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.