Comment on Proposed Framework for NIH-Wide Strategic Plan

NIH is currently gathering input from the scientific community, including stakeholder organizations, on the proposed framework for its 5-year strategic plan. Responses are due by August 16, 2015.

We’ve been asked to share this message from NIH Principal Deputy Director Larry Tabak about the call for comments and suggestions:

In order to advance the NIH mission, the NIH is developing an NIH-wide Strategic Plan. The goal of this 5-year plan is to outline a vision for biomedical research that ultimately extends healthy life and reduces illness and disability. NIH senior leadership and staff have developed a proposed framework for the Strategic Plan that identifies areas of opportunity across all biomedicine and unifying principles to guide NIH’s support of the biomedical research enterprise. The aim is to pursue crosscutting areas of research that span NIH’s 27 Institutes, Centers, and Offices.

I invite you to review the framework in our Request for Information and on the NIH website, and to provide your feedback via the RFI submission site. I encourage stakeholder organizations (e.g., patient advocacy groups, professional societies) to submit a single response reflective of the views of the organization/membership as a whole. We also will be hosting webinars to gather additional input. These webinars will be held in early to mid-August.

Your input is vital to ensuring that the NIH Strategic Plan positions biomedical research on a promising and visionary path. I appreciate your time and consideration in assisting us with this effort.

The webinars Exit icon mentioned in Larry’s message are scheduled for August 3, 5 and 11.

Alison Gammie to Lead Training, Workforce Development, and Diversity Division

Alison Gammie, Ph.D.I’m very pleased to announce that Alison Gammie will be joining us in the late summer as the new director of our Division of Training, Workforce Development, and Diversity (TWD). She’s currently a senior lecturer in molecular biology at Princeton as well as an innovator and leader in teaching, mentoring, diversity-building and recruitment programs there. Through collaborations and other approaches, she has also contributed in many ways to improving undergraduate STEM training on a national level.

Alison has a strong record of recognizing needs, identifying gaps and developing successful strategies to address and overcome these challenges.

Continue reading

Establishment of Our Center for Research Capacity Building

I am pleased to announce that we have established a new Center for Research Capacity Building (CRCB). It will serve as the hub for our capacity-building programs, which include the Institutional Development Award (IDeA), Support of Competitive Research (SCORE) and Native American Research Centers for Health (NARCH).

We appreciate the comments we received in response to our requests for public input on the proposed organizational change. They reflected strong support for creating the center.

The new center’s activities are focused in states that historically have not received significant levels of NIH research funding and at institutions that have a historical mission focused on serving students from underrepresented groups.

Continue reading

Give Input on Strategies for Optimizing the Impact and Sustainability of Biomedical Research

An important, recurring discussion topic on our blogs is ways to maximize the impact and sustainability of NIH-funded biomedical research. In 2011, a Rock Talk post on managing NIH’s budget in fiscally challenging times solicited many comments and led, in part, to an NIH-wide policy on special council review for applications from PIs who have more than $1 million in NIH funding. We have also implemented new programs that provide more stable support for investigators over longer time periods. A more recent example of the “maximizing impact and sustainability” theme is an NIGMS Feedback Loop post that discussed ideas for how to optimize the biomedical research ecosystem.

We’re each leading an NIH-wide working group focused on topics key to this important theme. One group (chaired by Sally) is exploring ways to decrease the time it takes investigators to reach research independence, and the other (chaired by Jon) is looking to develop more efficient and sustainable funding policies and other strategies.

Recently, NIH solicited your comments on an “emeritus award” concept as part of activities of the group chaired by Sally. The group is now in the midst of analyzing all of the comments it received to see what the next steps will be in regard to this type of award.

To inform the efforts of Jon’s group, NIH has just issued a new request for information (RFI) seeking your:

  • Input on key issues that currently limit the impact of NIH’s funding for biomedical research and challenge the sustainability of the scientific enterprise.
  • Ideas about adjusting current funding policies to ensure both continued impact and sustainability of the NIH research enterprise. 
  • Ideas for new policies, strategies and other approaches that would increase the impact and sustainability of NIH-funded biomedical research.
  • Comments on any other issues that you feel are relevant.

While we read and consider comments responding to our blog posts, in order to make your input part of our formal analysis of RFI responses, it needs to be submitted via the RFI by May 17.

