Identifying the Study Section for Your Application

One of my jobs as an NIGMS program director is helping investigators navigate the review process. This includes understanding where their applications will be reviewed and how they can make a recommendation about this assignment.

Applications can be grouped for review by research area or grant mechanism, or as a cohort submitted in response to a specific funding opportunity announcement (FOA). I would like to briefly walk through a few scenarios and share some advice along the way.

The “Review and Selection Process” (V.2) section of FOAs provides clues about where your application will be reviewed. An application can be reviewed at the Center for Scientific Review (CSR) or at an individual NIH institute or center (IC), depending upon the particular FOA. Information about who will review your application is posted in your eRA Commons account soon after it is determined, but you should contact your program director or CSR if you have questions or concerns.

The vast majority of applications received by NIH on topics relevant to NIGMS are in response to “parent” program announcements, such as PA-13-302, for unsolicited R01 applications. Section V.2 of PA-13-302 states, “Applications will be evaluated for scientific and technical merit by (an) appropriate Scientific Review Group(s) convened by CSR.” This means that the application will be reviewed by a regular NIH study section or a special emphasis panel (SEP) with expertise in the research area explored by the application. To identify a possible “review home” for your application, I suggest you peruse CSR’s list of study sections, find the ones that seem most suitable for your application and then use NIH RePORTER to search for funded applications that have been reviewed by those study sections. This will allow you to identify the group of scientists who have the appropriate research expertise to review your application.

Specific requests for applications (RFAs), such as RFA-GM-14-003 (Revisions for Macromolecular Interactions in Cells), are often reviewed together in the IC that issued the RFA. For example, section V.2 of GM-14-003 states, “Applications will be evaluated for scientific and technical merit by (an) appropriate Scientific Review Group(s) convened by the NIGMS.” This means that the NIGMS Office of Scientific Review will organize a review panel to review applications submitted in response to this RFA.

For applications that will be reviewed by groups convened by CSR, I encourage the investigators I speak with to write a brief cover letter for their applications that indicates which study section they think is appropriate and how they arrived at that conclusion. Sometimes, it is also helpful to indicate the type(s) of expertise you believe is needed to review your application, but you should not provide a list of reviewers, as that creates issues with potential conflicts of interest. The recommendations made in the cover letter are advisory, but the CSR Division of Receipt and Referral makes every effort to accommodate reasonable requests.

Modeling Social Behavior Funding Opportunity

In partnership with nine other NIH institutes and centers (IC), we have issued a new R01 funding opportunity announcement (FOA) focused on modeling social behavior. It reflects a growing recognition in the scientific community of the need to apply innovative computational and systems approaches—which have already proven very beneficial in the biological sciences—to behavioral and social research.

The FOA encourages research that explores the relationships among the parts of a system and between a system and its environment in order to understand the system as a whole. Specifically, we’re soliciting applications for developing and testing innovative theories and computational, mathematical or engineering approaches to deepen our understanding of complex social behavior.

Proposals can be for exploratory or hypothesis-generating studies, or for a combination of both. Applications should demonstrate bridge-building between the behavioral and social sciences and the computational and systems sciences, and should focus on multiscale phenomena. Applicants may propose small research or infrastructure projects as well as larger, more integrative research projects on the modeling of complex social behavior. We encourage applications from transdisciplinary teams of scientists spanning a broad range of expertise. Standard R01 application due dates apply.

The FOA lists the specific research interests of each participating IC. Examples of NIGMS topic areas include:

  • The emergence of new functionality from simple behaviors.
  • Understanding aspects of collective behavior, including the roles of resilience and of online and other dynamic social networks.
  • The use of geocoded data, “big data” and new technologies for modeling and influencing collective behavior at multiple scales.

If you have questions or would like more information, please contact me or one of the other IC contacts for this FOA.

Transitioning the Pharmacogenomics Network

PGRN LogoAt our September Advisory Council meeting, I presented plans for transitioning the Pharmacogenomics Research Network (PGRN) from set-aside funding into the regular, competitive research pool. Council approved the plans, so we are now moving forward on them. The reshaped program will continue to fund research and network activities designed to propel discovery and implementation. We will also continue to coordinate our support of pharmacogenomics and precision medicine with other NIH institutes and offices.

Our transition plans include soliciting applications for a limited number of research centers (P50) and network resources (R24) as well as the PharmGKB knowledgebase (R24) and a coordinating center to support network functions (U01). New funding opportunity announcements (FOAs) will be published in early 2014, with application due dates beginning in the late spring. These FOAs will be program announcements with multiple receipt dates that are open for several years and will not have set-aside funds.

All investigators with an interest in pharmacogenomics who are funded through these and other mechanisms may indicate a desire to participate in the network beginning in July 2015. Many network activities will be based on the PGRN and other successful models.

I welcome your input on these changes.

Judith Greenberg Named Acting Deputy Director of NIGMS

Photo of Dr. Judith GreenbergI am pleased to tell you that Judith Greenberg has agreed to serve as acting deputy director of NIGMS while a search for a permanent deputy director takes place. A news announcement on her appointment is posted at

As most of you know, Judith has served in numerous leadership roles at NIGMS and NIH, including two stints as NIGMS acting director.

