NHLBI Shedding Mechanisms

Last week, NHLBI announced it would no longer participate in the R21 parent announcement. Today, it gave notice that no new nominations would be made for MERIT (R37) awards, though the 79 current MERIT awardees will not be affected. While each IC has its own selection criteria, generally MERIT awards are made based on competing renewal R01 applications by established investigators with a track record of NIH funding that score in the top few percentile. The benefit of a MERIT award is that it is extended based on the PI’s progress report rather than a full competing renewal application (IC staff recommend extension, which is then considered by Council). Although only the top 5% of NIH-funded investigators receive MERIT awards, they are the closest thing to HHMI grants, as exemplified by NIGMS’ description:

The objective of the MERIT Award is to provide long-term, stable support to investigators whose research competence and productivity are distinctly superior and who are likely to continue to perform in an outstanding manner. The provision of long-term stable support to such investigators is expected to foster their continued creativity and spare them the administrative burdens associated with preparation and submission of full-length research grant applications. This may allow investigators the opportunity to take greater risks, be more adventurous in their lines of inquiry or take the time to develop new techniques.

Given the likely budget limitations in coming years, it is not surprising that ICs might trim mechanisms from their budget, but I am sure some (especially MERIT awardees) may decry the loss of the one mechanism that frees productive PIs from the burden of grant writing (or at least some of this burden), along the model of HHMI investigators. On the other hand, an upcoming report from 3 economists, “Incentives and Creativity: Evidence from the Academic Life Sciences,” suggests MERIT awardees cannot match HHMI investigators in terms of productivity or creativity:

The researchers identified 73 life scientists given HHMI support in three years — 1993, 1994, and 1995 — and tracked their work through 2006. Because these scientists were quite well-regarded before getting HHMI funding, the study compared them to groups of similarly accomplished scientists receiving NIH grants: one group of 393 scientists who had received early-career prizes, and another group of 92 scientists receiving the NIH’s MERIT funding, awarded to highly promising projects.

Among other things, Azoulay, Manso, and Graff Zivin analyzed how often these scientists published articles that were among the top 5 percent or top 1 percent of the most cited papers in their fields. They also studied “creativity” in lab research by seeing how often the scientists began using new keywords to describe the subjects of their articles.

Their findings show that compared to the early-career prize winners with NIH grants, the HHMI-funded scientists produced twice as many papers in the top 5 percent in terms of citations, and three times as many in the top 1 percent. Compared to the NIH-funded scientists with MERIT grants, the HHMI group produced about the same quantity of papers in the top 5 percent by citation, but 50 percent more papers in the top 1 percent.

The study also found that the HHMI investigators had about 10 percent more variety in the keywords they introduced into their own work than the early-career prizewinners from the NIH, and were cited in a greater range of journals. Additionally, the HHMI-backed scientists mentored more early-career prize-winning scientists themselves (1.13 per person) compared to the NIH-funded group (0.24 per person).

The period analyzed pre-dates the recent Pioneer (DP1), Innovator (DP2), EUREKA (R01), and Transformative (R01) awards that might better match how HHMI investigators are selected (versus based on the requirement of a long-standing, currently funded productive project, as with MERIT), so perhaps NHLBI is thinking these and other innovative NIH funding mechanisms coming down the pike are the better way to spend limited dollars on investigators with the potential to do creative, transformative research. Or perhaps they are simply protecting their budget to maintain their R01 portfolio in the years to come.

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