Improved Success Rate and Other Funding Trends in Fiscal Year 2014

The Consolidated and Further Continuing Appropriations Act, 2015 Exit icon, provides funding for the Federal Government through September 30. NIGMS has a Fiscal Year 2015 appropriation of $2.372 billion, which is $13 million, or 0.5%, higher than it was in Fiscal Year 2014.

As I explained in an earlier post, we made a number of adjustments to our portfolio and funding policies last fiscal year in order to bolster our support for investigator-initiated research. Partly because of these changes, the success rate for research project grants (RPGs)—which are primarily R01s—was 25 percent in Fiscal Year 2014. This is 5 percentage points higher than it was in Fiscal Year 2013. Had we not made the funding policy changes, we predicted that the success rate would have remained flat at 20 percent.

Figure 1 shows the number of RPG applications we received and funded, as well as the corresponding success rates, for Fiscal Years 2002-2014.

Figure 1. Number of competing RPG applications assigned to NIGMS (blue line with diamonds, left axis) and number funded (red line with squares, left axis) for Fiscal Years 2002-2014. The success rate (number of applications funded divided by the total number of applications) is shown in the green line with triangles, right axis. Data: Tony Moore.
Figure 1. Number of competing RPG applications assigned to NIGMS (blue line with diamonds, left axis) and number funded (red line with squares, left axis) for Fiscal Years 2002-2014. The success rate (number of applications funded divided by the total number of applications) is shown in the green line with triangles, right axis. Data: Tony Moore.

Moving forward, it will be important to employ strategies that will enable us to at least maintain this success rate. In keeping with this goal, we recently released a financial management plan that continues many of the funding policies we instituted last year. As funds from the retirement of the Protein Structure Initiative come back into the investigator-initiated RPG pool, we’ll be working to ensure that they support a sustained improvement in success rate rather than create a 1-year spike followed by a return to lower rates.

Figures 2 and 3 show data for funding versus the percentile scores of the R01 applications we received. People frequently ask me what NIGMS’ percentile cutoff or “payline” is, but it should be clear from these figures that we do not use a strict percentile score criterion for making funding decisions. Rather, we take a variety of factors into account in addition to the score, including the amount of other support already available to the researcher; the priority of the research area for the Institute’s mission; and the importance of maintaining a broad and diverse portfolio of research topics, approaches and investigators.

Figure 2. Percentage of competing R01 applications funded by NIGMS as a function of percentile scores for Fiscal Years 2010-2014. For Fiscal Year 2014, the success rate for R01 applications was 25.7 percent, and the midpoint of the funding curve was at approximately the 22nd percentile. Data: Jim Deatherage.
Figure 2. Percentage of competing R01 applications funded by NIGMS as a function of percentile scores for Fiscal Years 2010-2014. For Fiscal Year 2014, the success rate for R01 applications was 25.7 percent, and the midpoint of the funding curve was at approximately the 22nd percentile. See more details about the data analysis for Figure 2. Data: Jim Deatherage.
Figure 3. Number of competing R01 applications (solid black bars) assigned to NIGMS and number funded (striped red bars) in Fiscal Year 2014 as a function of percentile scores. Data: Jim Deatherage.
Figure 3. Number of competing R01 applications (solid black bars) assigned to NIGMS and number funded (striped red bars) in Fiscal Year 2014 as a function of percentile scores. See more details about the data analysis for Figure 3. Data: Jim Deatherage.

It’s too early to say what the success rate will be for Fiscal Year 2015 because it can be influenced by a number of factors, as I described last year. However, we’re hopeful that by continuing to adjust our priorities and policies to focus on supporting a broad and diverse portfolio of investigators, we can reverse the trend of falling success rates seen in recent years.

Give Input on Proposed Center for Research Capacity Building

At our recent Advisory Council meeting, I announced that we are proposing the establishment of a new organizational unit in NIGMS: the Center for Research Capacity Building (CRCB). As the name implies, it would serve as the hub for our capacity-building programs, which include the Institutional Development Award (IDeA), Support of Competitive Research (SCORE) and Native American Research Centers for Health (NARCH). These programs are now housed in a branch of our Division of Training, Workforce Development, and Diversity.

Among the factors that contributed to this plan are the complexity of our capacity-building programs and the broad range of scientific areas and grant mechanisms they support. We believe that the new organizational structure would allow for more efficient planning, coordination and execution among these programs’ research, research training and research resource access activities.

