Webinar Report: Addressing the early-career funding crisis

How could funding caps help early and mid-career researchers?

Moderator: Vinodh Illangovan, Postdoctoral Researcher, Max Planck Institute for Biophysical Chemistry and member of the eLife Early-Career Advisory Group.

Speakers: Needhi Bhalla, Associate Professor, University of California, Santa Cruz; Casey Green, Assistant Professor, University of Pennsylvania; and Mark Peifer, Michael Hooker Distinguished Professor, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

In May 2017, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) proposed a plan to cap the amount of funding a single researcher could receive. Although the plan was dropped a month later in the face of protests from some members of the biomedical research community, many scientists remain in favour of funding caps. In place of a cap, the NIH has introduced a program called the Next Generation Researchers Initiative that is designed to fund specifically early- and mid-career researchers.

Why does the NIH need to change the way it funds research?

Over the last 15 years, the proportion of funding going to researchers over the age of 60 has increased sharply. On top of that, says Mark Peifer, 40% of the funding distributed by the NIH goes to just 10% of scientists. Several studies have suggested that when the funding received by an individual investigator exceeds a certain level, additional funding produces diminishing returns in terms of scientific impact.

Less diverse investments could also lead to a less diverse workforce

Needhi Bhalla is concerned that concentrating funding in the hands of a few researchers will have an adverse impact on the diversity of the biomedical community:

There’s a lot of data that suggests that people of colour, specifically women of colour, and white women […] are often less likely to get funded by the NIH.

To counter this bias, Bhalla believes that NIH Program Officers should actively advocate for grants submitted by these groups to be funded, particularly if the grant is on the borderline between being funded and not being funded.

Peifer, who has served on the advisory council for the National Institute of General Medical Sciences (NIGMS, which is one of the largest institutes within the NIH), notes that the NIGMS does analyse the race and gender of the people who apply for and receive funding. NIGMS has also implemented a “soft” funding cap where grant applications from investigators who’ve received over $750,000 of funding go through extra scrutiny. This may partly account for why a higher percentage of applicants for NIGMS funding are successful compared with applicants for NIH funding more generally.

Why aren’t early and mid-career researchers getting funded?

Casey Greene has made several grant applications to the NIH, but to date none have been funded despite the reviews of the applications being reasonably strong. “From my own reviews and from talking to colleagues”, says Greene, “what we’ve seen is an emphasis against risk”. This produces a subtle bias against early-career researchers, because it will always be more risky to fund an early-career researcher than a senior investigator who has worked on similar projects for years. Mid-career researchers are also struggling, but receive less support from the NIH than early-career researchers. “What I’m seeing”, says Bhalla, “is that people will often get their first NIH grant […] but then the big hurdle becomes getting their first or second renewal”.

We still don’t know how best to distribute biomedical funding

“I think it’s funny that as scientists we spend so much time on our science, but so little time on the science of science”, says Greene. Bhalla agrees: “we need to have more data about what works and what doesn’t work, and we can’t rely on anecdotal data”.

What can researchers do to improve funding distribution?

Peifer says researchers should speak up and make their opinions known by, for example, talking to colleagues, writing to the director of the NIH or engaging with scientific societies. However, Greene cautions that “the costs of speaking up can fall differently on different people” – for example, researchers from underrepresented groups may feel that speaking out presents a greater risk of damaging their career – so we cannot blame those who choose not to.

Bhalla thinks the culture surrounding the way research is funded needs to change: “I think we’ve lost sight of what we’re supposed to be doing with this money”, she says. What’s needed is a funding system that allows the biomedical community to focus on science and on educating the next generation of researchers.

Further information

Make your views known to the Next Generation Researchers Initiative Working Group.

Sign Mark Peifer’s petition in support of an NIH funding cap.