In her new role, Judith will provide advice and expertise on all Institute activities. She will also continue to serve as director of the Division of Genetics and Developmental Biology, a position she has held since 1988.

Once the job announcement for a permanent deputy director is posted, I will be sure to alert you via this blog.

Resumption of NIH Extramural Activities

One of the biggest challenges facing NIH after the government shutdown is that it occurred during a peak review period and caused the cancellation of several hundred peer review meetings. On October 22, NIH announced that most of these meetings would be rescheduled so as to minimize the disruption of the submission/review/Council/award timeline.

While NIH may not be able to preserve the timeline for all applications, at this point, it looks as though most will still go to January 2014 council meetings. More details are available in a new NIH Guide notice.

Most of the study sections run by the NIGMS Office of Scientific Review were not affected by the shutdown and will proceed as planned over the next few weeks. While a few meetings will have to be rescheduled, we expect the results of the rescheduled meetings to be available in time for our January council meeting.

The other big challenge facing NIH and the extramural community is the disruption in the application process, since funding opportunity announcements (FOAs) could not be accessed and applications could not be submitted during the shutdown. NIH has rescheduled the submission dates that were lost and extended the dates for those FOAs that were adversely affected. More details are available in the same NIH Guide notice.

Sally Rockey’s blog provides more on NIH’s efforts to minimize the disruption of the shutdown’s effects on the extramural community.

Opening the Shutters

I am pleased to report that NIGMS is back at work. The 16-day lapse in federal appropriations, which shuttered most of NIH and led to the furlough of 98 percent of NIGMS’ staff, ended early yesterday morning when the President signed a bill containing a short-term continuing resolution to fund the Federal Government through January 15. By the time I got to the Institute at 7:45 a.m. that day, many of our staff members were already here, eagerly diving into the piles of work that had accumulated in their absence. I’ve never seen people so glad to be back at their jobs! It was a testament to how dedicated our staff is to promoting the mission of NIGMS.

Although we are all very happy to have resumed operations, I cannot say we have resumed completely normal operations. We have some work to do to recover from the loss of all of the important events that were supposed to happen during the closure. For example, many of the study sections run by the NIH Center for Scientific Review had to be cancelled, presenting a challenge for all of the NIH institutes and centers, as well as for all of the applicants and their institutions. The NIH Office of Extramural Research and the Center for Scientific Review are rapidly developing plans for reviewing the applications that were going to be considered in these study sections. They are also updating relevant application submission deadlines. I strongly encourage everyone to keep informed about what is happening by reading Sally Rockey’s extramural research blog and by checking the NIH Guide for Grants and Contracts, where information about new deadlines and procedures will be posted.

An important piece of news that might have flown by under the radar during the shutdown was that five past and current NIGMS grantees won Nobel Prizes this year: Jim Rothman and Randy Schekman in physiology or medicine for their work on vesicle transport within cells (along with Thomas Südhof, also an NIH-funded investigator); and Martin Karplus, Michael Levitt and Arieh Warshel in chemistry for the development of multiscale molecular simulation methods. Congratulations to all of this year’s laureates! Their studies are shining examples of the importance of the fundamental, investigator-initiated biomedical research that is the essence of our mission.

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)

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)

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)

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)

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.
View larger image
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 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.

Enabling Science through Data (Big and Otherwise)

NIH’s recent focus on data-intensive and data-driven biomedical research makes this an exciting time for me to be joining NIGMS and leading its Division of Biomedical Technology, Bioinformatics, and Computational Biology (BBCB).

New steps toward harnessing the power of data began well before my arrival and include the NIH Big Data to Knowledge (BD2K) initiative. The overarching aim of this initiative is to enable, by the end of this decade, a “quantum leap” in the ability of the biomedical and behavioral research enterprise to use the growing volume of complex data to produce important insights into biological systems. This is an ambitious goal that requires the collective engagement and expertise of NIH’s many institutes, centers, and offices, including NIGMS, as well as the scientific community.

My colleagues from across NIH have already come together to discuss future solutions that will benefit NIH and the research community as a whole. We recognize that no one-size-fits-all solution will emerge as the “data quantum leap.” Our hope is that by engaging academic, industrial and other biomedical stakeholders, we will impact the volume, variety, velocity, viability and ultimately value of the data that NIH invests in.

To jumpstart this activity, NIH recently issued a new funding opportunity announcement (FOA) for Centers of Excellence for Big Data Computing in the Biomedical Sciences. The purpose is to establish an interactive consortium of centers that will develop approaches, methods and software tools for the aggregation, integration, analysis and visualization of data across NIH-funded research areas. NIH also has issued a request for information on the development of analysis methods and software for big data; responses are due by September 6.

NIGMS and the BBCB staff were actively involved in crafting the new FOA and, more generally, have played a central role in the creation and organization of the BD2K initiative. We will continue to be active partners in this endeavor.

Big data is just one example of the division’s efforts. We foster research in a range of fields, including computational biology, bioinformatics, mathematical and statistical biology, and biomedical technology development. We also support programs that train people in many of these areas.

I’m so happy to be involved in shaping the division’s activities, and I look forward to working together with many of you to continue innovating basic biomedical research.