The head of the new center would report directly to me and be part of the Institute’s senior leadership. Beyond that change, we do not plan to alter the missions, goals, staff or budgets of the IDeA, SCORE and NARCH programs as a result of the reorganization. Also remaining the same would be the review of applications and most grants management and review staff assignments.

We invite your input to inform our planning. Please post your comments by February 18, 2015.

Update: Thank you for your valuable input on this organizational change. A post announcing the establishment of the center is at http://loop.nigms.nih.gov/2015/05/establishment-of-our-center-for-research-capacity-building/

Judith Greenberg Named Deputy Director of NIGMS

Photo of Dr. Judith GreenbergI’m delighted to tell you that Judith Greenberg is NIGMS’ new deputy director.

Judith has been a vital member of the NIGMS leadership team for many years, including serving as acting director for two extended periods, as acting deputy director since shortly after I arrived and as director of our Division of Genetics and Developmental Biology since 1988. Her many significant contributions have included leading the development of two strategic plans, spearheading the establishment of important new policies and streamlining a number of internal processes.

Judith has a long record of outstanding leadership and dedication to NIGMS and NIH, and we can all look forward to continuing to benefit from her wisdom, expertise and perspective.

More on My Shared Responsibility Post

Thanks for all of the comments and discussion on my last post. There were many good points and ideas brought up, and these will be very useful as we consider additional policy changes at NIGMS and NIH. I hope these conversations will continue outside of NIH as well.

Several people asked about the current distribution of funding among NIGMS principal investigators (PIs). Here are a few relevant statistics:

  • In terms of the NIH research funding of NIGMS grantees, in Fiscal Year 2013, 5 percent of the PIs had 25 percent of this group’s total NIH direct costs and 20 percent of the PIs had half of it. A similar pattern was recapitulated NIH-wide.
  • NIGMS PIs who had over $500,000 in total NIH direct costs held approximately $400 million in NIGMS funding.
  • The figure below shows the distribution of total NIH direct costs for NIGMS-supported investigators as well as the average number of NIH research grants held by PIs in each range.
Graph representing distribution of NIGMS investigartors' total NIH direct costs for research in FY2013
Figure 1. The distribution of NIGMS investigators’ total NIH direct costs for research in Fiscal Year 2013 (blue bars, left axis). The number below each bar represents the top of the direct cost range for that bin. The average number of NIH research grants held by PIs in each group is also shown (red line with squares, right axis). The direct costs bin ranges were chosen so that the first four bins each included 20 percent of NIGMS investigators.

With regard to changes NIH might make to help re-optimize the biomedical research ecosystem, NIH Director Francis Collins recently formed two NIH-wide working groups to develop possible new policies and programs related to some of the issues that I highlighted in my blog post and that were discussed in the subsequent comments. The first group, chaired by NIH Deputy Director for Extramural Research Sally Rockey, will explore ways to decrease the age at which investigators reach independence in research. The second, chaired by me, will look at developing more efficient and sustainable funding policies. Once these committees have made their recommendations, Sally plans to set up a group to consider the question of NIH support for faculty salaries.

As I mentioned in my post, we at NIGMS have been working for some time on these issues. We’ll be discussing additional changes and ideas with the community in the coming weeks and months on this blog and in other forums, including our upcoming Advisory Council meeting.

A Shared Responsibility

The doubling of the NIH budget between 1998 and 2003 affected nearly every part of the biomedical research enterprise. The strategies we use to support research, the manner in which scientists conduct research, the ways in which researchers are evaluated and rewarded, and the organization of research institutions were all influenced by the large, sustained increases in funding during the doubling period.

Despite the fact that the budget doubling ended more than a decade ago, the biomedical research enterprise has not re-equilibrated to function optimally under the current circumstances. As has been pointed out by others (e.g., Ioannidis, 2011; Vale, 2012; Bourne, 2013; Alberts et al., 2014), the old models for supporting, evaluating, rewarding and organizing research are not well suited to today’s realities. Talented and productive investigators at all levels are struggling to keep their labs open (see Figure 1 below, Figure 3 in my previous post on factors affecting success rates and Figure 3 in Sally Rockey’s 2012 post on application numbers). Trainees are apprehensive about pursuing careers in research (Polka and Krukenberg, 2014). Study sections are discouraged by the fact that most of the excellent applications they review won’t be funded and by the difficulty of trying to prioritize among them. And the nation’s academic institutions and funding agencies struggle to find new financial models to continue to support research and graduate education. If we do not retool the system to become more efficient and sustainable, we will be doing a disservice to the country by depriving it of scientific advances that would have led to improvements in health and prosperity.

