About Dr. Jon Lorsch

As NIGMS director, Jon oversees the Institute’s research, training and other programs. He’s committed to engaging the scientific community on a wide range of topics, including funding policies and trends, research evaluation, and workforce development and diversity.

Stephanie Constant to Direct NIGMS Office of Scientific Review

Photo of Dr. Stephanie L. ConstantI’m pleased to announce that Stephanie Constant will be joining us in early 2017 as the new chief of our Office of Scientific Review.

Stephanie is currently a scientific review officer at NIH’s National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, where her review portfolio is primarily focused on training and career development programs to promote diversity in the biomedical workforce. She also worked on detail in NIH’s Office of Extramural Research, where she contributed to developing and updating policy guidelines to enhance the NIH peer review process. Prior to joining NIH, she was a tenured associate professor in the Department of Microbiology, Immunology and Tropical Medicine at George Washington University. Her research included studies on the regulation of leukocyte migration in acute and chronic inflammation and on the mechanisms of immunomodulation by parasite products.

Stephanie’s deep knowledge of NIH review policies and practices and expertise in the review of training and diversity grant applications make her an ideal fit for this key position in our Institute. Please join me in welcoming her to NIGMS.

For more about Stephanie, see our news announcement.

More Information About New and Early Stage Investigator MIRA Outcomes

There has been ongoing discussion—both here and in the general scientific community—related to the first MIRA awards to New and Early Stage Investigators (NI/ESI). One question that arose was why applications were administratively withdrawn. Both the NIH Center for Scientific Review and multiple NIGMS staff members, including the program director with a portfolio of grants closest to the applicant’s area of science, screened the applications. Of the withdrawn applications, a majority (~80%) were returned prior to review because they proposed research that fell outside of the NIGMS mission. Others were withdrawn because the applicant was not eligible for the FOA. After review, some applications were withdrawn because the PI accepted another award that was mutually exclusive with the MIRA. As recommended on the MIRA website and elsewhere, we encourage anyone who intends to apply for the Early Stage Investigator MIRA to discuss their plans with the appropriate NIGMS program director to determine whether the proposed research area is within the mission of the Institute and if the applicant is eligible to apply.

A major NIGMS goal is to support a broad portfolio that is diverse in research topics, approaches, institutions and investigators. This means we are looking carefully at the outcomes of awards, including gender and race/ethnicity data. We are also trying to take proactive steps to prevent bias during the review, for instance by covering the topic as part of reviewer orientations that take place several weeks before the MIRA study sections meet.

In our recent summary of MIRA applicant and awardee demographics, we looked to see how applications from underrepresented groups compared to those from well-represented groups (White and Asian). The p-value for a difference between the distributions of funded and unfunded applications from these groups was 0.63, meaning that there was no statistically significant difference between the two groups. We also compared the MIRA success rates to those of ESI applicants for NIGMS R01s in fiscal years (FY) 2011-2015 (Table 1).

Continue reading

Trending Young in New and Early Stage Investigator MIRA

Dr. Jon Lorsch

The MIRA presentation at the September 2016 Advisory Council meeting begins at 17:13.

Following up on the previous post regarding the first MIRA awards to New and Early Stage Investigators, we issued awards to a total of 94 grantees. In addition to ensuring that we are funding the highest quality science across areas associated with NIGMS’ mission, a major goal is to support a broad and diverse portfolio of research topics and investigators. One step in this effort is to make sure that existing skews in the system are not exacerbated during the MIRA selection process. To assess this, we compared the gender, race/ethnicity and age of those MIRA applicants who received an award with those of the applicants who did not receive an award, as well as with New and Early Stage Investigators who received competitive R01 awards in Fiscal Year (FY) 2015.

We did not observe any significant differences in the gender or race/ethnicity distributions of the MIRA grantees as compared to the MIRA applicants who did not receive an award. Both groups were roughly 25% female and included ≤10% of underrepresented racial/ethnic groups. These proportions were also not significantly different from those of the new and early stage R01 grantees. Thus although the MIRA selection process did not yet enhance these aspects of the diversity of the awardee pool relative to the other groups of grantees, it also did not exacerbate the existing skewed distribution.

We did observe significant differences among the mean ages of the MIRA grantees, MIRA applicants who did not receive an award and the R01-funded grantees. The MIRA grantees are 1.5 years younger on average than those MIRA applicants who did not receive an award (37.2 vs. 38.7 years, p<0.05), and about 2 years younger than the FY 2015 R01-funded Early Stage Investigators (37.2 vs. 39.1 years, p<0.001). The R01-funded New Investigators in FY 2015, a pool which includes a few individuals older than 60 years, average an age of 45.6 years. This selection for funding investigators earlier is a promising feature of the first round of MIRA awards to New and Early Stage Investigators. As noted at the recent meeting of our Advisory Council, where Jon presented these data, 37 years is still relatively late for investigators to be getting their first major NIH grant. We will continue to monitor this issue with the goal of further decreasing that figure.

