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.

NIGMS Postdoctoral Fellowship Program at NIH Opens for Applications

The NIGMS Postdoctoral Research Associate (PRAT) program is now accepting applications for its 50th class of fellows, and I encourage you to pass along this fellowship opportunity to graduate students and early postdoctoral scholars who may be interested in applying. The application deadline is March 17, 2015.

NIGMS PRAT fellows conduct research in scientific areas within the Institute’s mission while in an NIH intramural research program (IRP) laboratory. Before applying to the program, applicants must identify a potential preceptor in the NIH IRP and develop a research proposal.

Applicants must be citizens or permanent residents of the United States who have or will have a doctoral degree (e.g., Ph.D. or M.D.) and no more than 5 years of postdoctoral research experience by the time the 2015 program begins in the fall. Individuals currently in Ph.D. or other doctoral degree-granting programs may apply as long as they anticipate completing the degree requirements before starting the fellowship program.

NIGMS PRAT fellows receive 3 years of stipend support at levels determined by the NIH IRP guidelines and commensurate with experience. Additional benefits include health insurance, a travel allowance and professional development training activities, including a monthly seminar series designed specifically for the fellows. The professional development opportunities provide a rich forum for the exchange of ideas among this diverse group and are often cited by current fellows and alumni as one of the most valuable aspects of the program.

For more information about the NIGMS PRAT program, including details about applying and identifying potential preceptors, please e-mail me.

SAVE THE DATE – The NIGMS PRAT program will host a 50th anniversary scientific symposium highlighting the accomplishments of its alumni, many of whom have achieved senior leadership positions in academia, government and industry. This event will take place on November 6, 2015, on the NIH campus in Bethesda, MD.

Advisory Council Meeting: Attend, Watch, Comment

The open session of the next meeting of the National Advisory General Medical Sciences Council will be on Friday, January 23. It will begin at 8:30 a.m. with remarks by NIGMS Director Jon Lorsch and continue with reports on a variety of Institute activities and, as usual, a period for public comments.

You can attend the meeting in person or watch it remotely live or later via NIH Videocast.

Funding Opportunities: Administrative Supplements for Equipment; Pathway to Independence Award; Big Data Training

You may be interested in these recent funding opportunity announcements:

NIGMS Program of Administrative Supplements for Equipment
(PA-15-089)

Purpose: Request supplemental funds to existing NIGMS-funded R01, R37, P01, and U01 grants for the purchase of single pieces of equipment whose direct costs are between $50,000 and $250,000
Application due date: March 3, 2015
NIGMS contact: Anthony Carter, 301-594-0943

NIH Pathway to Independence Award (Parent K99/R00)
(PA-15-083)

Purpose: Help postdoctoral researchers complete mentored training; transition to independent, tenure-track or equivalent faculty positions; and launch competitive, independent research careers
Application due date: Standard dates apply
NIGMS contacts:
Oleg Barski, PPBC, 301-594-3827
Paula Flicker, CBB, 301-594-0828
Michelle Hamlet, GDB, 301-594-0943
Stephen Marcus, BBCB, 301-594-2987
Michael Sesma, TWD, 301-594-3900

Biomedical Big Data Training

  • NIH Big Data to Knowledge (BD2K) Enhancing Diversity in Biomedical Data Science (R25)
    (RFA-MD-15-005)

    Purpose: Provide undergraduate students from underrepresented groups hands-on exposure to big data research experiences; obtain professional training and skills in big data science

Letter of intent due date: February 19, 2015
Application due date: March 19, 2015

  • NIH Big Data to Knowledge (BD2K) Biomedical Data Science Training Coordination Center (U24)
    (RFA-ES-15-004)

    Purpose: Develop a network of scientists involved in biomedical big data science and produce a discovery index that serves as a primary source for personalized access to publicly available biomedical data science educational resources

  • NIH Big Data to Knowledge (BD2K) Initiative Research Education: Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) on Data Management for Biomedical Big Data (R25)
    (RFA-LM-15-001)

    Purpose: Develop an open, online educational course that covers a comprehensive set of topics related to the management of biomedical big data

  • NIH Big Data to Knowledge (BD2K) Initiative Research Education: Open Educational Resources for Sharing, Annotating and Curating Biomedical Big Data (R25)

