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

Wanted: NIH and NIGMS Training and Research Workforce Leaders

Although this blog doesn’t usually announce job openings outside NIGMS, I want to make an exception for an important one at NIH that is very relevant to many of our programs and interests. I’m chairing the search committee for NIH’s chief officer for biomedical research workforce, who will also serve as director of the Division of Biomedical Research Workforce in the NIH Office of Extramural Research. The deadline for applying is September 15.

The NIH biomedical research workforce chief and staff will work with the institutes and centers on research training, career development and other activities to address biomedical workforce needs. We expect there to be particularly close interactions with the director and staff of the NIGMS Division of Training, Workforce Development, and Diversity due to the leading role we play in these areas at NIH on both the policy and implementation fronts. As Cathy Lewis posted previously, we’re actively recruiting for this key position at NIGMS and will accept applications through August 31.

For more on the NIH position’s scope and context, which includes using workforce analyses in policy development, see a new blog post by OER’s Sally Rockey on NIH’s progress in meeting biomedical research workforce goals.

I encourage you to share information about both of these critical positions with anyone you think might be interested in applying.  

Challenge Contest: Tracing Basic Research to Medical Advances

Challenge.gov LogoThe basic biomedical research NIGMS supports is essential for the groundbreaking advances that enhance human health, but drawing a connection between an NIGMS-funded research project and a specific medical advance can be difficult. First, it can be decades between the study of a scientific question and the application of the resulting knowledge to improving human health. Second, in most cases, it’s not a single project or experiment that leads to a “eureka moment” with tangible benefits, but rather the combination of many projects. Third, the projects may be supported by different funding sources (various NIH institutes, other federal agencies, private organizations and foundations), and these sources often change during the decades of development. What started as an NIGMS project may later get funded by an NIH institute whose mission is disease-specific, followed by private funding as the advance becomes commercialized.

We’re always looking for new ways to identify these connections, and we think you can help. We’re soliciting stories that make a clear association between NIGMS-funded research and improvements in health, well-being or other tangible benefits to the public and/or economy. We’re also interested in applications in medicine, industry, technology or elsewhere that have their roots in NIGMS-funded research projects. We especially encourage our long-time grantees to share their stories of discovery.

We’re not looking for “Nobel Prize”-type stories or scientific breakthroughs that might in the future lead to improvements in the human condition. Rather, we want complete stories that can trace current treatments, therapeutics or diagnostics back to knowledge or insights gained from one or more NIGMS-funded projects. These examples will augment our own staff’s efforts to identify such stories and help us further fill out the historical context of breakthroughs in basic research and their impacts.

We’re using the Challenge.gov mechanism Exit icon for this purpose, which enables us to give monetary awards of $500 to winning entries. We’ll also post the winning stories on our Web site. Submissions are due by October 20, 2014, and we look forward to seeing what you send in!

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

We’re planning an experiment in how we fund research, and we want your input. As outlined in the Request for Information (RFI) included below, we propose to create a pilot program called Maximizing Investigators’ Research Award (MIRA) that would support all of the projects in an investigator’s lab that are relevant to the NIGMS mission.

We expect that the MIRA program will offer a number of benefits. For instance, investigators would not have to break their work into smaller, strictly prescribed increments. In addition, the program could improve funding stability and enhance grantees’ flexibility to follow new research directions as opportunities and ideas arise.

It’s important to note that MIRAs are not intended to be a method for supporting only a perceived elite group of investigators or promoting only high-risk, high-potential-reward research.

Our intent is to pilot a program that might transform how we support fundamental biomedical research, creating a more productive, efficient and sustainable enterprise. I encourage you to read the proposal and share your comments using the RFI input form by the August 15 deadline. We welcome responses from both individuals and organizations.


