Funding Opportunities: AREA; Support for Scientific Meetings; Systems Biology Centers; Bridges to the Doctorate

You may be interested in these recent funding opportunity announcements (FOAs):

Academic Research Enhancement Award (Parent R15)
(PA-13-313)

Purpose: Conduct small-scale research projects that expose students to meritorious research and strengthen the research environment of the AREA- or R15-eligible applicant institution
Application due date: Standard dates apply
NIGMS contact: Jean Chin, 301-594-2485

NIH Support for Conferences and Scientific Meetings (Parent R13/U13)
(PA-13-347)

Purpose: Coordinate high-quality scientific conferences that are relevant to the scientific mission of NIGMS and other participating NIH components
Application due date: Standard dates apply
NIGMS contact: Ann Hagan, 301-594-4499

NIGMS National Centers for Systems Biology (P50)
(PAR-13-351)

Purpose: Promote pioneering research, research training, education and outreach programs focused on systems-level inquiries of biomedical phenomena within the NIGMS mission
Letter of intent due date: 30 days prior to the application due date
Application due dates: October 23, 2013; October 23, 2014
NIGMS contacts: Paul Brazhnik and Peter Lyster, 301-451-6446

Bridges to the Doctorate (R25)
(PAR-13-341)

Purpose: Promote partnerships/consortia between colleges or universities granting a terminal master’s degree and institutions that offer the doctorate degree, with the goal of increasing the pool of master’s degree students from underrepresented backgrounds who pursue research careers in the biomedical and behavioral sciences and who are trained and available to participate in NIH-funded research
Application due dates: November 1, 2013; September 25, 2014; September 25, 2015
NIGMS contact: Michelle R.J. Hamlet, 301-594-3900

The Bridges to the Doctorate Web site offers additional details about the program, including FAQs and application resources.

Examining Our Large-Scale Research Initiatives and Centers, Including the PSI

There have been a lot of discussions lately at NIGMS about large-scale research initiatives and centers. In these conversations, we have drawn a distinction between initiatives and centers focused mainly on research and those focused mainly on resources. Examples of the latter include our human cell repository, synchrotron light sources, and databases, all of which serve the biomedical community in critical ways and, in most cases, require sustained support. In contrast, many of us feel that the primary purpose of research-focused initiatives and centers is to open untapped scientific areas, providing an initial, targeted investment that enables the research to develop sufficiently so that it can be sustained through other grant mechanisms, such as R01s and P01s.

Our discussions have led to the question of whether, when and how research initiatives and centers should be ended. Should all new research initiatives and centers have hard “sunset clauses” built into them, for example at 10 years, similar to what is done for projects funded by the NIH Common Fund? Or should it be possible for them to continue indefinitely as long as they are sufficiently productive?

An additional consideration is that many of our currently funded initiatives and centers were developed during the period in which the NIH budget was doubling (see figure). With a large infusion of new investment into biomedical research, it made sense to use a significant portion of the funds to open up new scientific territory through large-scale exploration in ways that were not previously possible.

Center Funding as a Proportion of the NIGMS Budget
Fiscal Years 1998-2012
Growth of NIGMS funding for centers (blue bars, left axis) for Fiscal Years 1998-2012. The total NIGMS budget each year during the same period is also shown (red line, right axis). The numbers on top of each blue bar represent the percentage of the total NIGMS budget committed to centers in that year. The data for 2012 do not include the funds for the Institutional Development Award (IDeA) program or the Biomedical Technology Research Centers program, which were transferred to NIGMS from the former National Center for Research Resources in that fiscal year.
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Growth of NIGMS funding for centers (blue bars, left axis) for Fiscal Years 1998-2012. The total NIGMS budget each year during the same period is also shown (red line, right axis). The numbers on top of each blue bar represent the percentage of the total NIGMS budget committed to centers in that year. The data for 2012 do not include the funds for the Institutional Development Award (IDeA) program or the Biomedical Technology Research Centers program, which were transferred to NIGMS from the former National Center for Research Resources in that fiscal year.

In the current budget environment, in order to start a new program or bolster support for existing priorities such as investigator-initiated research, other programs must be adjusted or ended.

These issues will be central as we begin a strategic planning process to ensure that we are using the most effective and efficient mechanisms to invest the taxpayers’ money in fundamental biomedical and behavioral research. We have already begun carefully examining our existing portfolio of research initiatives and centers and considering how to balance continued support for them with other priorities and opportunities.

At last week’s National Advisory General Medical Sciences Council meeting, Council members and staff discussed the future of one existing large-scale program, the Protein Structure Initiative (PSI). The Council heard the results of a midpoint evaluation of the PSI’s third 5-year phase, PSI:Biology. The evaluators found that PSI investigators have determined an impressive number of high-quality protein structures and that some of the program’s accomplishments, including methodological ones, could not have been readily achieved through R01-type investigator-initiated grants.

The evaluators concluded that the PSI will reach a point that no longer justifies set-aside funding and, as a result, strongly recommended that NIGMS begin planning the sunset of the PSI, being careful to identify resources developed by the initiative that should be retained for use by the biomedical community.

After numerous internal discussions and consultation with the Council, we have decided to follow this advice and begin planning to sunset the PSI in its current format after the completion of PSI:Biology in 2015. We are setting up two transition-planning committees, one made up of NIGMS staff and representatives from several other parts of NIH, and a second made up of scientists from the research community. These committees will work together to recommend the best methods for phasing out the program and identifying critical resources that should be retained. The committees will also suggest emerging challenges and opportunities in structural biology that may require new, smaller-scale targeted support.

The committees and NIGMS will need a great deal of input from the biomedical community as this transition-planning process moves forward. I hope that you will freely share your thoughts and suggestions with us, now and in the future.

Upcoming Advisory Council Meeting Includes Videocast and Public Comment Period Opportunities

The National Advisory General Medical Sciences Council will have its fall meeting on September 19-20. For the session open to the public on the second day, we will be trying something new: a videocast. If you’re interested in watching the presentations and subsequent discussions—and learning more about what happens during advisory council meetings—tune in at http://videocast.nih.gov. The videocast will also be archived for a limited time. If enough people watch the meeting live or later, making the experiment successful, we will continue to videocast the open session of future advisory council meetings.

Previously, the Feedback Loop posted a description of advisory council roles. Council members provide the second level of peer review of grant applications, assess the merits of appeals of study section reviews and provide ideas and guidance on scientific and training priorities.

We have just posted the open session agenda, which includes a presentation by Council member and Yale University chemistry professor and chair Scott Miller on recent discoveries at the chemistry-biology interface; a presentation by NIH Principal Deputy Director Larry Tabak on data reproducibility in biomedical research; and another new feature of the meeting: a period reserved for public comment.

Before I started at NIGMS, I was able to attend the open session of the May Council meeting, where I heard very exciting presentations about recent developments in cryo-electron microscopy and pharmacogenomics, plus lively discussions about training and workforce development issues. Although I have only been to this one meeting so far, based on what I heard at it, I recommend that you try to catch some of the September meeting—I think you’ll find it interesting and informative.