As Nature notes, the first two PIs with the most awards are conference organizers (including Keystone Symposia) juggling lots (n=32 to Keystone) of little R13 grants. Busy but not necessarily abusive to the system.
The big question is whether big names go on applications to secure the NoA, with the actual work completed by others in the lab. Consider, for example, Nobel laureate and former NIH Director (& budget doubler) Harold Varmus holding on to 8 awards worth $13.1M. John Reed, as director of a 35-person lab and PI on 11 NIH awards (~$10.9M), feels he deserves all his awards. The question is would those 11 awards still go to the Burnham Institute if the person who did most of the work were the PI on the application. If the science is sound, the answer should be yes. So why not let the science and the actual investigator running the show stand on their own merits and apply directly?
And then there is Sten Vermund at Vanderbilt (11 grants, $24.1M), who bluntly “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.””
The NIMH currently does not want its funded PIs coming back to ask for a 5th award without prior approval, and I feel the 20% PI effort requirement is a good step toward equitably allocating limited NIH resources, certainly as applied to research project grants (including projects that are components of P mechanism awards, U54s, and the like). As I’ve noted previously, Brian Martinson et al. suggest this would be a welcome shift from the perspective of procedural and distributive justice.
The US DHHS Office of Inspector General is very interested in effort reporting, so it could be they will offer indirect help to the NIH’s movement toward limiting awards per applicant PI. Harold, John, and Sten clearly have a few obligations to their institutions outside the lab for which they are paid. Aside from fairness in allocating resources, managing – and maintaining funding for – so many projects and people can take its toll on even the most vigorous researcher, as Eric Poehlman can probably attest (falsified/fabricated data on 17 grant applications to the NIH).