Update on Proposed Pilot to Support NIGMS Investigators’ Overall Research Programs

NIGMS Advisory Council meetingAt last week’s Advisory Council meeting, I presented a report on the comments we received in response to our request for information (RFI) on a potential new program for research funding.

As described in the blog post announcing the RFI, the Maximizing Investigators’ Research Award (MIRA) program would provide a single award in support of all of the projects in an investigator’s lab that are relevant to the NIGMS mission. A MIRA would be longer and larger than the current average NIGMS R01 award.

We received more than 290 responses through the official RFI comment site. We heard from individual investigators as well as several scientific organizations. Most of the responses were positive, and both established and early stage investigators indicated that they were very likely to apply.

The respondents identified the most valuable aspects of the proposed program as:

  • Increased flexibility to follow new research directions as opportunities and ideas arise,
  • Savings of time and effort currently spent on writing and reviewing applications, and
  • Enhanced stability of research support.

However, some responses expressed concerns, which we are taking into consideration. Despite the intention of the program to optimize the distribution of NIGMS resources, some respondents thought that it could lead to funds becoming concentrated in fewer labs at the most elite institutions. This was in part a reflection of the phased implementation plan, which would focus initially on investigators with more than one NIGMS grant. Respondents urged NIGMS to broaden the eligibility criteria as quickly as possible following the initial pilot phase. Other concerns that were raised related to peer review and program evaluation.

For more about the RFI results, including a breakdown of responses by question, watch my presentation, which begins at 2:18 on the archived videocast.

The Advisory Council discussed the MIRA proposal and then approved plans to proceed with developing the program. We plan to issue a funding opportunity announcement in early 2015, with the first awards being made in Fiscal Year 2016. We intend to evaluate the MIRA program and if it is successful, will broaden it.

Wanted: NIGMS Program Directors, Scientific Review Officer

NIGMS is looking for three program directors to manage a variety of research and training grants, and we’re also recruiting a scientific review officer to handle the peer review of grant applications.

The Division of Biomedical Technology, Bioinformatics, and Computational Biology has vacancies in both of its branches: Biomedical Technology (BT) and Bioinformatics and Computational Biology (BCB). Candidates for the BT position should have experience in developing or using advanced technologies for biomedical research in areas such as spectroscopy, microscopy, molecular or biophysical technologies, computational biology or informatics. For BCB, we’re seeking someone with expertise in computational biology, bioinformatics, biostatistics, health informatics and data science for biomedical research. We prefer candidates with a broad background in the application of computation for solving biological problems or expertise in two or more of the areas listed above.

The Division of Training, Workforce Development, and Diversity has a program director vacancy in its Postdoctoral Training Branch. Candidates should have knowledge of and/or experience in understanding, planning and managing research/student research development program(s) at the postdoctoral or early stage investigator career level, including those targeted to groups that are underrepresented in biomedical and behavioral sciences. Candidates also should have expertise in innovations for teaching in STEM fields as well as research experience in other scientific areas within the NIGMS mission.

Finally, we are seeking a scientific review officer to oversee the peer review of applications for a broad range of research and training programs, including programs aimed at capacity building and at increasing the diversity of the scientific workforce. We particularly seek someone with expertise in biochemistry, cell and molecular biology, computational biology, genetics and/or the pharmacological sciences to join our interactive scientific review team, although the position involves setting up and managing review groups across the range of biomedical and behavioral fields that NIGMS supports.

For all positions, candidates should have leadership, managerial, organizational, and strong oral and written communication skills. Familiarity with NIH extramural funding as a grant applicant, reviewer or NIH scientific administrator is a plus.

The vacancy announcements for these positions close on Monday, September 29. Please see the NIH HSA Web site for position requirements and application procedures. The Applying for Scientific Administration Jobs at NIGMS and Scientific Careers in the Federal Government blog posts offer additional background and tips.

Wanted: Input on Consideration of Sex as a Biological Variable in Biomedical Research

Although researchers have made major progress in achieving a balance between male and female subjects in human studies—women now account for roughly half of the participants in NIH-funded clinical trials—a similar pattern has not been seen in pre-clinical research involving animals and cells. To inform the development of policies that address this issue, NIH has issued a request for information (RFI) on the consideration of sex as a biological variable in biomedical research.

As NIH Deputy Director for Extramural Research Sally Rockey wrote in a recent blog post announcing the RFI, “Sex is a critical variable when trying to understand the biological and behavioral systems that fundamentally shape human health.” Appropriate representation of animals and cells is also relevant to NIGMS and NIH efforts to enhance scientific rigor and data reproducibility in research.

And in her own blog post about the RFI, NIH Associate Director for Research on Women’s Health Janine Clayton said that while many scientists have already expressed support for the policy change, she has also heard from many sources that it needs “to be carefully implemented, as a true benefit to science—and not become a trivial, bureaucratic box to check.” She noted that comments in response to the RFI will guide NIH in creating “meaningful change in a deliberate and thoughtful way.”

Since NIGMS supports a significant amount of basic biomedical science that utilizes animal models and cells, we encourage our grantees to submit their input on this topic by the October 13 deadline.

Update on the National Centers for Systems Biology Program

As part of the ongoing examination of our large-scale research initiatives and centers, we’re in the process of evaluating the NIGMS National Centers for Systems Biology program. This includes conducting quantitative analyses of the program’s contributions to systems biology research, training and outreach as well as gathering qualitative input from a panel of external scientific experts.

We expect the evaluation to be complete by early 2015. The results and recommendations will help us determine a future path for supporting this field in the most effective and efficient way and in the context of competing research funding priorities and opportunities. In the meantime, we’re only accepting renewal applications for projects seeking their second, and final, 5 years of funding.

