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    NIH drops controversial plan to cap funding for individual labs

    Scientific research in labs like this one at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge count on NIH funding.
    Kayana Szymczak for STAT
    Scientific research in labs like this one at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge count on NIH funding.

    Officials at the federal agency that funds medical research have scrapped a controversial plan to free up money for young researchers by capping the amount of grant money it gives to individual labs.

    The funding limit proposed by the National Institutes of Health — which last year handed out nearly $25 billion in research awards to universities and hospitals across the country — came under fire from senior scientists in the Boston area and elsewhere who run labs that stood to lose funding.

    In its place, the NIH will establish new policies to boost support for early-career lab heads — called principal investigators — and set aside a fresh pool of cash totaling $210 million this year and increasing to $1.1 billion a year in five years.

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    The amount directed to first-time grant applicants, labs losing NIH support, and mid-career scientists considered “rising stars” is expected to be approximately twice as much as it would have been under the initial proposal to limit grants to individual labs, NIH director Francis Collins said in a conference call with reporters Thursday afternoon.

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    Agency officials were vague about where the new cash pool would come from, promising a “reprioritization of funds” from established labs and other programs.

    “It will have to come from somewhere,” Collins said. “Some of it will still come from those [labs] that are heavily funded. If we’re going to do something to help the next generation of researchers, we have to find the money somewhere.”

    Leaders of large research labs in Greater Boston, which draw a disproportionate share of NIH grants, had warned the initial plan could harm biomedical innovation by diverting funds from the labs with successful track records. It would have created a point system restricting funding for a single lab to the equivalent of three of NIH’s bread-and-butter grants.

    “We have an unusual number of extraordinary investigators here doing extraordinary things,” said Nobel Laureate Phillip Sharp, who runs a molecular biology lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “Any artificial cap would push everyone down.”

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    But junior scientists seeking to launch their own labs to advance their research are facing “hypercompetition” for scarce NIH funds at a time when the White House has proposed cutting the agency’s budget, said Gary McDowell, executive director of the Future of Research, a Brockton-based nonprofit representing early-career researchers.

    “If they target early- and mid-career investigators with a specific mechanism, that would be welcome,” said McDowell, a former researcher at Boston Children’s Hospital and Tufts University’s biology department. “The question is where the money is going to come from.”

    McDowell said the debate over the NIH’s proposed cap had become “poisonous and toxic,” with senior scientists “insulting the junior folks and saying they’re not deserving of the money.”

    The agency’s new proposal, called Next Generation of Researchers Initiative, was outlined in a presentation to an NIH advisory panel Thursday afternoon by principal deputy director Lawrence Tabak. Under the plan, NIH officials will keep tabs on funding decisions for early-career and mid-career investigators.

    “We are shifting toward a bold, more focused approach to bolster support to early- and mid-career investigators while we continue to work with experts on approaches to evaluate our research portfolio,” Collins wrote in a statement posted on the NIH’s website.

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