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Project-ing the Future: Do team-based project grants provide the answer during a funding crisis?

December 2008--Every Friday morning in the Broadway Research Building, a team of Hopkins biomedical researchers from six different departments meets over coffee and, occasionally, a delicious challah brought by pathology professor Jonathan Schneck to discuss their latest work and future ideas in the field of immunology. However, this is more than mere informal shop talk; it's an integral part of a $10.3 million project grant Hopkins has recently been awarded to elucidate the biology behind T cell activation, the largest basic immunology grant the medical school has ever received.

They're not alone. A few floors below in the BRB, principal investigator Min Li and colleagues at the

Hopkins HiT Center are busy developing a new Ion Channel Center as part of a $10 million

NIH Roadmap grant. And in the adjacent Ross Building, Andrew Feinberg, director of the Center for Epigenetics, is coordinating efforts with researchers at four other institutions on another $10 million NIH project aimed at mapping the epigenome behind schizophrenia.

This influx of funds is great news, especially in an era when budgets are tight. However, some people contend that these few awards are just a first step, and that we are moving towards a future model where large, consortium-based projects are the standard in academic research. But that move may end up coming back to haunt science.

Those in favor of science moving towards working groups of larger consortia, through awards like program project grants (P01), cite that both investigators and funding agencies involved stand to benefit. On the investigator side, they have the opportunity to get together with researchers in different fields and tackle questions that would be unanswerable under an individual research grant (R01).

And that certainly has its merits. "I saw this grant as a great way to build bridges and cement relationships amongst faculty at the school of medicine, ICE, and Homewood that share a similar interest, just from different points of view," says Schneck, the PI on the project grant who helped coalesce the immunology group. Other team members are IBBS Director Stephen Desiderio (Department of Molecular Biology and Genetics), Michael Edidin (Biology), Abraham Kupfer (Cell Biology), Joel Pomerantz (Biological Chemistry) and Jonathan Powell (Oncology). Such multi-investigator grants also help less established (or down-on-their-luck) investigators join up with more experienced colleagues and build up some valuable results and publications for the future.

On the funding agency side, it's simple economies of scale. These "big picture" projects in which investigators combine talents and resources are extremely cost effective, as scientists working together can often achieve synergistic results.

Many scientists, though, would be quick to disagree with the "everybody wins" assessment. And it's not only because of the slippery slope of universities slowly losing their individuality. "Program projects grants certainly have the potential to lead to tremendous advancements," notes Pomerantz. "However, I do think that most advancements and even groundbreaking discoveries come and will come from individual investigators working on their specialties and funded by individual investigator-initiated grants."

Pomerantz believes traditional R01 grants allow an investigator to pursue research with the freedom to follow up on serendipitous discoveries that can't be predicted at the outset. "And if you look back, unexpected discoveries are more likely to lead to paradigm-changing insights and advancements." Consortium grants, though, certainly want a good return on their investment, and frequently require a straight-line approach. In some ways, they might even be considered as stifling from a creative standpoint.

Another important point is that the most successful big projects have a solid foundation of individually obtained results. And without investigators continuing to look at basic problems, the next wave of consortium grants risk being little more than giant fishing expeditions. "Just take a look at immunology," Pomerantz says. "It's still an exciting field because we still have so many outstanding questions. Researchers are still finding new molecules, new mechanisms, new roles for cytokines, and even new immune cell subtypes are currently being discovered." In fact, Schneck points out that some of the program project's grant brainstorming led Kupfer and Edinin to write up a separate NIH grant, which was recently funded.

It seems clear then that individual and program grants feed off each other. "The work of individual scientists, driven by curiosity, will likely always define the edge of knowledge," says Desiderio, "but for a group to coalesce around shared interests is also something special, something that supports and enriches each project while providing a larger, richer context in which to understand the system under study."

--Nick Zagorski

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