Moving Further Afield

In recent talks for iBiology Exit icon  and TEDx Exit icon, NIGMS grantee Alejandro Sánchez Alvarado proposes that because so much of biomedical research focuses on only a handful of model organisms we are limiting our knowledge of biology. He suggests that many important discoveries lie waiting in species that have not yet been the subjects of sufficient investigation. This is a topic of interest to us as well; in fact, Dorit Zuk, director of our Division of Genetics and Developmental Biology, is currently leading an internal working group that’s examining the varied landscape of organisms studied by NIGMS grantees and the new scientific questions that could be answered using a diversity of organisms. We’ll be discussing these topics in future posts.

In addition to the number of organisms we study, other aspects of the biomedical research system may be limiting the breadth of our knowledge. For example, does the expectation that junior faculty work on a problem closely related to their postdoctoral research constrain our explorations to “islands” of study, leaving vast areas under- or unexplored?

The forces keeping biomedical junior faculty within their postdoctoral research areas include the expectations of faculty search committees, grant review panels and funding agencies, as well as the promotion policies of academic institutions. Interestingly, in the chemical sciences, junior faculty are usually expected to develop projects that are distinct from their postdoctoral work, which often involves moving into completely new areas of study. Why the sociology of chemistry evolved so differently in this regard from other fields related to biomedical research is an interesting question.

Should the biomedical research enterprise change its expectations to empower junior researchers to move further away from their postdoctoral work when they start their independent research careers? Would this accelerate the pace of discovery? New programs such as the Maximizing Investigators’ Research Awards (MIRA) for Early Stage Investigators give us an opportunity to revise our expectations for researchers at the beginning of their independent careers. Would this be desirable? What might we look for in assessing outcomes? If we, as funders, successfully made such a change in expectations, would the rest of the research ecosystem make parallel changes to support efforts by junior scientists to leave their home “islands” and move into new territory?

I would be interested to hear your thoughts on these questions.

Revisiting the Dependence of Scientific Productivity and Impact on Funding Level

A 2010 analysis by NIGMS and subsequent studies by others (Fortin and Currie, 2013; Gallo et al., 2014; Lauer et al., 2015; Doyle et al., 2015; Cook et al., 2015 Exit icon) have indicated that, on average, larger budgets and labs do not correspond to greater returns on our investment in fundamental science. We have discussed the topic here in A Shared Responsibility and in an iBiology talk Exit icon. In this updated analysis, we assessed measures of the recent productivity and scientific impact of NIGMS grantees as a function of their total NIH funding.

We identified the pool of principal investigators (PIs) who held at least one NIGMS P01 or R01-equivalent grant (R01, R23, R29, R37) in Fiscal Year 2010. We then determined each investigator’s total NIH funding from research project grants (RPGs) or center grants (P20, P30, P50, P60, PL1, U54) for Fiscal Years 2009 to 2011 and averaged it over this 3-year period. Because many center grants are not organized into discrete projects and cores, we associated the contact PI with the entire budget and all publications attributed to the grant. We applied the same methodology to P01s. Thus, all publications citing the support of the center or P01 grant were also attributed to the contact PI, preventing underrepresentation of their productivity relative to their funding levels. Figure 1 shows the distribution of PIs by funding level, with the number of PIs at each funding level shown above each bar.

Continue reading

Rochelle Long to Lead Pharmacology, Physiology, and Biological Chemistry Division

Dr. Rochelle LongI’m very pleased to announce the selection of Rochelle Long as director of our Division of Pharmacology, Physiology, and Biological Chemistry (PPBC). Rochelle is a pharmacologist who has played leading roles in fostering research in pharmacogenomics through national and international collaborations.

She established and oversees the trans-NIH Pharmacogenomics Research Network and has catalyzed associated partnerships, such as the Global Alliance for Pharmacogenomics and the Clinical Pharmacogenetics Implementation Consortium.

Rochelle has worked in PPBC since 1990, starting as a program director and rising to become chief of its Pharmacological and Physiological Sciences Branch in 1998. She has served as acting division director since Mike Rogers’ retirement in May 2015.

Rochelle’s plans include building bridges across scientific disciplines, working to strengthen emerging fields and promoting cross-disciplinary research. These are goals across the Institute—they are reflected in our strategic plan—and they’re particularly relevant for a broad-ranging division like PPBC.

Since I’ve had the opportunity to interact with her for several years, I know how skilled Rochelle is at organizing, motivating and generating cohesion among groups of people. These qualities will serve her well as PPBC director and as a member of the NIGMS senior leadership team.

For more about Rochelle, see our news announcement.

Sharing Our Passion for Science

NIGMS Director Dr. Jon R. Lorsch explains a protein letter computer activity to a young participant at the USA Science and Engineering FestivalA few weeks ago, 23 NIGMS volunteers and I spent an amazing day with thousands of highly engaged kids, their parents and other science enthusiasts of all ages at the Washington, DC, Convention Center. We were participating in the USA Science & Engineering Festival, the largest STEM event in the nation.

