An article in the CHE by Paul Basken was brought to my attention because of the comments of Francis Collins regarding an emphasis on the “people, not projects” side of the equation. But something else drew my eye, way down the page, because I hadn’t heard of it before.

One panel member, Shirley M. Tilghman, a molecular biologist who is a former president of Princeton University, said one way to clear NIH resources for younger researchers would be a grant that would pay senior researchers to wind down their labs and distribute their resources to others in return for a commitment to seek no more NIH money.

She referred to it as a “terminal grant,” though conceded a different term would likely be necessary to make it more palatable.

The Howard Hughes Medical Institute has a similar program, in which it phases out grantees over a five-year period. The program is too new for a deep analysis, though it appears well received by scientists, said Robert T. Tjian, president of Hughes. It’s “a graceful and productive way for scientists to plan their future involvement in research and teaching as they approach the end of a natural cycle in a scientific life,” said Mr. Tjian, a professor of biochemistry and molecular biology at the University of California at Berkeley.

Wow. Seems okay on the face of it. I see a fair number of people grumbling about how they are going to retire but they still keep putting in the proposals. From a psychological perspective it might work to have them commit to an end date five years away, rather than, saying “Pack it in RIGHT NOW”. Over the next five years maybe that would have a net effect? Seems worth a try, maybe?

I do wonder how this could possibly work in the NIH system on a practical basis. I mean, how can you hold the PI to his or her commitment to stop submitting any grants? How can you keep them from being a significant Investigator on a project for which they are not the PI? The University submits the grants, after all.

But if we suppose it *can* work, is this the best solution? Wouldn’t it be better to just stop funding them? To stop extending any Programmatic pickups to PIs over a certain age? Or to, say, throw down a policy refusing any applications for anything beyond year 20 of a given project? Wouldn’t this, in the end, get rid of more people than offering all of them a Parachute Grant?

And if the plan is to “wind down” a person’s career…..doesn’t this totally fly in the face of the formal structure of the NIH, i.e. that the grant is based on a project, not a person? Are we talking a reverse K99/R00 that starts off with an independent research phase and then ends up as an emeritus fellowship that pays the salary and nothing else for a few years*? Or perhaps we’re talking a project that has to be taken over by a younger PI in years 2-5?

I doubt this will get much traction but if it does, it will be fascinating to see all the proposals for how it should work. I’m sure a few of you will have a go at it in the comments…..
*Paying the salary of an Emeritus Professor to sort of wander around the Department helping out has some resonance with my proposal for Staff Scientist Fellowships, I note. I am not entirely dismissing it as valueless.