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.

RFI on Reagent-Related Barriers to Reproducible Research; FOAs for Administrative Supplements for Research on Sex/Gender Differences, Regional Consortia for High Resolution Cryoelectron Microscopy; Notice on Biomedical Technology Research Resource Application Due Dates

You may be interested in these following NIH Guide announcements:

Request for Information (RFI): Inviting Comments and Suggestions on the Reagent-Related Barriers to Reproducible Research
(NOT-OD-15-020)

Purpose: Provide input on reagent-related barriers to reproducible biomedical research
Response date: December 22, 2014
NIH contact: Questions concerning this RFI should be directed to NIHReproducibilityEfforts@nih.gov

Administrative Supplements for Research on Sex/Gender Differences (Admin Supp)
(PA-15-034)

Purpose: Request supplemental funds to existing grants to study the impact of sex/gender differences (or similarities) and/or sex and gender factors in human health and disease processes, including basic, preclinical, clinical and behavioral studies to inform the development and testing of preventative and therapeutic interventions
Application due date: January 12, 2015
NIGMS contact: Regine Douthard, 301-435-1759

Regional Consortia for High Resolution Cryoelectron Microscopy (U24)
(RFA-GM-16-001)

Purpose: Provide regional access to state-of-the-art data collection capabilities to cryoelectron microscopy (cryoEM) laboratories; more information is available on the Guidance for Applicants Web page
Letter of intent due date: December 27, 2014
Application due date: January 27, 2015
NIGMS contact: Paula Flicker, 301-594-0828

Change in Application Due Dates for PAR-14-021 "Biomedical Technology Research Resource (P41)"
(NOT-GM-14-136)

Purpose: Notice that applications for Biomedical Technology Research Resource grants will no longer be accepted for the September 25 due date; applications will continue to be accepted for the January 25 and May 25 due dates
NIGMS contact: Douglas Sheeley, 301-451-6446

Clinical Trial Planning Grant FOA Reissued

NIGMS supports research in certain clinical areas, primarily those that affect multiple organ systems. To help investigators plan and prepare for clinical research projects, we offer planning grants for clinical trials of high relevance to the NIGMS mission. These planning grants, which we discussed in an earlier Feedback Loop post, can be used to develop management strategies and assemble regulatory documents for large-scale clinical trials.

We recently reissued the funding opportunity announcement for these planning grants. The next application deadline is December 18, with optional letters of intent due by November 18.

If you’re interested in applying for a clinical trial planning grant, we strongly recommend that you consult with the appropriate NIGMS program staff  before you apply to determine whether the goal of the proposed trial aligns with the NIGMS mission and scientific priorities.

For more information, see our Clinical Studies and Trials Web page, which includes links to other useful resources like the NIGMS Guidelines for Data and Safety Monitoring in Clinical Trials. In addition, please note that NIH recently revised its definition of “clinical trial” to make a clearer distinction between clinical trials and clinical research studies and to enhance the precision of the clinical trial information NIH collects, tracks and reports.

If you have any questions about NIGMS’ support of clinical trials, please contact me.

Funding Opportunities to Develop Glycoscience Tools and Technologies

NIGMS and the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research are leading the new NIH Common Fund glycoscience program that is focused on the development of accessible and affordable tools and technologies for studying carbohydrates and their functions. The overall objective is to enable researchers in all biomedical fields to dramatically advance understanding of the roles of these complex molecules in health and disease.

The NIH Common Fund recently issued four funding opportunity announcements from this program:

The application deadline for each announcement is December 10, with optional letters of intent due by November 10. For more information about the glycoscience program, view the technical assistance Webinar or contact either one of us at sheeleyd@mail.nih.gov or marinop@nigms.nih.gov.

NIGMS Grantee to Share 2014 Nobel Prize for High-Resolution Cellular Imaging

Cellular skeleton showing the calculated 3D location of the protein tubulin.