Re-optimizing the biomedical research enterprise will require significant changes in every part of the system. For example, despite prescient, early warnings from Bruce Alberts (1985) about the dangers of confusing the number of grants and the size of one’s research group with success, large labs and big budgets have come to be viewed by many researchers and institutions as key indicators of scientific achievement. However, when basic research labs get too big it creates a number of inefficiencies. Much of the problem is one of bandwidth: One person can effectively supervise, mentor and train a limited number of people. Furthermore, the larger a lab gets, the more time the principal investigator must devote to writing grants and performing administrative tasks, further reducing the time available for actually doing science.

Although certain kinds of research projects—particularly those with an applied outcome, such as clinical trials—can require large teams, a 2010 analysis by NIGMS and a number of subsequent studies of other funding systems (Fortin and Currie, 2013; Gallo et al., 2014) have shown that, on average, large budgets do not give us the best returns on our investments in basic science. In addition, because it is impossible to know in advance where the next breakthroughs will arise, having a broad and diverse research portfolio should maximize the number of important discoveries that emerge from the science we support (Lauer, 2014).

These and other lines of evidence indicate that funding smaller, more efficient research groups will increase the net impact of fundamental biomedical research: valuable scientific output per taxpayer dollar invested. But to achieve this increase, we must all be willing to share the responsibility and focus on efficiency as much as we have always focused on efficacy. In the current zero-sum funding environment, the tradeoffs are stark: If one investigator gets a third R01, it means that another productive scientist loses his only grant or a promising new investigator can’t get her lab off the ground. Which outcome should we choose?

My main motivation for writing this post is to ask the biomedical research community to think carefully about these issues. Researchers should ask: Can I do my work more efficiently? What size does my lab need to be? How much funding do I really need? How do I define success? What can I do to help the research enterprise thrive?

Academic institutions should ask: How should we evaluate, reward and support researchers? What changes can we make to enhance the efficiency and sustainability of the research enterprise?

And journals, professional societies and private funding organizations should examine the roles they can play in helping to rewire the unproductive incentive systems that encourage researchers to focus on getting more funding than they actually need.

We at NIGMS are working hard to find ways to address the challenges currently facing fundamental biomedical research. As just one example, our MIRA program aims to create a more efficient, stable, flexible and productive research funding mechanism. If it is successful, the program could become the Institute’s primary means of funding individual investigators and could help transform how we support fundamental biomedical research. But reshaping the system will require everyone involved to share the responsibility. We owe it to the next generation of researchers and to the American public.

Graph representing NIGMS principal investigators (PIs) without NIH R01 funding between 200 and 2014.
Figure 1. The number of NIGMS principal investigators (PIs) without NIH R01 funding has increased over time. All NIGMS PIs are shown by the purple Xs (left axis). NIGMS PIs who were funded in each fiscal year are represented by the orange circles (left axis). PIs who had no NIH funding in a given fiscal year but had funding from NIGMS within the previous 8 years and were still actively applying for funding within the previous 4 years are shown by the green triangles (left axis); these unfunded PIs have made up an increasingly large percentage of all NIGMS PIs over the past decade (blue squares; right axis). Definitions: “PI” includes both contact PIs and PIs on multi-PI awards. This analysis includes only R01, R37 and R29 (“R01 equivalent”) grants and PIs. Other kinds of NIH grant support are not counted. An “NIGMS PI” is defined as a current or former NIGMS R01 PI who was either funded by NIGMS in the fiscal year shown or who was not NIH-funded in the fiscal year shown but was funded by NIGMS within the previous 8 years and applied for NIGMS funding within the previous 4 years. The latter criterion indicates that these PIs were still seeking funding for a substantial period of time after termination of their last NIH grant. Note that PIs who had lost NIGMS support but had active R01 support from another NIH institute or center are not counted as “NIGMS PIs” because they were still funded in that fiscal year. Also not counted as “NIGMS PIs” are inactive PIs, defined as PIs who were funded by NIGMS in the previous 8 years but who did not apply for NIGMS funding in the previous 4 years. Data analysis was performed by Lisa Dunbar and Jim Deatherage.

UPDATE: For additional details, read More on My Shared Responsibility Post.

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.