Professors Mull NIH Proposal To Change Grant Awards Structure

Harvard professors said proposed changes to the National Institute of Health’s grant giving policy would increase the flexibility given to Harvard’s senior faculty while posing new challenges for younger researchers and associate professors just starting their labs.

At an address to the Advisory Committee to the Director on Dec. 5, NIH Director Francis S. Collins announced that the NIH was considering shifting their methods of awarding grants to focus on people, rather than projects—funding the most eligible researchers rather than the most eligible research. In interviews this week, Harvard professors said that the NIH’s greater emphasis on “people over projects” contains numerous potential advantages for well-established professors and scientists.

“The major problem with the system currently is everybody spends so much time taking care of the money and not doing the science or the thinking,” said David D. Cox ’00, assistant professor of molecular and cellular biology. “Moving towards people-based systems might have some potential to free us from that.”

Collins said he plans to advocate for the expansion of the NIH Director’s Pioneer Award Program, which evaluates a researcher’s potential to succeed in tackling a research question instead of evaluating a specific research proposal.

NIH’s Pioneer Award Program was originally modeled on the system used by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, the largest private health research funder in the nation. HHMI awards grants to qualified researchers, independent of specific research proposals. While a “people not projects” approach may eliminate what professors called the “artifice” of the grant-application process for scientists, Cox and others point to a bias towards experienced or older researchers as problematic. If Collins’s changes are implemented in the next year, they said, the NIH’s Pioneer Program may further disadvantage younger researchers and raise the age at which scientists receive their first NIH grant.


“This might exclude people who have good new ideas but no past record,” Cox said.

E.J. Corey, professor of organic chemistry, said that he found the grant-seeking process so discouraging to younger professors that he stopped applying for grants 15 years ago. Instead, Corey funds his lab with money he made while consulting and from other private sources.

“I’d heard so many horror stories that I decided that I didn’t want to take money away from the younger generations,” he said.

According to Corey, the research establishment has grown so exponentially in the latter half of the 20th century that any further expansion is unsustainable.

“This is literally like moving a mountain with a slingshot,” Corey said. “The research establishment has grown quite a lot since the middle half of the last century, and there are now huge numbers of independent researchers in the medical schools.”

Both Cox and Corey believe that the best possible solution to the diminishing federal funds would be a mixture of both people and project based funding.

“It’s got to be a multicomponent program,” Corey said. “You’ve got to help young folks just starting in medical research to get their research off the ground, but there also needs to be a system of support for people beyond the starting phase.”

—Staff writer Jessica A. Barzilay can be reached at Follow her on Twitter at @JessicaBarzilay.


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