Using a technique made possible by super-resolved fluorescence microscopy, scientists captured this image of a cellular skeleton. More details

We were excited to learn this morning that our grantee William E. Moerner will share the 2014 Nobel Prize in chemistry Exit icon with Eric Betzig and Stefan W. Hell "for the development of super-resolved fluorescence microscopy." We congratulate them on this well-deserved recognition of their pioneering work, which has provided an unprecedented window into the cell and paved the way for understanding a range of biological processes.

I’m particularly thrilled with today’s news because it highlights an NIGMS-supported field that I’ve been closely involved in for more than 15 years. I remember my first conversation with W.E. on moving single-cell spectroscopy into biology, which led to a 2000 workshop we held to explore the state of the art in—and potential for—research in single molecule detection and manipulation. The recommendations from that workshop informed the development of a number of initiatives to apply the tools and approaches of the physical sciences to biological problems. The initiatives include our single molecule detection and manipulation program announcement and an NIH Roadmap for Medical Research program on the development of high-resolution probes for cellular imaging.

Since then, we have witnessed an explosion in the use of optical methods to look at single molecules at the nanoscale level and are gaining a wealth of insights as a result.

A statement from NIGMS on the prize is at http://www.nigms.nih.gov/news/results/pages/20141008.aspx. More information about our support of Nobel Prize winners is at http://www.nigms.nih.gov/education/pages/factsheet_NIGMSNobelists.aspx and at http://www.nigms.nih.gov/pages/GMNobelists.aspx.

Tune in for Video Resources on Navigating Peer Review, eRA Commons

The NIH Extramural Nexus blog has published posts on video resources that you may find helpful:

New Webinars Connect Applicants to NIH Peer Review Experts: The Center for Scientific Review is hosting webinars in early November to give R01, R15, SBIR/STTR and fellowship grant applicants and others useful insights into the submission and review processes. Register by October 28.

New Video Tutorials Can Help You Navigate eRA Commons: A 10-part series of short video tutorials walks you through the steps for submitting just-in-time information, a no-cost extension, a relinquishing statement and more. Watch the tutorials on the NIH Grants playlist Exit icon on YouTube.

Ensuring Synchrotron Beamline Access for Biomedical Researchers

The National Synchrotron Light Source (NSLS) at Brookhaven National Laboratory (BNL) closed earlier this week as a newer, more advanced facility, NSLS-II Exit icon, began to come online.

Thousands of NIH researchers have used beamlines at NSLS over the last 30 years to collect data to characterize biological macromolecules including drug targets, ion pumps and enzymes. Because the beamlines for biological research Exit icon at NSLS-II will not be available until 2016, other synchrotron facilities are temporarily expanding their capacity to address the beamline reduction.

Here are some sources that will help you identify and access beamlines at other U.S. synchrotrons:

If you have questions about NIH-funded synchrotron resources, please contact me or Ward Smith.

New Requirement to Describe IDP Use in Progress Reports

If you have an NIGMS research grant, we want to raise your “IDP consciousness.” If you’re unfamiliar with this abbreviation, IDP stands for “individual development plan.”

A recent NIH Guide notice announced a revised policy on describing the use of IDPs in annual progress reports that requires you to include a section on how you use IDPs to help identify and promote the career goals of the graduate students and postdocs supported by the grant. The notice states:

NIH will not require but strongly encourages institutions to develop and use IDPs for graduate students and postdoctoral researchers supported by NIH awards, regardless of their position title. IDPs provide a structure for the identification and achievement of career goals. Therefore, NIH encourages grantees to develop institutional policies that employ an IDP for every graduate student and postdoctoral researcher supported by NIH awards. Beginning on October 1, 2014, annual progress reports are required to include a description of whether the institution uses IDPs or not and how they are employed to help manage the training and career development of those individuals.

Please note that you should not include the actual IDPs in your progress report.

NIGMS’ training strategic plan emphasized the importance of IDPs, and our IDP Web page provides useful resources for preparing and implementing them. If you have other tips for using IDPs or meeting the new progress report requirement, please feel free to share them here.

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.