Trends in Stem Cell Research Funding: where do we go from here?

My post yesterday on the problems with the current system of stem cell funding generated a lot of interest from readers– more than a dozen left comments.

Many of the comments were insightful even if readers disagreed on certain points.

David Jensen also posted on an interesting piece on this issue in response to our post. Jensen’s piece was more focused specifically on how these research funding issues apply to the CIRM funding process, an issue touched on by certain commenters on this blog.

One reader also direct us to a very intriguing blog post by the Director of the NIGMS, Jeremy Berg. On this post, Director Berg posted some compelling data suggesting that research funding beyond approximately $400-500,000 does not increase research productivity/impact (see image of graph above that I swiped from his blog: credit to Dr. Berg). Be sure to read the comments under Dr. Berg’s post as they are extremely interesting as well.

An important question would be whether if one could obtain and graph the data from CIRM, would you see the same trends?  Almost certainly you would see the same trend at CIRM. One metric for CIRM would be # of publications x mean impact factor/ total research funding.

So we have identified some potential areas that need to be addressed in the current general funding system for stem cell research across the U.S.

What about solutions?

Increased payline for new PIs at CIRM across the board. One idea fully adopted by NIH that has had a huge positive impact is to make funding decisions for new investigators with a different payline than established investigators.  In this NIH system new PIs get anywhere from 2% to 6% higher paylines. What this means is that new PIs may get grants funded with scores that for established PIs would not be funded.  At this time CIRM does not use a system like this so new PIs must compete with established PIs. The way CIRM specifically has helped new PIs is with their New Faculty grants such as the one that I received. These grants are incredibly helpful, but CIRM could go one step further and adopt the same kind of “boost” for funding for new PIs for all grant RFAs. Since new PIs by definition would not already have funding from CIRM, such a payline boost could be extremely helpful in balancing things out. So for example if Dr. J, who is a new PI, and I both applied for a CIRM grant, and we received scores right on the cutoff, Dr. J might get his/her grant funded, while mine may not get funded since I am not a new PI.  To me this would be an improvement on the current system even though it might lower my chances as an established CIRM PI to get more funding.

Restrictions on the number of total grants that any one PI can have collectively from funding agencies. I think limiting the total number of grants that any single researcher can have (given by any funding agency) would be positive. I realize this is a controversial idea, but in light of the graph above indicating reduced impact by giving the same researchers huge amounts of funding, the idea may be a good one. CIRM currently limits PIs to only three grants, while as far as I know NIH does not have an explicit limit.  A simple search turns up CIRM-funded researchers that between their funding from CIRM and other funding agencies, have 6-8 large grants. Some have as many as 10 grants. Good for them, but probably bad for the field. At what point can a researcher really continue to devote the needed effort to all these research projects?

The other idea I proposed in my post yesterday is for funding agencies to evaluate not only the potential impact of the research they might fund (aka research impact) but also the impact of the funding decisions (funding impact). In this sense, the same unit of funding might have more impact when given to an investigator or an institution that in essence needs the funds more than another investigator or institution.

Other ideas?

Important previous posts on this general topic include Aristotle versus the Big Mac and Should NIH limit the grant funding to PIs?

3 Comments


  1. CIRM and NIH have different missions. CIRM’s mission is supposed to be more finite and translational. Wouldn’t this difference mean that “impact” and priorities might be defined differently too making it harder to intercompare?
    However, this could also make it far more tempting for CIRM grant reviewers to be biased in favor of the already established labs and famous universities, no matter how rich they already are in terms of funding $, because it seems like those people and places are inherently already “ahead of the game” and therefore more likely to get their research into the clinic?


  2. Good points Lisa.
    I hope folks these posts are taken as what I meant them: opening a dialogue on ideal ways to fund stem cell research to accelerate cures. Hopefully I am not public enemy #1


  3. I’m a CIRM grantee. I know other commenters on your blog, Paul, who are also CIRM grantees or have applied for funding.
    You shouldn’t pay a price for tactfully raising issues of how funding decisions might be improved. The community of stem cell researchers mostly agrees with you I think, but are too afraid to say so publicly.

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