An expert panel has urged the National Institute of General Medical Sciences (NIGMS) to scrap an 11-year, $368 million foray into big biology. Only two of the NIH institute's five original "glue grants" were clear successes, concludes an outside review released Wednesday, and at least one grant had "significant flaws."
The glue grants began with much fanfare in 2000 as a way to tackle problems too big for a single lab. But some projects, which typically involved dozens of scientists at many institutions, were more effective than others, according to a panel chaired by molecular biologist Norma Allewell of the University of Maryland, College Park. The report, which drew on a community survey, a literature analysis, and Web site usage, doesn't match the ratings with individual projects. But NIGMS biophysics grants administrator Peter Preusch confirmed ScienceInsider's educated guesses.
One "substantial success" was the Consortium for Functional Glycomics, which developed arrays, mouse models, and other resources for researchers studying sugar molecules that cells use to communicate. The other winner was a project exploring the biology of why patients respond differently to inflammation from a severe burn or trauma. It has led to new protocols that are saving lives, the report says.
Projects on lipid metabolism and cell migration were a "mixed success," the panel found. And the one with "significant flaws" was the Alliance for Cell Signaling, which set out to map cell-signaling pathways in heart muscle cells and immune cells. It also was the only one of the five that NIGMS phased out early, after seven rather than 10 years.
So what went awry? The report points to inadequate oversight by NIGMS, goals set by the groups that were "inflexible" or "too sweeping or too narrow," "missing expertise," and poor outreach to the rest of the scientific community. One common weakness was databases. Often investigators generated data, for example, on the functions of molecules, that weren't easily converted into computer-readable form for use by the broader scientific community, Preusch says. "They were figuring it out as they went along," Preusch says.
The few (127) responses to the online community survey reflect these criticisms. Many of those not directly involved with the projects deemed them a waste of money. And even one participant in the lipid glue grant called it a "boondoggle."
NIGM devoted 1.8% of its $2-billion-a-year budget to the program, and as NIH's budget flattened, that set-aside has became increasingly controversial. The panel shared this concern: "The majority strongly questioned whether grants of this size are justified at a time when many investigators, particularly young investigators, are experiencing severe difficulty in obtaining and sustaining funding."
In the end, the panel found that "the scope and impact" of the glue grants program was "not commensurate with the investment." Thirteen of 16 panelists voted to discontinue the glue grants after the newest ones run out in 2015.
The full panel felt NIGMS should still support large-scale research through "smaller but more numerous awards." The report suggests that any new program should include more rigorous reviews and "a relentless focus on important problems."
"The panel did not say we should walk away from large science altogether," Preusch says. But "clearly, it should be done differently."