Analysing the research funding profiles of the NIH, FPs and the ERC

Published in Microbiology
Analysing the research funding profiles of the NIH, FPs and the ERC

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Evolution of priorities in strategic funding for collaborative health research. A comparison of the European Union Framework Programmes to the program funding by the United States National Institutes of Health

The historical research-funding model, based on the curiosity and academic interests of researchers, is giving way to new strategic funding models that seek to meet societal needs. We investigated the impact of this trend on health research funded by the two leading funding bodies worldwide, i.e. the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in the United States, and the framework programs of the European Union (EU). To this end, we performed a quantitative analysis of the content of projects supported through programmatic funding by the EU and NIH, in the period 2008-2014 and 2015-2020. We used machine learning for classification of projects as basic biomedical research, or as more implementation directed clinical therapeutic research, diagnostics research, population research, or policy and management research. In addition, we analyzed funding for major disease areas (cancer, cardio-metabolic and infectious disease). We found that EU collaborative health research projects clearly shifted towards more implementation research. In the US, the recently implemented UM1 program has a similar profile with strong clinical therapeutic research, while other NIH programs remain heavily oriented to basic biomedical research. Funding for cancer research is present across all NIH and EU programs, and in biomedical as well as more implementation directed projects, while infectious diseases is an emerging theme. We conclude that demand for solutions for medical needs leads to expanded funding for implementation- and impact-oriented research. Basic biomedical research remains present in programs driven by scientific initiative and strategies based on excellence, but may be at risk of declining funding opportunities.

I am sure that many of the readers of the Nature Research Microbiology Community have applied or plan to apply for funding to support their research projects, and more than one plans to apply one of the three largest sources of funding for research: the National Institutes Health of the United States (NIH), the Framework Programmes of the European Commission (FPs) and the European Research Council (ERC). ERC funding is strongly rooted in the traditional bottom-up model in which researchers propose research projects, which are fundamentally selected based on the scientific merits of both the proposal and the proposing researcher or research group. This same model is also in force at the NIH with its paradigmatic R01 funding mechanism only limited by the broad areas of interest of each of the centres that make up the NIH. On the other hand, the financing of FPs obeys a completely different logic; these are large amounts of financing aimed at supporting scientific collaboration projects that address the strategic knowledge and technology needs of the European Union. In the case of FPs, the proposals with the greatest potential to satisfy the knowledge needs expressed in the calls are selected. There are, on the other hand, funding mechanisms within the NIH that share characteristics with the FP funding model since 1) they fund research programs made up of a set of individual projects with strong coordination among themselves, as is the case of the mechanism P01, or 2) fund projects that require the participation of NIH research staff in order to guide research efforts towards satisfying the strategic objectives of the centres that make up the NIH (such as U01 projects). There are other mechanisms that combine these two characteristics and fund large collaborative research projects with a high degree of involvement of NIH staff. The latter are the UM1 mechanisms that begin to operate in 2011.

We, an interdisciplinary team of researchers, wonder if, from a macroscopic perspective, these health research financing mechanisms (P01, U01 and UM1) support projects linked to different levels of research in a similar way to FPs and how these research portfolios have evolved. over time [1]. In our study we consider the following levels of research: basic biomedical research, therapeutic clinical research, diagnostic research, research on risk factors in the population, and health management and policies. The content of more than 26 thousand health research projects funded by both the NIH and the FPs and the ERC were quantitatively analysed, and the projects were classified using machine learning at one of the previous levels. What we found was very interesting. The P01 funding mechanism behaves very similarly to the ERC-funded projects in the sense that both are strongly focused on basic biomedical research and remain relatively stable over time (Figures 1 and 2).  On the other hand, the U01 mechanism behaves very much like the FP7 (2008-2014) of the European Commission, in the sense of a balanced distribution of its projects between the different levels of research (Figures 1 and 2). Although on the other hand U01, unlike FPs, does not change over time from this perspective. Finally, UM1, which is the most recent of the mechanisms analysed, is very similar to Horizon 2020, the Framework Program whose projects operated between 2014 and 2021 (Figures 1 and 2).

Figure 1. Heat map and clustering of funding programs according to codified domains of health for research projects in NIH-U01, NIH-P01, UM1 ERC-LS and FP7-health and H2020-health.

Figure 2. Percentage distribution of projects classified through machine learning by health research levels in NIH-U01, NIH-P01, UM1 ERC-LS and FP7-health and H2020-health

Before doing a brief speculation exercise and commenting on my ongoing research, I remind my readers that the research that I mention in this blog is a working paper and that the results and their interpretation may still change. Some readers may wonder if funding for basic biomedical research will continue to lose ground to the prioritization of research at the clinical, population, and organizational levels. It's hard to know at this point. Funding mechanism that represent an enlargement of R01 in terms of time and funding such as R35 and R37 present a fundamentally basic research profile and we believe that the same is true for R01 which is the basic instrument of the NIH. However, in our ongoing research we have reached out to a variety of government, philanthropic, and industrial funding sources, and in all of them we are finding signs that research at the basic biomedical level is losing relevance compared to other levels of research, probably due to the expectation of obtaining a greater social impact.

I would love to read your opinion, questions and suggestions in the comment section below and it would be great if you read the article.


[1] Fajardo-Ortiz D, Thijs B, Glanzel W, Sipido KR. Evolution of priorities in strategic funding for collaborative health research. A comparison of the European Union Framework Programmes to the program funding by the United States National Institutes of Health. arXiv preprint arXiv:2308.07162. 2023 Aug 14.

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