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The Black Hole

Limiting grants to well-funded labs

While no one is arguing for funding failure, the challenge is how we define “success.”


I want to touch on a topic this week that has previously been controversial – namely that federal research funding of individual labs should be capped to allow more broad allocation of limited resources among a larger group of researchers. Why this is controversial is that on the surface it appears to contend with the dogma that one should always reinforce success, and well-funded labs are presumably well-funded because they are successful.

While no one is arguing for funding failure, the challenge is how we define “success.” Historically, success in science has been defined as number of publications, impact of research, quality of investigators that have graduated from the group, and ironically history of successful grantsmanship. This definition of success importantly ignores the fact that early- and mid-career faculty cannot possibly compete directly on these metrics with larger more established labs with decades head start. When resources are limited, the preferential flow of monies to the largest groups will inevitably starve out the smaller ones. This is especially concerning since we know that while more money typically means more scientists and therefore more papers, this relationship starts producing diminishing returns once a group reaches a certain size. A better metric should be quality of publication per $/person over time, or some permutation of this that normalizes output with resource investiture. Limiting grants to well-funded labs is arguably the next best thing.

The National Institute’s of Health’s neurological institute has recently taken the initiative to begin correcting this imbalance by paring back the number of investigators it supports who have ≥$1 million in NIH grants. It’s a good first step that recalls an equally controversial Grant Support Index proposal made nearly a year ago to limit investigators to the equivalent of three basic R01 grants (equivalent to ≥$3.7 million over up to five years). I should note that the Grant Support Index drew substantial condemnation when proposed, which was covered in a post by Dave almost exactly one year to this day. I would be surprised if this more recent iteration will not draw a similar level of outcry among top investigators and perhaps chiefly, the academic institutions that do best from the accompanying indirects these grants deliver. To be clear, $1 million USD is still a lot of money, and the early- and mid-career faculty benefiting from the re-allocation of funding are not doing inferior work. The grant review process is still alive and well, and despite its many imperfections does a great job of identifying the top 20 to 30 percent of research proposals being submitted. We are almost certainly NOT funding failure. What we are funding are new and most importantly different ideas – which is exactly what federal basic research funding agencies were created to do.

I personally applaud the effort.

Jonathan Thon
Jonathan Thon is a serial entrepreneur and founding CEO of STRM.BIO. Before STRM.BIO Dr. Thon founded Stellular Bio where he served as CEO and chief scientific officer. Before Stellular Bio, Dr. Thon was an assistant professor at Harvard Medical School.
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  1. Philip Hultin / May 23, 2018 at 15:33

    I can attest to the pernicious effects of a model that directs resources to those who already have more than adequate support. I was funded by NSERC Discovery Grants for 17 years, and for the first decade I struggled to “leverage” those minimal grants. I tried companies and foundations but eventually gave up because I kept getting the cold shoulder. I was told by someone I knew within one company that they just weren’t interested in supporting a small lab in Manitoba, and gave their funds to labs in major centres that they had close ties with. These are the same labs that get the biggest grants from NSERC.

    Nevertheless, with not much more than the bare bones NSERC DG, I was able to publish in major international journals in my field, and I trained undergraduate and graduate students who were as good as any from bigger labs. One of my PhD graduates got a Banting PDF; another went to do an NSERC-funded PDF with a Nobel laureate. My HQP were few in number but outstanding in quality.

    When NSERC adopted their current model for assessing grant applications, I was dismayed to learn that my productivity would no longer be evaluated in the context of my resources, that I would be compared with labs 10 times bigger and 20 times better funded. There was no way that I could survive in such an environment and I lost my DG funding in the 2010-2011 competition and was unable to get it back in subsequent competitions. The former chair of the Evaluation Group told me that it was inevitable because they had to increase their support for “top” researchers and unfortunately that meant giving nothing to people like me.

    Well, I wonder whether any of these “top” researchers would even notice the difference. They already get corporate support, and full-scholarship students and PDFs are lining up to work with them. What I can say for sure is that losing the Discovery Grant closed my lab down. No resources, no students.