Over the 10-year course of the program Exit icon, we’ve funded 21 centers covering a broad range of areas, from structural and cell biology to physiology and pharmacology. To learn more about the current and past centers, visit the Centers Web site.

Give Us Your Input on NIGMS Strategic Planning

In my first post as NIGMS director, I discussed the need to develop a new strategic plan to guide our efforts to ensure that we invest taxpayer money as efficiently and effectively as possible.

Since the publication of our previous strategic plan, the Institute has gone through some major programmatic, organizational and staffing changes. We’ve worked to rebalance our portfolio and bolster our commitment to investigator-initiated research.

To begin the new strategic planning process, we formed a steering committee and the following subcommittees:

  • Research Funding Policies and Mechanisms
  • Training, Education, Workforce Development and Diversity
  • Capacity Building, Research Resources and Technology
  • Communications and Outreach
  • Management and Business Processes

Each subcommittee developed goals and objectives within its area of responsibility. The steering committee then consolidated this material into a draft statement of broad goals and objectives. As we work on developing our specific strategies and finalizing our plan, we’d like to hear your comments and suggestions.

You may give input using the online form, which provides the option to remain anonymous, or via e-mail.

Lasker Award Recognizes Question-Driven Research on Protein Folding

We congratulate long-time NIGMS grantee Peter Walter of the University of California, San Francisco, on being recognized with the 2014 Albert Lasker Basic Medical Research Award Exit icon for his elegant and insightful work on the signal that activates the unfolded protein response (UPR). He shares the honor with Kazutoshi Mori of Kyoto University in Japan.

For more than 30 years, we have funded the Walter lab to investigate how yeast cells control the quality of their proteins and organelles to maintain homeostasis. In the 1990s, at the time Walter was conducting the research that led to this award, we supported his studies of protein translocation and the signal recognition particle, which links the nascent protein chain to the endoplasmic reticulum, where folding then occurs. This work led, in part, to his research on the downstream events associated with protein misfolding and his identification of the key signal that activates the UPR.

The UPR mechanism adjusts as needed to maintain normal cellular function and prevent disease. Sustained overactivation of the UPR has been implicated in cancer, diabetes, autoimmune conditions, liver disorders and neurodegenerative diseases. Additional studies have shown that the UPR is highly conserved and present in every cell.

The Lasker Award to Walter, who’s also an HHMI investigator, is a strong endorsement of question-driven basic research and its role in revealing unpredicted, medically important pathways.

Funding Opportunity to Create Training Modules to Enhance Data Reproducibility

In February, we asked for input on training activities relevant to enhancing data reproducibility, which has become a very serious issue for both basic and clinical research. The responses revealed that there is substantial variation in the training occurring at institutions. One reason is that “best practices” training in skills that influence data reproducibility appears to be largely passed down from generation to generation of scientists working in the laboratory.

To increase the likelihood that researchers generate reproducible, unbiased and properly validated results, NIGMS and nine additional NIH components have issued a funding opportunity announcement to develop, pilot and disseminate training modules to enhance data reproducibility. Appropriate areas for the modules include experimental design, laboratory practices, analysis and reporting of results, and/or the influence of cultural factors such as confirmation bias in hypothesis testing or the scientific rewards system. The modules should be creative, engaging, readily accessible online at no cost and easily incorporated into research training programs for the intended audience, which includes graduate students, postdoctoral fellows and beginning faculty.

The application deadline is November 20, 2014, with letters of intent due by October 20, 2014. Applicants may request up to $150,000 in total costs to cover the entire award period. For more details, read the FAQs.

Give Input on Data-Related Standards Widely Used in Biomedical Science

A current research challenge is harmonizing vast amounts of heterogeneous biological data so that it can be stored, extracted, analyzed, presented and shared in a broad, uniform manner. An important step to overcoming this obstacle is creating data-related standards.

Toward this goal, NIH has issued a request for information (RFI) seeking comments on information resources for data-related standards widely used in biomedical science. Feedback on standards considered most critical, as well as existing relevant resources, could inform plans to develop a publicly available, Web-based information resource on data-related standards.

The deadline for responding to the RFI is September 30, 2014.

Watch the September 19 Advisory Council Meeting Live or Later

Our next National Advisory General Medical Sciences Council meeting is September 18-19, 2014. Although the first day is a closed session, Friday’s portion of the meeting is open to the public. You can watch the open session online.

Friday’s presentations begin at 8:30 a.m. with opening remarks by NIGMS Director Jon Lorsch. In addition, the agenda includes presentations by staff on a variety of Institute activities as well as a concept clearance for the pilot to support NIGMS investigators’ overall research programs.

You’re also welcome to attend the meeting in person and make comments during the public comment period.

If you can’t view the meeting live, you can watch it later in the videocast archive.

Institutional Development Award (IDeA) Program Infrastructure for Clinical and Translational Research (IDeA-CTR) and Human Genetic Cell Repository Funding Opportunities

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

Institutional Development Award (IDeA) Program Infrastructure for Clinical and Translational Research (IDeA-CTR) (U54)
(PAR-14-303)

Purpose: Develop infrastructure and other resources to conduct clinical and translational research in IDeA-eligible states
Letter of intent due date: 30 days prior to the application due date
Application due dates: October 8, 2014; September 30, 2015; September 30, 2016
NIGMS contact: J. Rafael Gorospe, 301-435-0832

The NIGMS Human Genetic Cell Repository (U42)
(RFA-GM-15-005)

Purpose: Maintain the current collection of NIGMS Human Genetic Cell Repository cell cultures and DNA samples; acquire, characterize and expand high-quality cell samples; and distribute cell lines and DNA isolated from them to qualified biomedical researchers
Application due date: October 1, 2014
NIGMS contact: Michael Bender, 301-594-0943