Due to budget concerns, the NIH has added an extra review to all grant applications from investigators currently receiving $1 million or more in agency funding.

In the interest of good fiscal management, the NIH has added an extra review to all grant applications from investigators who receive $1 million or more per year in direct costs from the agency to support research project grants.

The move is not intended to change the pattern of funding, says Sally Rockey, PhD, NIH's deputy director for extramural research, the program for funding nongovernment research. “It doesn't represent a cap; it just represents that second consideration.”

The policy, which takes effect this month, is part of a broader effort to manage federal research spending at a time of budget austerity, according to Rockey. The NIH has essentially had a flat budget since 2003.

Requests for NIH funding for investigator-initiated research project grants have risen 3-fold—from $4.4 billion in 1998 to more than $13 billion in 2011—at a time when funding only doubled from roughly $1 billion to $2 billion, and the agency was trying to keep individual award sizes stable. This increase in demand relative to supply meant that only 18% of grant applicants were successful last year. “It's the lowest it's been in our history,” notes Rockey. “There's a lot of really great science that doesn't get funded.”

The agency has tried to cope with stagnant funding by focusing on its key priorities. Among them: getting early-career researchers launched without discouraging scientists who are further along. “It's a fine balance to be able to assure that new investigators are getting funded but established investigators can keep going as well,” says Rockey.

NIH, she adds, has also designated special funds to promote particularly innovative research, and to balance spending between translational research that's likely to benefit patients in just a few years, and basic research, which undergirds future advances.

In the new grant review process, labs and principal investigators already receiving $1 million or more to cover direct costs will come under extra review. The previous threshold was $1.5 million in total costs. Rockey estimates that about 100 researchers will be affected per funding round, 80% to 85% of whom would have been flagged for a second review under the higher threshold.

The policy is not an attempt to rein in funding to major universities or repeat recipients, Rockey says. “We're not trying to spread the wealth. We're just trying to ensure that we want to commit further resources to that individual.”

There are no specific criteria for withholding funding from someone who already receives $1 million or more in NIH awards. Instead, the funding NIH Institute or Center would need to decide whether the application is a high priority for them given other current NIH investments, she says.

“It's tough times for all of us, but we really are focusing on our high priority areas,” explains Rockey. “We're riding the storm as best we can.”