Request for Information (RFI): Soliciting Comments on a Potential New Program for Research Funding by the National Institute of General Medical Sciences

Notice Number: NOT-GM-14-122

Key Dates

Release Date: July 17, 2014

Response Date: August 15, 2014

Related Announcements

None

Issued by

National Institute of General Medical Sciences (NIGMS)

Purpose

This is a time-sensitive Request for Information (RFI) directed at obtaining input to assist the National Institute of General Medical Sciences (NIGMS) in its planning for a potential new program tentatively named Maximizing Investigators’ Research Award (MIRA). This award would be a grant in support of all of the research supported by NIGMS in an investigator’s laboratory.

Background

Supporting basic research by funding individual projects has a number of consequences for the efficiency and effectiveness of the basic biomedical research enterprise in the U.S. (Alberts, 1985; Ioannidis, 2011;  Vale, 2012; Bourne, 2013; Alberts et al., 2014). To address these issues and increase the efficiency and efficacy of its funding mechanisms, NIGMS is considering a pilot program to fund investigators’ overall research programs, which represents a compilation of the investigator’s research projects. It is hoped that this new funding mechanism will achieve the following:

  • Increase the stability of funding for NIGMS-supported investigators, which could enhance their ability to take on ambitious scientific projects and approach problems creatively.
  • Increase flexibility for investigators to follow important new research directions as opportunities arise, rather than being bound to specific aims proposed in advance of the studies.
  • Improve the distribution of funding among the nation’s highly talented and promising investigators to increase overall scientific productivity and the chances for important breakthroughs.
  • In the long term, reduce the time spent by researchers writing and reviewing grant applications, allowing them to spend more time conducting research.

Overview of the proposed NIGMS MIRA program

  • An NIGMS MIRA would provide support for a lab’s research program, which represents a compilation of the investigator’s NIGMS research projects (research areas supported by NIGMS are outlined at our website). Researchers would have the freedom to explore new avenues of inquiry that arise during the course of their work as long as those avenues are relevant to the mission of the Institute and do not require additional review for regulatory compliance (e.g., new human subjects research).
  • An NIGMS MIRA would be renewable.
  • Funding would range from $150,000-$750,000 (direct costs/year), depending on recommendations of the study section and the National Advisory General Medical Sciences Council as well as staff evaluation of the needs and expected productivity and impact of the program. Support for the investigator from sources other than NIGMS would be taken into consideration when deciding on funding levels for an NIGMS MIRA.
  • Up to $150,000 in administrative supplement support for the purchase of new equipment could be requested by an NIGMS MIRA grantee per grant cycle. Decisions on these requests would be made by NIGMS staff and the National Advisory General Medical Sciences Council based on an assessment of need and the potential impact of the new equipment on the research. The number of supplements given would depend on the available funds.
  • The median direct costs for NIGMS MIRAs would be higher than the current median R01 direct costs at NIGMS.
  • The length of an NIGMS MIRA would be 5 years, which is longer than the current average for an NIGMS R01 of close to 4 years.
  • A researcher funded by an NIGMS MIRA would not be given any other sources of NIGMS funding with the following exceptions:
  • Grants supporting research resources
  • Grants supporting training, workforce development or diversity building
  • Funding for clinical trials
  • SBIR/STTR grants
  • Conference grant
  • The Program Director/Principal Investigator (PD/PI) would be expected to commit at least 50 percent research effort to the NIGMS MIRA.
  • Revision applications to allow new collaborative work might be included as part of this program.
  • Review of the application would emphasize a holistic evaluation of the investigator’s track record and the overall potential importance of the proposed research program, without focusing on specific project details. Specific aims would not be required. The process would include peer review using existing criteria and processes but would be tailored to address the particular features of the MIRA (see the section below on the Possible Peer Review Process).
  • To avoid the abrupt termination of research groups from an adverse round of peer review, NIGMS MIRAs could be ramped down from one funding level to a lower one that is more consistent with the recent and perceived future productivity of the group and the importance of the work, as assessed by the study section. Conversely, a renewing program could have its budget increased if the perceived productivity, impact and needs merited it. As per standard grants policy, NIGMS program staff would make decisions on funding levels, guided by the recommendations from study sections and the National General Medical Sciences Council.

