Planning for Maximizing Investigators’ Research Award (MIRA) Renewals

As we work on issuing a new funding opportunity announcement (FOA) for the established investigator (EI) MIRA program, we thought it would be useful to address a few common questions we’ve been hearing. The new FOA will allow applications from NIGMS grantees who have one or more single-Principal Investigator (PI) R01-equivalent awards, just as the current FOA does. In addition, the new FOA (to be published by Fall 2019) will allow renewal applications from PIs who already have MIRA grants.

One key goal of the MIRA program is to increase funding stability for researchers. This was accomplished in part by making the awards a year longer than are typical of NIGMS R01s for established investigators. In addition, we intend to ensure that the success rate for MIRA renewals will be higher than for R01 renewals and will be at least as high as the success rate for new EI MIRA applications, which is currently more than 50%.

Another approach to increasing the stability of funding is to change the funding decision paradigm for renewal applications away from being necessarily yes or no. Instead, the Institute can modulate a PI’s budget downward rather than not funding the renewal application at all. This approach can be used for MIRA renewal applications that are deemed meritorious but not as strong as would have been expected based on the previous budget or other factors. In such cases, the application could be funded for the full 5 years but at the new, lower level, allowing the PI’s research program to continue, albeit at a reduced scale. When we were developing the MIRA program, we frequently heard from the community that applicants would rather get a grant at a lower funding level than no grant at all.

In some circumstances, we might also provide bridge funding for unsuccessful MIRA renewal applicants to give them a chance to apply for other sources of funding. In particular, we would consider this approach when it is deemed that MIRA was not the optimal funding mechanism for the investigator’s research (for example, because a highly integrated multi-PI team was required).

We plan for the eligibility window in the new FOA to allow those PIs who are unsuccessful in their first attempt to have a second chance at renewal.

It is important to note that in addition to decreasing the budgets of some awards based on the outcomes of review, we also plan to increase the budgets of other renewing MIRA grants that are judged to warrant additional funds. For example, early-stage investigator (ESI) MIRA grantees who have programs that are on steep upward trajectories and whose research would strongly benefit from increased funding levels can be awarded higher budgets upon renewal. We expect this principle will hold true for all future MIRA renewals, including for grantees whose budgets were reduced at their first renewals; if the situation warrants it, their budgets can be increased when they come in for their second renewals. Thus, a decrease in budget is not necessarily permanent. We also expect that there will be a minimum budget level below which further reductions wouldn’t make sense, and that the type of science being conducted (e.g., if it requires animals or human subjects) would influence this budget level.

Although well-funded grantees (having more than $400,000 in direct costs from NIGMS research grants) applying for new EI MIRAs will generally receive budgets about 12% lower than their previous average NIGMS research funding levels, the Institute does not intend to use a similar blanket policy when setting budgets for MIRA renewals. Instead, the funding levels for each MIRA renewal will be independently determined based on a variety of considerations, including the results of peer review, the PI’s other support and commitments, and the Institute’s scientific priorities and available budget. Overall, we expect most budgets for MIRA renewals to be similar to what they were in the previous funding period, although some grants will have increased or decreased budgets, as described above.

Once a MIRA grant has been terminated, either because a grantee chooses not to renew it or is unsuccessful in doing so, the PI is once again eligible to receive other NIGMS research funding. A MIRA PI may apply for an NIGMS R01 while they still have an active MIRA but cannot have both a MIRA and NIGMS R01 application under review simultaneously and would be required to relinquish the MIRA award before accepting the NIGMS R01. Only ESIs can have MIRA and NIGMS R01 applications under review at the same time. As long as the MIRA grant is active, the PI is subject to its requirements, including a commitment of 51% research effort. Note that research effort includes all time spent by the investigator on research and excludes time spent on other activities such as teaching, administration, and clinical duties.

Finally, because of the disparity in career stages between PIs renewing ESI and EI MIRAs, NIGMS intends for the applications of PIs who have had 5 or fewer years of R35 or R01-equivalent grant support (i.e., their first renewal of a major NIH award) to be clustered during peer review. Reviewers will also take the applicant’s career stage and available budget into account when making assessments of productivity.

We believe that the approaches outlined above will meet the goal of improving funding stability for PIs supported through the MIRA program. No system can—or should—fund every researcher who applies for a grant, and it’s essential for us to ensure that all work we support through the MIRA program is promising and meritorious. We will also need to balance the rate at which new researchers enter the system with an appropriate exit rate from existing MIRA grants and other research award mechanisms such as R01s. Because the MIRA program limits the number of grants a PI can have from NIGMS, it enhances the Institute’s ability to bolster funding stability for investigators, relative to systems that allow unlimited applications and multiple awards to individual PIs. We hope that the MIRA program will result in substantial benefits for investigators and correspondingly improve the returns on the taxpayers’ investments in fundamental biomedical research.

4 comments on “Planning for Maximizing Investigators’ Research Award (MIRA) Renewals

  1. Where I think the difficulty will be, and I would like to know if NIGMS is running the numbers on this. (1) Considering the new MIRA funding rate, and (2) the flexibility to increase budgets to allow for (a) success, (b) increased costs/inflation, (c) important new directions, what MUST the non-funding rate be for existing MIRAs? Given that first round required labs to have ≥2 R01s, and the perception was that these were the “cream of the crop”, what is the threshold or perceived reduced productivity that will release labs to have flexibility to more organically pursue funding that allows them to capitalize on new work after a potential down period? If there is a down period, some funding is better than none, but if this is an off ramp to oblivion, I think such an unintended consequence of this program will imperil NIGMS. NIGMS is absolutely critical for funding basic, fundamental research. Some fraction of investigators only really have a natural home in NIGMS. It would behoove the institute to make these types of decisions as transparent as would be feasible while allowing of course some programmatic flexibility.

  2. I also want to add that there is a dangerous position in only allowing MIRA applications (as was previously done) when funding is expiring and disallowing any concurrent applications to NIGMS elsewhere. There is perception, and I think this is reality, that this increases precariousness of funding stability. If MIRA application, which is a long process, is not chosen for funding, these labs are truly put into jeopardy.

  3. I agree with this concern. As the MIRA program is still new, and the factors going into the funding decision and funding level are uncertain, the long review period certainly has me on pins and needles. While I appear to be a good candidate for a MIRA (2 RO1’s, one expiring) and was encouraged/advised to apply by my program director, a negative decision would certainly send me scrambling to submit multiple grants to fund my program after a recent ramp up in personnel. Even a temporary break in funding would result in loss of personnel, which destroys the continuity of work, and is the antithesis of what the MIRA is supposed to protect against. I congratulate NIH for recognizing the destructiveness on funding lapses, and hope that investigators are not penalized for attempting to switch to a MIRA or vice versa.

  4. Regarding the following policy: “A MIRA PI may apply for an NIGMS R01 while they still have an active MIRA but cannot have both a MIRA and NIGMS R01 application under review simultaneously and would be required to relinquish the MIRA award before accepting the NIGMS R01. Only ESIs can have MIRA and NIGMS R01 applications under review at the same time.”
    As noted by others above, this could result in a potentially disastrous and complete loss of funding. Is there a specific reason why the ESI policy of allowing an R01 to be under review at the same time couldn’t be extended to established PIs?

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