Dr. Jon Lorsch

About Dr. Jon Lorsch

As NIGMS director, Jon oversees the Institute’s research, training and other programs. He’s committed to engaging the scientific community on a wide range of topics, including funding policies and trends, research evaluation, and workforce development and diversity.

Bolstering Our Commitment to Investigator-Initiated Research

As part of an ongoing examination of our grant portfolio to ensure that we invest taxpayer money as effectively and efficiently as possible, we recently analyzed changes over time in the distribution of investigator-initiated research compared to research funded through targeted funding opportunity announcements (FOAs).

Changes over time in NIGMS investments in investigator-initiated research (research grant funds not associated with targeted FOAs) (right axis) and research funded through targeted FOAs (left axis). The analysis does not include fellowship, career development and training awards; programs transferred to NIGMS from the former National Center for Research Resources; and some other programs. For more details about the analysis, which was performed by Jim Deatherage, chief of our Cell Biology Branch, see the NIGMS Funding Trends Web page.

The figure shows that in the early 1990s, 99% of NIGMS’ grant budget supported investigator-initiated research, compared to 80% today. During the budget doubling in Fiscal Years 1998-2003, the Institute’s investment in research funded through targeted FOAs increased dramatically, then continued to increase at a slower rate during Fiscal Years 2004-2009.

As I discussed in a previous post about our large-scale research initiatives and centers, there were many good reasons for using FOAs to target specific areas of research with some of the funds made available by the budget doubling. For example, FOAs allowed the Institute to experiment with catalyzing the development of such new and emerging fields as structural genomics, pharmacogenomics and systems biology.

Since the budget doubling ended, however, maintaining steady support for our targeted research portfolio has made it difficult to maintain steady support for investigator-initiated research project grants (RPGs). Partly as a result, the success rate for RPGs (the number of funded RPGs divided by the number of RPG applications) fell below 20% in Fiscal Year 2013. Although a number of factors have contributed to the declining success rate, a significant one is that targeted and investigator-initiated research grants compete directly with each other. To bolster the success rate, we need to decrease our commitment to targeted FOAs. Furthermore, because none of us knows where the next major advances will arise, the soundest investment strategy is to have a distributed portfolio in which researchers investigate a wide range of scientific questions. History strongly suggests that letting scientists “follow their noses”—which involves a combination of curiosity, expertise, creativity and serendipity—is the most productive route to findings that will eventually translate into medical and technological breakthroughs.

To rebalance our portfolio in order to renew and reinvigorate our commitment to investigator-initiated research, we will be reducing our use of targeted FOAs, generally reserving them for cases in which they are likely to have a major impact on a large segment of the biomedical research enterprise. These cases could include promoting the rapid development of accessible, cost-effective new technologies that enable major advances in understanding biological systems; more efficiently organizing the Nation’s basic biomedical research resources to provide scientists throughout the country access to high-end instrumentation and technical expertise; and, in some instances, using targeted FOAs with defined lifetimes to catalyze the rapid development of emerging research areas.

It is important to note that we are making a distinction between investigator-initiated research and targeted research, not between investigator-initiated research and team science. We strongly support team science, which can certainly be investigator-initiated, and we expect such collaborative efforts to increase as research probes more deeply into the complexities of living systems. Currently, team-based, investigator-initiated research can be funded through multi-PI R01s and can also occur through groups of individually funded PIs working together. In special cases, program project grants (P01s) may be appropriate, particularly for long-term, interdisciplinary collaborations that require dedicated core facilities. As we move forward with our strategic planning process, we will be exploring additional ways to support investigator-initiated team science. I invite you to send us ideas you have for how best to do this.

Principles for Initial Funding Decisions in Fiscal Year 2014

On October 16, Congress passed a continuing resolution to fund the Federal Government through January 15, 2014, at Fiscal Year 2013 levels. This short-term budget allows us to begin funding some of the grant applications approved by our Advisory Council in September. However, because the funds we have available are only for a fraction of the fiscal year and we don’t know what the budget for the rest of the year will be, we need to be conservative in our funding decisions until a longer-term budget is approved.

Led by NIGMS Acting Deputy Director Judith Greenberg, the directors of the NIGMS scientific divisions developed principles to help us decide which of the many outstanding applications we are considering should receive funding now and which should be deferred for later start dates, if sufficient funds become available after January 15.

The fundamental question the division directors addressed was which categories of investigators would face the most serious jeopardy from a delay in funding. Based on the group’s careful deliberations, we will give priority to highly rated applications from investigators who have little or no current support from any source. Within this category, we will generally give priority to competing renewal applications over new applications, although in each case, we will take into account the particular circumstances of the investigator and her/his laboratory. For instance, an application from an early stage investigator who has been a tenure-track faculty member for 4 years, has exhausted all start-up funds and has no additional sources of funding would be considered a high priority.

We recognize that a delay in funding presents challenges for every investigator, but we hope you understand that our top priority in these difficult fiscal times must be to ensure the health of the overall biomedical research enterprise in the United States. Keeping productive and promising labs open is an essential element of this goal.

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 http://www.nigms.nih.gov/News/Results/pages/
20131024a.aspx
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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.

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.

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.

Looking Forward

Having been a fan of Jeremy Berg’s Feedback Loop posts, it’s a great pleasure to be writing one myself. I am very excited to be at NIGMS, and I am honored to have the chance to lead this extraordinary institute.

Over the past year, whenever I asked anyone familiar with NIGMS what the best thing about it was, they all said the same thing: the people who work there. My own observations have been completely consistent with these assessments. The staff at NIGMS is an exceptional group, deeply committed to ensuring that the biomedical and behavioral research enterprise thrives. No one embodies this commitment better than Judith Greenberg, who has done an outstanding job over the past 2 years steering the Institute through challenging times. I hope you will join me in thanking her for everything she has done.

A key part of Jeremy’s legacy at NIGMS was increasing communication between the Institute and the scientific community. I intend to stay on this course, using the Feedback Loop as well as other mechanisms to catalyze discussions. I encourage you to join in these conversations and to suggest specific questions that you’d like to see us address.

I also intend to push forward the data collection and analysis efforts begun by Jeremy, both to help inform our discussions with the scientific community and to guide our policy decisions.

Among my first orders of business are to conduct a thorough analysis of NIGMS’ grant portfolio and to begin developing a new strategic plan for the Institute. The overall goal of these synergistic undertakings is to ensure that we are investing the taxpayers’ money in the most efficient and effective way possible. Science and society both evolve rapidly, and the structures and strategies that worked well in the past are not necessarily optimal for the future. We will be thinking broadly, using data to inform our analyses, and we will be seeking your ideas and innovations.

This would also be a good time for the scientific community to engage in a parallel process of introspection, examining topics ranging from how the research enterprise is organized to how the impact of scientists’ work is assessed and recognized through peer review and other mechanisms. The process could happen both at a local level—within your own institutions—and at a national one, perhaps led by the relevant scientific and academic societies.

I will always be happy to hear your thoughts and suggestions, either through this blog or directly at jon.lorsch@nih.gov. I am looking forward to working with you!