You'd have to think that this is at least a step in the right direction: "NIH to experiment with high-risk grants":
On 5 December, agency director Francis Collins told an advisory committee that the NIH should consider supporting more individual researchers, as opposed to research proposals as it does now — an idea inspired in part by the success of the high-stakes Pioneer awards handed out by the NIH's Common Fund.
“It’s time to look at balancing our portfolio,” says Collins, who plans to pitch the idea to NIH institute directors at a meeting on 6 January.
The NIH currently spends less than 5% of its US$30-billion budget on grants for individual researchers, including the annual Pioneer awards, which give seven people an average of $500,000 a year for five years. In contrast, the NIH’s most popular grant, the R01, typically awards researchers $250,000 per year for 3‒5 years, and requires a large amount of preliminary data to support grant applications.
They're not going to get rid of the R01 grant any time soon, but what Collins is talking about here is getting a bit more like the Howard Hughes funding model (HHMI grants run for five years as well, and tend to be awarded more towards the PI than towards the stated projects). One problem is that the NIH is evaluating the success of the Pioneer grants by noting that the awardees publish more highly-cited papers, and that may or may not be a good measure:
But critics say that there is little, if any, evidence that this approach is superior. “'People versus projects’ is the HHMI bumper sticker, but it’s a misreading of what makes the HHMI great,” says Pierre Azoulay, an economist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge. Azoulay suggests that the findings of the NIH’s 2012 report may actually reflect factors such as the impact of the HHMI’s unusually lengthy funding windows, which allow a lot of time for innovation. In contrast, he says, “the Pioneer grants are freedom with an expiration date”.
Daniel Sarewitz, co-director of the Consortium for Science, Policy and Outcomes at Arizona State University in Tempe, adds that funding individual researchers may well increase the number of publications they produce. “But that may or may not have anything to do with enhancing the NIH's potential to contribute to actual health outcomes”, such as translation of research into the clinic, he says.
I'd like for them to set aside some money for ideas that have a low chance of working, but which would be big news if they actually came through. The high-risk high-reward stuff would also have to be awarded more by evaluating the people involved, since none of them would look likely in the "Tell us exactly what results you expect" mode of grant funding. But I can say this, not having to the be the person who wades through the stacks of applications - sorting those out would probably be pretty painful.