Many scientists have criticized the NIH’s main grant mechanism (R01) as too focused on preliminary data, too conservative and incremental, etc.
As one scientist wrote, “Nobody ever proposes the really exciting thing they want to do, instead they just propose what reviewers will think is safe and reasonable. . . . I think most applicants and reviewers are acutely aware of this, hence the maxim ‘An NIH grant should have 3 aims: 2 you’ve already done and 1 you’re never going to do.’”
Or as a university VP of research told me, “The NIH doesn’t fund research, it REfunds research.”
An alternative idea is “fund the person, not the project,” or perhaps “fund the program, not the project.”
Why? So that scientists aren’t tied down to whatever was written in a grant proposal several years ago, but instead have more agreed-on flexibility to change their approach and follow the best ideas.
After all, science is a constantly evolving process. As one scientist wrote, “if I ever end up in a situation where I’m actually doing what I thought I was going to do 5 years ago, I should probably be fired for complete lack of imagination.”
The recent R35 mechanism at NIH is therefore an exciting possibility. R35 grants provide researchers with funding that isn’t limited to one particular project or idea, but instead give researchers more flexibility to do what they do best: explore interesting scientific ideas that emerge along the way.
The R35 is best known for its use at the National Institute of General Medical Sciences (NIGMS), where it is called the Maximizing Investigators’ Research Award program, or MIRA. MIRA has existed since 2015 at NIGMS.
R35 recipients widely praise the grant for allowing them more flexibility to keep up with the times. For example:
Genetics professor Justin Cotney at the University of Connecticut told the campus newspaper, “Currently the field of genomics is moving at an incredibly fast pace; the technologies and experimental approaches are improving every few months. The MIRA R35 mechanism gives me the flexibility to adjust my research and utilize cutting-edge techniques as they become available. . . . [It] allows me to get back into the lab and work on some of the riskier projects that require more experienced hands, instead of spending the bulk of my time writing grants.”
- Ken Halvorsen, an RNA biologist at SUNY Albany, recently wrote a Twitter thread about a recent paper of his in Nature Communications. He ended by saying that his creative line of research “wouldn’t have been possible without flexible R35 funding for the lab from [NIGMS]. I’m confident this project would have gotten the dreaded ‘ND’ [not discussed] as a normal grant proposal.”
- Holly Prigerson of Weill Cornell said that her R35 from the National Cancer Institute “has transformed my approach to doing research,” and has “given me more time and more funding to actually do the science. . . . It has been almost universally good for me, my research program, and my mentees.”
- Daniel Lew of Duke said, “The R35 consolidates funding and gives me more freedom to pursue what I find most interesting, and to be judged by overall progress. Having fewer grants to write and a longer timeframe were attractive enough to offset the anticipated 12% cut in overall funding.”
Although empirical evidence is limited, NIGMS Director Jon Lorsch presented some unpublished data in May 2022 showing that MIRA investigators have “slightly higher productivity and citations than comparable” investigators with R01s.
That’s nice, but publications and citations aren’t the best measures anyway. If we have a grant program that gives scientists more flexibility and freedom, I might expect that after 20 years, the number of outside-the-box discoveries will rise. A short-term study of the average rate of publications and citations will probably miss that impact entirely.
Unfortunately, the R35 grant isn’t used to its maximum capability.
R35s are only used at 8 of the NIH Institutes and Centers, and only for fewer than 3% of NIH grants.
In 2019, 2020, and 2021, there were only 6,053 R35 awards across all of NIH out of 224,582 projects across the same three-year period.
Almost all of the R35 awards (4,807) were from NIGMS. There were also:
- 491 from the National Cancer Institute (where it is called the Outstanding Investigator Award)
- 55 from the National Human Genome Research Institute
- 336 from the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute (where it is called either the Outstanding Investigator Award or the Emerging Investigator Award)
- 34 from the National Institute of Aging
- 35 from the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research
- 58 from the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences
- 229 from the National Institute for Neurological Disorders and Stroke (where it is called the Research Program Award, and gives funding of up to $750k per year for up to 8 years), and
- 12 from the Director’s Office.
A good start, but not enough. We could easily double the use of R35s at NIH Institutes and Centers other than NIGMS.
All of that said, some have argued that R35s can still be too restrictive. Is that a valid concern?
At NIGMS—which currently gives out about four times as many R35s as the rest of NIH put together—investigators are limited to one MIRA grant for which they have to budget at least 51% of their research time, and they aren’t allowed to seek other NIGMS grants. Due to these restrictions, some investigators (particularly at highly-paid institutions) could find that if they accept an R35 (MIRA) from NIGMS, much of the grant is taken up by their own salary, and they are left with less time to commit to other grants—all of which could make it difficult to sustain a lab with several members.
That said, there are some obvious tradeoffs here. The funding rates for MIRA tend to be much higher than for R01s. For example, in 2021, NIGMS funded only about 20% of R01 proposals from established investigators, compared to around 60% of MIRA proposals. The average funding per MIRA was higher than the funding per R01 as well. Perhaps due to higher funding rates, the pool of MIRA investigators tends to be more diverse along racial and gender grounds than R01s. And despite claims that the MIRA funding is too restrictive, MIRA grantees tend to have fewer applications to other NIH Institutes and Centers than do R01 grantees.
In other words, the MIRA program funds a broader range of scientists, takes up less of their time with bureaucracy and endless proposals, and lessens the need to engage in hyper-competition and grantsmanship. Seems like a worthwhile experiment. After all, if MIRA gave fewer and larger awards, that would reduce funding rates and create a competitive race to submit more and more proposals.
The R35 seems particularly promising and valuable as an NIH initiative. It should likely be used more often, and should be studied rigorously to evaluate the impacts. In other words, Congress should ask NIH to:
- Double usage of the R35 at Institutes and Centers (other than NIGMS), so as to broaden the sample size necessary to study the R35’s impact;
- Develop a small, pilot randomized experiment inviting certain investigators to apply for new R35s, so that they can ultimately be compared to a control group not sent such an invitation;
- Make sufficient data available to external evaluators to study the effect of the R35 mechanism as compared to the R01.
 These statistics can be calculated from https://reporter.nih.gov.