    (RFA-LM-15-002)

    Purpose: Develop open educational resources that cover concepts, approaches, relevant use cases and requirements for sharing, annotating and curating biomedical big data

Letter of intent due date: February 17, 2015
Application due date: March 17, 2015

NIH Simplifies Its Policy for Accepting Late Applications

While NIH expects applications to be submitted by their deadlines, it may accept a late application and has recently announced a 2-week window of consideration for all types of applications. Beginning with applications due on or after January 25, NIH will consider accepting applications during this grace period provided a cover letter submitted with the application includes an appropriate justification for being late. The new policy includes submissions in response to most requests for applications and program announcements with special due dates. For exceptions, acceptable reasons and other details, see Simplifying the NIH Policy for Late Application Submission.

Tips for Preparing Your Progress Report

The annual Research Performance Progress Report (RPPR) is how we assess progress toward your funded project’s goals and whether your project is in compliance with guidelines set forth in the NIH Grants Policy Statement. The designated grants management specialist and program official (PO, also known as program director) review each progress report. After these staff members approve the report, we can issue a notice of award for the noncompeting continuation of the grant.

Typically, this administrative review is a straightforward process, but sometimes issues arise that can delay the processing of the award and create additional work for everyone involved.  Here are some of the most common issues we encounter:

  • Public access compliance: Before initiating the RPPR, you should enter all appropriate citations into your NCBI My Bibliography, associate them with the appropriate grant number and select the citations to include in this year’s RPPR. The RPPR software will then complete Section C.1 automatically. When noncompliant publications are identified, you should immediately begin (or complete) the process of bringing those publications into compliance.
  • Publication reporting in the RPPR: List publications in Section C of the progress report, not in Section B.2, “What was accomplished…,” or elsewhere in the text. For more details, see Janna Wehrle’s post on Progress Reports and the Public Access Policy.
  • Change in scope: A request for a change in project scope is a prior approval request that must be submitted by your Authorized Organizational Representative (AOR) and requires review by the grants management specialist and PO; this is done separately from the progress report review. Please remember that adding human subjects and/or vertebrate animals to a grant that previously did not have these activities is considered a change in scope.
  • Discrepancies in answers to RPPR questions: Please double-check your responses to questions about the administrative aspects of your grant. Inconsistent answers to these questions often trigger a flurry of e-mails from us requesting clarification from the AOR and investigator. In my experience, the most common issues involve changes in other support, key personnel and vertebrate animal use, or they indicate a change when none exists.
  • Description of collaborations: Please adequately describe how any collaborations contribute to the project. This is especially important for collaborations with foreign investigators and collaborations involving the sharing of samples from human subjects or vertebrate animals.
  • Level of effort: Be sure to use whole numbers to report person-months of effort on a grant.

Finally, your progress report should include a relatively brief description of the project’s scientific progress in the last funding period. We want to know what you think are your most impactful and exciting discoveries from the past year, as well as where the project is headed in the next funding period. Reading these descriptions is one of the most interesting parts of my job.

When in doubt on what to include in the progress report, contact your PO.

New NIGMS Guidelines for Funding Investigators with Substantial Unrestricted Research Support

Jon Lorsch recently posted a message about the responsibility that our grantee community shares with us to help the research enterprise thrive. One way that we have addressed this is by taking a hard look at the funding of investigators who are already well supported. As most of you know, in an effort to increase efficiency and to support as many outstanding scientists as possible, we have long required special advisory council approval  for any grant that, in combination with the principal investigator’s (PI’s) other research support, would provide over $750,000 in direct costs.

We have now developed guidelines that we will use in awarding R01s and other research grants to investigators with substantial levels of long-term, unrestricted research funding from any source. Unrestricted funding means that it is not project-based and may be used to conduct research on a broad topic at the PI’s discretion. We consider such support substantial and long-term if it is over $400,000 in direct costs (excluding the PI’s salary and direct support of widely shared institutional resources) and extends for at least 2 years from the time the NIGMS grant would be funded.

Abiding by these new guidelines will enable us to fund additional labs, increasing the likelihood of making significant scientific advances. The guidelines will take effect for applications submitted on or after January 2, 2016. If you might be affected by the new guidelines, I encourage you to discuss your plans with your program director.

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.

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