A Junior Researcher’s Opinion on the NIH Grant Support Index (GSI)

A Junior Researcher’s Opinion on the NIH Grant Support Index (GSI)

*UPDATE: Contact the NIH and submit your opinions on this issue – see how here*


This is a guest post by Future of Research board member, Adriana Bankston.


The NIH Grant Support Index (GSI) program was first announced by Dr. Francis Collins, NIH Director, and further explained in a post by Mike Lauer, Director of Extramural Research, on May 2, 2017. The GSI was established in order to address the problem of “a biomedical research workforce dangerously out of balance.” This is part of a larger issue related to the overall distribution of NIH grant funding, in which 10% of investigators receive over 40% of NIH funding. Therefore, the goal of the GSI was to “limit the total NIH grant support provided to an individual principal investigator through NIH-supported research,” in order to restore balance in the biomedical workforce.


On June 7, 2017, the Future of Research (FoR) Board of Directors expressed support for the NIH GSI in terms of distributing research dollars efficiently to a number of NIH investigators, including early and mid-career investigators. This decision would also allow junior academics to have a voice in the conversation and contribute to scientific advances within the biomedical enterprise.


However, on June 8, 2017, Dr. Francis Collins announced the NIH’s decision to replace the GSI-based funding cap with the Next Generation Researcher’s Initiative (NGRI), an initiative focused instead on the rearrangement of funds “to bolster support to early- and mid-career investigators.” On June 16, 2017, the FoR Board of Directors urged the NIH to reconsider their decision of abandoning the GSI initiative in favor of the NGRI, as this decision will severely diminish the ability of all scientists to have a voice in research, leading to only a select few, potentially well-funded, investigators, being able to make decisions in the scientific enterprise.


Many investigators of all stages were also disappointed by the decision of the NIH to abandon the GSI, including Dr. Mark Peifer (UNC), who started a petition in support of the GSI. As I share the concerns put forth by this petition, I signed the petition and expressed my views in the response below:



Overall, I support this petition for biomedical research sustainability and a future shaped by all scientists. I believe it is absolutely imperative to support the efforts of early and mid-career investigators – if we don’t, the most promising young minds will leave science to the detriment of the overall scientific enterprise.


Many of these same concerns were shared by Mark Peifer (UNC), Charles Easley (UGA), Tom Pollard (Yale) and Jessica Polka (Whitehead Institute) in a post published this summer from ASCB. I wanted to highlight some broad general ideas that were common among them and stood out as important:


  1. Why is the GSI a good idea? I believe the GSI would allow for a more even distribution of funds to help also early career investigators, as was argued by all four contributors to the ASCB post. I would suggest that early career scientists be given a strong voice in shaping this enterprise, in line with the mission of FoR to champion, engage and empower early career scientists with evidence-based resources to improve the scientific research endeavor. This would also ensure that scientists at all levels can contribute to moving the enterprise forward.
  2. Are large lab sizes the answer? Although intuitively more people can produce more data to move science forward, this is not always true and depends on many factors. This was an interesting topic for me. I agree with Mark Peifer’s ASCB statement that large, well-funded labs don’t always produce the most impactful science. In 2010, when Jeremy Berg was the head of NIGMS, middle sized labs were predicted to be best. Tom Pollard also made the point that funding doesn’t always equal increased productivity in his ASCB statement. In fact, diminishing returns were the result of increased funding in a 2015 MIT study discussed in Jessica Polka’s ASCB statement.
  3. What is the goal of the scientific enterprise? While much of what dominates academia is the focus on an individual PI’s career, I would argue that we should instead focus on moving the entire enterprise forward at the expense of individual gain. This idea, also suggested in Jessica Polka’s ASCB statement, would require a shift in thinking from an individual to a collective academic culture.
  4. What is the outlook for current trainees who want to enter academia? The fact that the outlook for current trainees who want a career in academia isn’t great, a point brought up in Charles Easley’s ASCB statement, is perhaps the most disturbing aspect of NIH’s decision to abandon the GSI. As we can’t give a very promising and positive answer to this question currently, this is of great concern to me, especially when reading opinions by trainees themselves, such as the ASCB statement by Sam Dundon, a postdoc in Tom Pollard’s lab at Yale.


These four points are not trivial, but some that we must think deeply about and try to find solutions to if we want the scientific enterprise to be sustainable in the future. I believe that the future of the enterprise is one in which all scientists (including junior scientists) have a voice, where scientific impact is not defined by lab size, and where the success of the collective is more important than that of individual investigators.


*UPDATE: Contact the NIH and submit your opinions on this issue – see how here*

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