Possible Peer Review Process

In addition to the standard review criteria, among the considerations reviewers would be asked to address in reviewing MIRA applications are whether:

  • The proposed research effort is substantive, broad and ambitious.
  • A PD/PI’s record shows evidence of productivity, creativity, adaptability, service and excellence in mentoring.
  • For Early stage Investigators (ESIs), there is evidence of productivity, independent research and contributions to the design and direction of past research efforts.
  • The proposed research includes evidence of creativity and the incorporation of novel approaches as appropriate.
  • There are sound bases and generally well-thought-through and reasoned approaches for the proposed research effort.
  • There is evidence that the PD/PI has considered alternative approaches, outcomes, models and directions that might inform the scientific questions being posed.
  • The work will be conducted carefully and cost-effectively, with good stewardship of the data generated.
  • For ESIs, there is evidence of institutional support and mentoring.

Possible Implementation Plan

Because this is a pilot program, implementation must be carefully phased in and outcomes and unintended consequences assessed along the way. One possible implementation plan, consisting initially of two paths, is outlined below.

  • In lieu of a competitive renewal (Type 2), PDs/PIs who currently have two or more NIGMS R01s could apply for an NIGMS MIRA. Application for a MIRA would be evidence of a willingness to relinquish all other NIGMS research grants upon award. Award of the MIRA would be contingent on relinquishing other current NIGMS research grants in favor of the MIRA. Applicants proposing to consolidate their NIGMS awards would have to submit a MIRA application that would undergo peer review. The budget would be higher than that for any of the individual awards the PD/PI has, but usually less than the total of all of his or her NIGMS support. The length of the NIGMS MIRA would be 5 years.
  • The program could be open to applications from ESIs. This would bring a cadre of ESIs into the system who could be directly compared to other NIH-supported ESIs funded through traditional mechanisms. MIRA would be considered a substantial, independent NIH research award that disqualifies an individual from classification as an ESI.

The MIRA Funding Opportunity Announcement, when ultimately published, will include metrics that will be used to evaluate the success of the program. Once the program is established and indications of success have been measured, additional groups of investigators would be invited to apply for NIGMS MIRAs. If the program becomes successful, it would ultimately be open to applications from all investigators working on topics relevant to the mission of NIGMS and could become the primary research funding mechanism used by the Institute.

Information Requested

NIGMS is planning to issue a Funding Opportunity Announcement (FOA) to test this new program on a pilot scale. To aid in planning, the Institute is seeking feedback from the scientific community. NIGMS invites comments on the topics below; however, comments are not limited to these topics.

  1. The merits of this funding program for established and early stage investigators.
  2. The likelihood that established and early stage investigators would apply for NIGMS MIRAs.
  3. Concerns about the NIGMS MIRA proposal.
  4. Suggestions for changes to improve the NIGMS MIRA proposal or associated processes.

Submitting a Response

All responses must be submitted to https://www.research.net/s/NewGrantProgram_gov by August 15, 2014. Responses are limited to 500 words per topic.

This RFI is for planning purposes only and should not be construed as a solicitation for applications or an obligation on the part of the government. The government will not pay for the preparation of any information submitted or for the government’s use of that information.

The NIH will use the information submitted in response to this RFI at its discretion and will not provide comments to any responder’s submission. However, responses to the RFI may be reflected in future funding opportunity announcements. The information provided will be analyzed and may appear in reports. Respondents are advised that the Government is under no obligation to acknowledge receipt of the information or provide feedback to respondents with respect to any information submitted. No proprietary, classified, confidential, or sensitive information should be included in your response. The Government reserves the right to use any non-proprietary technical information in any resultant solicitation(s).

Inquiries

Please direct all inquiries to:

Peter C. Preusch, Ph.D.
National Institute of General Medical Sciences (NIGMS)
Telephone: 301-594-0827

Helen R. Sunshine, Ph.D.
National Institutes of General Medical Sciences (NIGMS)
Telephone: 301-594-2881