New NIH initiatives bolster future of research

Measures aim to counteract a decades-long trend.

Max Chao

New measures are being taken to aid young researchers.

Since 1982, National Institutes of Health research grants for young researchers have gradually decreased as funds for older researchers have increased, a new study found. The study, done by researchers at Stanford University and the University of Wolverhampton, identified age bias as a likely reason for this change.

“You have to call it what it is: there are biases in the system that favor established investigators,” said Jon Lorsch, director of the NIH’s Institute of General Medical Sciences.

The University of Minnesota received over $105 million in fiscal year 2017 so far.

Lorsch said much of the discrepancy comes from the experience difference in young and old researchers. “There’s an inherent comparison going on between someone who’s just starting their lab and someone who got a Nobel Prize, for instance.”

From 1998-2003, the NIH’s budget almost doubled, said Michael Lauer, deputy director for extramural research at NIH. But the funding has since been stagnant, which means less money for all researchers.

“If we lose too many of our outstanding young scientists, there will not be a next generation of scientists to take over,” said

But the NIH is aware of the problem and taking measures to solve it.

On June 8, the NIH announced the Next Generation Researchers Initiative, a department-wide policy update intended to address this trend.

The initiative will emphasize the Maximizing Investigators’ Research Award. Started in 2014, the program aims to make NIH’s grant system more efficient and reduce age bias, Lorsch said.

The program offers benefits to established investigators like more research flexibility and longer grant periods.

In exchange, the established researcher gets 12 percent less funding on average and the extra funding is given to the less established, Lorsch said.

The program includes separate review pools and criteria for experienced and unexperienced researchers, he said.

In this model, young researchers compete against other young researchers rather than established ones, Lorsch said.

This year, the program expanded to offer grants to researchers who previously received a grant from the National Institutes of General Medical Sciences, he said.

Lorsch hopes the Maximizing Investigators’ Research Award will eventually become the dominant funding mechanism for the department.

“This is still a pilot, but it’s been quite popular so far and we’re looking forward to seeing how it turns out,” he said.

If the NIH sees funding cuts in the future, these programs could be affected, Lauer said.

The current White House budget proposal includes a $5.8 billion cut to the NIH.

Funding levels across different agencies is “of great concern,” University spokesperson Dan Gilchrist said in an email statement.

“Cuts to research funding, such as those recently put forward by the current federal administration would put at risk the partnership between the federal government and research universities that has produced tremendous return on investment,” said Gilchrist, who serves as communications director of the University of Minnesota’s Office of the VP for Research.