From the description in Nature.

On 5 December, agency director Francis Collins told an advisory committee that the NIH should consider supporting more individual researchers, as opposed to research proposals as it does now — an idea inspired in part by the success of the high-stakes Pioneer awards handed out by the NIH’s Common Fund.

Pioneer awards are described as follows:

The NIH Pioneer Award initiative complements NIH’s traditional, investigator-initiated grant programs by supporting individual scientists of exceptional creativity who propose pioneering and possibly transforming approaches to addressing major biomedical or behavioral challenges that have the potential to produce an unusually high impact on a broad area of biomedical or behavioral research. To be considered pioneering, the proposed research must reflect substantially different scientific directions from those already being pursued in the investigator’s research program or elsewhere.

Another report I saw on this quoted Francis Collins as referring to “superstars”.

I’m unimpressed by this whole business. By referring to “superstars”, the HHMI approach and the Pioneers program NIH Director Collins makes it clear that he is talking about picking a very limited number of winners. At best each IC will get one? Maybe? So this will not do very much to help with the large bulk of NIH supported (and those desiring future support) investigators who feel that the job of securing grant money is taking away from their ability to do great science. This will not be some wholesale conversion of the NIH from project-based proposals to person/lab support. That’s my prediction anyway.

And as such, this reflects no real change. The primary concern of those opposed to this would be that it cordons off a part of the NIH pot in a place that they cannot try to reach it. If these selected superstars have the money based on their genius, then your project cannot be funded by those dollars.

Moving slightly down the road, the selection of superstars also means that the vast majority of us know that we have no shot at those funds in any case.

But here’s the thing that leaves me unimpressed.

This whole line of attack is nothing but a recognition that the superstars have to grub for grant money in the trenches now, but that they never had to do so in the past.

The NIH system has been a hybrid system that incorporates both project-based and people-based approaches. The latter is not formal, but it is reality. Once upon a time if you had a fairly healthy scientific pulse, you could renew your core grant (which rapidly evolved into a lab-based funding reality, no matter what was on the page every 5 years for competing renewal) for 25+ years. “I just applied for money when I needed it” said a colleague to me within the last two years. These people could also pull in additional grants for just about whatever half-decent additional project struck their fancy. In nearly all ways that count, many, many of our respective subfield luminaries (not superstars, I’m talking the top 20-30%) in the past three decades enjoyed defacto person-based funding.

Because of this, there was a pool of money the rest of the plebes, and the noobs, could not realistically access. In theory, sure. But in practice, no.

The current Collins trial-balloon will very likely only turn back the clock a tiny bit. It will be incredibly unfair on paper, but in reality it is no less fair than what was going on during the 80s and 90s and yes, well into the 00s.

The sad part is that it is unlikely to work. The genius superstars are still doing okay when it comes to funding. And of them, there will be many who fail to produce the genius, superstar, pioneering breakthrough innovations that Francis Collins is intimating they will all produce. There will be many of them that, without Collins’ intervention, will indeed make amazing breakthroughs. Many of both categories that might perhaps be awarded grants under this new expansion of the Pioneers program would still manage to win an equivalent amount of project-based funding in the absence of Collins’ plan going through.

I’m just not a big believer in making bets on who is going to revolutionize science and give them all the grant money. I believe a more distributed, less directed, individual investigator initiated approach is the demonstrated success model. When we try to pick a few winners we do less well at creating innovation.

So my suggestion is to figure out a way to relieve far more of the extramural research team from the current tyranny of the grant game. Not just a handpicked few but many. 30%? 50%? More.

All of us are spending far too much time on grants. Spending far too much time on creative thinking about data and what-ifs for yet another application, instead of following up on those great ideas. Many, many of us just-folks in the system would do a lot better if we were able to “just apply for a new grant when we needed it”. The scientific product would be much better and the cost-ratio would be improved.

Streamline the process for more of the NIH extramural force and guess what? The “superstars” will also be relieved! They will likewise get to spend more time thinking about innovation and, since they are superstars (right?) their innovation will be amazing.

My best proposal for how they should do this is easy because it uses an existing mechanism. They could start this process….tomorrow.

My proposal for making the system more person-based and less subject to the vagaries of review is to expand the R37/MERIT program. This is the program that awards an occasional highly-meritorious competing award an extended non-competing interval. So instead of having to think about renewal in 5 yrs, you have 10. There is still noncompeting review and rumor has it that some ICs have been willing to cancel R37s midstream for lack of production. Rumor also has it that many ICs take an extra hard look during year 5. But regardless, the structure is there.

A five year proposal that is now given 10 years? That should make almost any PI feel a lot more free to pursue blind alleys and risky new directions.