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Should the NIH spread its wealth?

As the funding woes of scientists trying to secure a grant from the US National Institutes of Health (NIH) continue (see Nature 452, 249; 2008), one can't help but wonder: should the wealth be spread more evenly? A News story on page 258 explores this possibility — and notes some of the more eye-popping grant numbers of a select few 'grandee grantees'. Many bright, well-educated, qualified scientists struggle to get their first big NIH grant, yet last year, 200 more established researchers were supported by six or more grants each. One principal investigator earned 32 grants; many had eight or nine.

There's an important caveat here. Some multiple grant-getters seem to be doing well because they organize science conferences or run training workshops, where each event is funded by a separate smaller grant, inflating the numbers. But plenty of principal investigators do seem to have the knack — and the drive and the means — for collecting multiple research grants.

When you hear stories about exceptional young scientists who are struggling to sustain their labs, this situation seems a little unfair. Jill Rafael-Fortney, for example, is working on muscular dystrophy at Ohio State University in Columbus. She says that she had to downsize her lab and let go of experienced postdocs because she had only limited funds. She is one of 12 young biomedical scientists featured in A Broken Pipeline? — a report published last week by a group of US research institutions and universities (see http://www.brokenpipeline.org).

Looking to spread the wealth a bit more, NIH director Elias Zerhouni is considering requiring that grantees to spend at least 20% of their time on each of the grants they are awarded. Yet there's no reason why the more productive labs should be punished. If the system becomes need- rather than merit-based, the best science may not get the support it deserves. Unfortunately this won't comfort the enterprising biomedical researcher who has several high-profile publications, cutting-edge ideas, and a long-time dream of earning the support of the nation's leading biomedical institution —and is still waiting.

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Russo, G. Should the NIH spread its wealth?. Nature 452, 381 (2008). https://doi.org/10.1038/nj7185-381a

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