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From Projects to People

The US National Institutes of Health is considering a plan to focus more on grants that support individual researchers rather than research projects, Nature News reports.

On a smaller scale, the agency has tried this through its Pioneer Awards that support high-risk, high-reward work of individual researchers by giving them an average of $500,000 per year for five years.

“It’s time to look at balancing our portfolio,” NIH Director Francis Collins says. Nature News adds that Collins plans to propose the idea at a meeting in early January. Collins notes that the popular the R01 grants would stay in place.

An analysis of the Pioneer Awards, conducted by the agency in 2012, found that recipients of those awards published more highly cited papers and have productivity levels close to that of Howard Hughes Medical Institute researchers. “We get more innovation per dollar,” James Anderson, the director of the Program Coordination, Planning, and Strategic Initiatives division at NIH, tells Nature News.

Critics say, though, that there is no evidence such an approach does have those effects. “'People versus projects’ is the HHMI bumper sticker, but it’s a misreading of what makes the HHMI great,” Pierre Azoulay, an MIT economist, tells Nature News. Azoulay suggests that the productivity of HHMI researchers may be tied to the longer funding time, which gives researchers more time to be innovative.