Business & Tech

Scientists worry about plan to cap individual labs’ federal funding

FILE - This Nov. 13, 2008 file photo shows the campus of Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass. The Ivy League school is the alma mater for seven chief executives who led their companies’ IPOs in 2014, more than twice the amount of the next-highest schools in the rankings, according to figures from Equilar, an executive compensation data firm. (AP Photo/Lisa Poole, File)

Associated Press/File 2008

Harvard’s research may be affected if the National Institutes of Health revamps the way it funds labs.

Doug Melton, one of the nation’s top stem cell scientists, juggles research and other programs at his Harvard University lab, which is funded by a half-dozen grants from the National Institutes of Health — the federal agency that has long been the engine for US biomedical research.

But like other senior scientists in the Boston area, he stands to lose some of that funding under a proposed NIH cap on the number of grants it awards to individual labs. The goal is to boost support for young researchers, but more established labs worry the effect would be to divert backing from projects generating potential medical breakthroughs.

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“If you have a sports team, you want Tom Brady on the field every time,” said Melton, codirector of the Harvard Stem Cell Institute and the Harvard Department of Stem Cell and Regenerative Biology. “You don’t want the second string or the third string.”

The proposal, advanced last month by NIH director Francis Collins, has drawn a torrent of criticism from scientific blogs to postings on a comment section of the NIH’s website. It is scheduled to be brought before an NIH advisory panel Thursday, amid speculation the agency may be forced to scrap or modify the plan.

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NIH officials declined to comment on whether those options are being considered.

Typical of the critics is Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Bob Weinberg, who runs the Weinberg Laboratory of Cancer Biology at the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research. “This will cripple some types of science,” he said. “It’s going to make a mess.”

Collins’ plan would create a point system, called a grant support index, that would effectively restrict funding for a single lab head — known as a principal investigator — to the equivalent of three of the agency’s bread-and-butter grants that each can total about $250,000 a year. Such a move would funnel more money to early-stage investigators, who now get less than 10 percent of their grant proposals funded and often find it hard to move their research forward.

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NIH funding has become “highly skewed,” with about 10 percent of grant recipients getting more than 40 percent of funding, Collins wrote in a statement on the NIH website. The problem could become more acute if Congress approves massive NIH budget cuts proposed by the Trump administration, reducing the pot of money to be distributed.

“Because scientific discovery is inherently unpredictable, there are reasons to believe that supporting more researchers working on a diversity of biomedical problems, rather than concentrating resources in a smaller number of labs, might maximize the number of discoveries that can emerge from the science we support,” Collins wrote.

But the plan has created anxiety in the Greater Boston biomedical cluster, where many large academic labs run by prominent scientists draw a disproportionate share of NIH funds — and generate much of the innovation in fields such as cancer treatment. Massachusetts universities and hospitals received $2.5 billion in NIH grants last year, more than 10 percent of the agency’s $24.8 billion in total awards, and the highest per-capita bounty of any state.

The amount that may be lost isn’t clear because NIH funding for individual labs includes multi-institutional grants and training grants assigned through different cost centers.

Senior scientists say they are sympathetic to the idea of increasing support for younger researchers, but suggest that it could be done by other means, such as setting aside a pool of money for that purpose. They warn that a blanket cap could have “significant unintended consequences,” in the words of Tyler Jacks, director of MIT’s Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research.

“I’m a big believer in making things merit-based,” said Bob Langer, an institute professor at MIT who runs one of the nation’s most productive research labs at the Koch Institute.

“I think you’d want to fund the highest-quality science . . . Anything that funds poorer science has a negative effect on Massachusetts and on the nation and the world.”

The scientists also fear the point system could penalize work done under multi-institutional NIH grants that involve researchers from multiple labs, often in the Boston area.

“Science in Massachusetts is done in a collaborative mode where researchers share data and expertise,” said Phillip Sharp, a cofounder of Biogen Inc. who now runs a lab at MIT. Pulling funds from institutions that exceed a cap “would be a step backward,” he said.

Young researchers applaud NIH incentives to help them launch new labs and studies, though they say they’d prefer that it not come at the expense of more experienced colleagues.

“The sentiment makes a lot of sense,” said Omid Veiseh, a former postdoctoral researcher in the Langer Lab who was recently hired as an assistant professor in the bioengineering department at Rice University in Houston, where he hopes to set up a lab.

“Junior faculty members, the people starting labs, don’t have the track record, and you’re competing with established labs. Early-career investigators are going to be the future of biomedical research.”

Another postdoc, Madeleine Julie Oudin, parlayed her experience at another MIT lab into a faculty job in Tufts University’s bioengineering department. She hopes to establish a lab there to research how cancer cells spread through the body, but said her plans rely on funding. She said the average age of scientists receiving NIH grants is more than 40.

“NIH funding is definitely a concern,” Oudin said. “Writing grant after grant takes a lot of time from the [lab] bench and is a big part of a junior investigator’s job.”

To support his proposal, the NIH’s Collins cited studies showing that “research output gradually diminishes as the amount of support per investigator increases.”

Critics, however, said the studies fail to consider factors — such as patents generated and companies created — that are critical to the agency’s goal of advancing science that cures and treats diseases.

“The primary goal should be to maximize innovation to benefit society,” said mid-career scientist Jeffrey Karp, an associate professor at Harvard Medical School who runs a Partners HealthCare laboratory that he said is currently bumping up against the cap.

“The people who get a lot of grants are typically the people who are on the edge of breakthroughs.”

Robert Weisman can be reached at robert.weisman@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeRobW.
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