — Andrew Robertson, the recipient of the 32 grants, is a conference organizer for Keystone Symposia, which necessarily requires him to juggle multiple projects. His grants average out at $15,300 each. But the multiple grants supporting some other investigators are not as immediately explicable.

Last month, advisory panels reviewing the NIH peer-review system recommended that researchers should devote at least 20% of their time to any project awarded a research grant (see Nature 451, 1035; 2008 ). This would limit the number of grants awarded per investigator to five. “Are you really able to sustain the research if you have five or ten grants?” asked NIH director Elias Zerhouni after a congressional hearing on 5 March. “If you are going to be a principal investigator on a grant, you have to give the time.” Zerhouni told Nature he wants to place a limit on the number of grants that researchers can get each year.

“The absolute number of grants is misleading,” says Sten Vermund, director of the Institute for Global Health at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Tennessee. He received 11 grants worth $24 million in 2007, but most of that was a single $19-million grant to manage a global HIV-prevention trial involving hundreds of researchers working on four continents at dozens of institutions. Seven of his grants were smaller and all essentially awarded for the same thing: an international AIDS training programme. Vermund acknowledges that a former stint at the NIH overseeing a $50-million grant portfolio in AIDS vaccine trials taught him a lot about how successful grant applications are packaged and marketed. “I don't want to make myself sound like a grant-writing technician, but let's be honest: that is a nontrivial part of success in biomedical research.”

Other researchers seem to run 'labs-on-steroids', earning multiple grants through the sheer volume and quality of their work (see 'Day in the life of an 11-grant grandee'). They argue that if they're willing to work longer and harder — and still produce top research — then so be it. “Different people can achieve different things in 20% of their time. You should always reward the best science,” says David Rawlings, the 51-year-old director of the Research Center for Immunity and Immunotherapies at the University of Washington in Seattle. He was supported last year by nine NIH grants worth $3 million.

Joann Boughman, executive vice-president of the American Society of Human Genetics, says that the NIH needs to keep young researchers working in independent situations so that they can have 'eureka' moments. At the same time, she says, the agency needs to support established laboratories that produce streams of rich data, often leading to new experiments — and new grants. “The question is, do the rich get richer while the poor get poorer?” she asks.

The reality is that grantees like Vermund inhabit a different world from the vast majority of biomedical scientists. Frozen funding at the NIH is creating an environment of “anxiety and fear” where talented young researchers repeatedly have their grant proposals rejected.

Zerhouni says that the inequities between the haves and have-nots were caused by a doubling of NIH funding between 1998 and 2003. As funding levels rose, many new PhD positions were created. Established investigators, using data produced by the new PhDs, were able to submit better grant proposals. But hordes of these grant-hungry PhDs were left standing when NIH funding flattened out after 2003. The agency now funds significantly more people over the age of 70 than under the age of 30. “We're eating our seedcorn,” says Zerhouni.

Changes to the NIH peer-review system will be unveiled in mid-April.


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Eric Hand with additional reporting by Meredith Wadman.

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Hand, E. 222 NIH grants: 22 researchers. Nature 452, 258–259 (2008).

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