Guest Update by Dr. John E. Niederhuber
Multiple PIs Will Promote Team Science
Conducting biomedical research has become a remarkably complex undertaking. Today, cancer researchers are asking highly sophisticated questions and proposing multifaceted scientific initiatives that require expertise from many individuals - individuals coming from quite different scientific backgrounds. These collective approaches, often using advanced technology platforms and intricate analytical tools, are allowing researchers the ability to apply a systems approach to the study of diseases such as cancer. Both the complexity of the research and the sophistication of the technology require a team approach.
As a result, cancer research has increasingly become a multidisciplinary effort led by a team of expert scientists. These days it is not atypical to have several expert principal investigators (PIs) come together, bringing varied areas of expertise such as high-volume microsequencing, protein chemistry, crystallography, and the application of mass spectroscopy and molecular immunology to bear on the question at hand - talents no longer possible in a single individual.
While this seems to be an obvious and straightforward approach for the current era of discovery, it is not without its barriers. For example, our current academic environment does not easily recognize or appropriately credit this team approach to science.
Allowing multiple PIs on a single award was one of the major recommendations from a 2003 symposium, "NIH Bioengineering Consortium Symposium on Catalyzing Team Science," and is consistent with the goals of the NIH Roadmap initiative.
Dr. Daniel Sullivan, who heads NCI's Cancer Imaging Program, played a central role in bringing about this change, serving as co-chair of the NIH committee that worked for more than a year to develop this new funding model. In fact, the first program incorporating the multiple-PI model will be the NCI Small Animal Imaging Resource (SAIR) Program. The announcement was published in the February 10 NIH Guide for Grants and Contracts.
The SAIR program funds extramural research aimed at generating innovation in small animal imaging which, in turn, is helping to develop imaging technologies to noninvasively measure and analyze biochemical, genetic, and pharmacologic processes in cancer patients. This program exemplifies team science: The research it funds involves investigators with expertise in imaging sciences, molecular biology, physics, chemistry, and computational sciences.
The multiple-PI approach will be an excellent option for many types of cancer research, including large epidemiological studies and clinical trials. In the latter case, for example, both the lead clinical investigator and lead biostatistician might be PIs, because each plays an important leadership role in the study and thus can receive appropriate credit and have incentive to devote the requisite time and attention to the study.
Other NCI programs considering the multiple PI model include those in nanotechnology and integrative cancer biology. Beginning in 2007, the multiple PI option is expected to be available for most investigator-initiated NIH grant mechanisms.
This new policy is not limited to PIs at a single institution and funds can be allocated to individual PIs. More information on this new policy is available on the NIH Web site at http://grants2.nih.gov/grants/multi_pi.
The individual investigator model will continue to be the predominant type of NIH grant award. But this new policy offers an excellent option for many investigators. I suspect that it will breed more translational research projects, bringing together laboratory-based investigators and clinician-scientists. I expect it will generate intense interest and, more importantly, foster quality science that will benefit many patients.