Word has leaked that the National Institutes of Health director, Francis Collins, is considering expanding the “fund people not projects” concept at the agency. This is already in place as part of the PIONEER awards program that funds seven select individuals with $500,000 per year for five years. Collins is expected to meet with NIH institution directors on Jan. 6 to discuss the new proposal.
The motivation behind such a change comes from the idea that funding people instead of projects will lead to more innovative research and an increase in the number of highly cited publications. This assumption is based on results from the PIONEER program. The NIH argues that PIONEER awards result in an increased number of highly-cited publications due to the increased funding without the PI having to take as much time away from the lab to write a project grant, like the R01. However, PIONEER awards are generally given to individuals that already have an impressive portfolio. One could argue that the higher number of publications is a result of these investigators to already attract the best and brightest young minds and were already producing at a high level. A comparison can also be made to the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and the success of HHMI funded researchers. However, a major difference between the NIH and HHMI programs is that HHMI funding can be renewed whereas the PIONEER award is non-renewable.
In the end, the number of PIONEER awards given compared to the number of R01 awards is vastly different (seven versus thousands). Furthermore, it is highly unlikely that the NIH would eliminate the R01 funding mechanism. Thus the question is if the NIH is to move more towards the funding people not projects mechanism, how many awards and what amount of money would be shifted? And how would the individuals receiving the awards be selected to make it a fair process?
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