The NIGMS booth was a big hit! Our theme was Cell-e-bration of Science,
with activities that included spelling names with protein letters and a
“selfie station” with science-related props.Festival participants at the NIGMS selfie station holding science themed props in front of a colorful backdrop of a cell

Getting young people interested in science is essential to building a vibrant and innovative research enterprise. The Science & Engineering Festival, with more than 365,000 participants, gave us a chance to share our passion for science with thousands of young people. Hopefully, some of the kids we met are now thinking about careers as scientists.

NIGMS staff volunteer demonstrating how the protein letter computer activity worksI encourage you to share your own enthusiasm for science with young people whenever you have the opportunity. Whether you judge a science fair, speak at a career day or have students visit your lab, you put a human face on science and help students see it as an exciting, fulfilling and worthy career choice.

 

New Early Career Investigator Lecture for Undergraduate Students

Blake WiedenheftI’m very pleased to announce a new annual lecture to highlight the achievements of some of NIGMS’ early career grantees.

The first NIGMS Director’s Early Career Investigator Lecture will be given by Blake Wiedenheft, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology at Montana State University who does research on the CRISPR gene-editing system. His talk, “Bacteria, Their Viruses, and How They Taught Us to Perform Genome Surgery,” will take place on Wednesday, April 13 from 2:00-3:00 p.m. EDT on the NIH campus. The lecture will be videocast and archived on the NIH Videocasting site.

Although open to everyone in the scientific community, this and future talks in the series will be geared toward undergraduate students. After describing their research, speakers will discuss their career paths during a 30-minute question-and-answer session.

We’re hopeful that these lectures will help inform participants about cutting-edge areas of science and inspire them to pursue biomedical research careers. I encourage you to tell your students about this opportunity to ask Blake career-related questions. They can send their questions by email to Jilliene Drayton before Monday, April 11, or tweet them with the hashtag #ecilecture.

Editor’s Note: An archived video of the lecture, including the question-and-answer session, is on the NIH Videocasting and Podcasting site.

Application and Funding Trends

The Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2016 Exit icon, provides funding for the Federal Government through September 30. NIGMS has a Fiscal Year 2016 appropriation of $2.512 billion, which is $140 million, or 5.9%, higher than it was in Fiscal Year 2015. With this opportunity to expand NIGMS support for fundamental biomedical research comes a responsibility to make carefully considered investments with taxpayer funds.

Application Trends

One of the most commonly cited metrics when discussing grants is success rate, calculated as the number of applications funded divided by the number of applications received. As shown in Figure 1, the success rate for NIGMS research project grants (RPGs) increased from 24.8% in Fiscal Year 2014 to 29.6% in Fiscal Year 2015. This was due to an increase in the number of funded competing RPGs as well as a decline in the number of competing RPG applications. In contrast, in Fiscal Year 2013, applications increased while awards decreased, leading to a notable decrease in success rate. Overall, we have seen a decrease in RPG applications over the last 2 years, a trend warranting additional investigation.

Figure 1. Number of NIGMS Competing RPG Applications, Funded Competing RPGs and Success Rates for RPGs, Fiscal Years 2004-2015. NIGMS RPG applications (blue circles, dashed line; left axis) decreased from Fiscal Years 2014 to 2015 to a 5-year low. Meanwhile, NIGMS-funded RPGs (green squares, solid line; left axis) increased in Fiscal Year 2015 to a level not seen since Fiscal Year 2007. As a result, the NIGMS RPG success rate (gray triangles, dotted line; right axis) was the second highest it has been in the past decade.
Figure 1. Number of NIGMS Competing RPG Applications, Funded Competing RPGs and Success Rates for RPGs, Fiscal Years 2004-2015. NIGMS RPG applications (blue circles, dashed line; left axis) decreased from Fiscal Years 2014 to 2015 to a 5-year low. Meanwhile, NIGMS-funded RPGs (green squares, solid line; left axis) increased in Fiscal Year 2015 to a level not seen since Fiscal Year 2007. As a result, the NIGMS RPG success rate (gray triangles, dotted line; right axis) was the second highest it has been in the past decade.

Continue reading

MIRA Status and Future Plans

Now that we have completed the review process for Maximizing Investigators’ Research Award (MIRA) applications from the first eligible cohort of established investigators, I would like to update you on the program’s status and plans for its future. I shared this information with our Advisory Council at its recent meeting in January.

Screenshot of video

My update on the MIRA program at the January 2016 Advisory Council meeting begins at 26:06.

The first funding opportunity announcement (FOA) we issued (RFA-GM-16-002) was for established investigators who had either two NIGMS R01s or one NIGMS R01 for more than $400,000 in direct costs. In either case, one grant had to be expiring in 2016 or 2017. Out of the 710 investigators who could have met these criteria, 179 submitted applications, corresponding to 25% of the eligible pool.

Among the eligible investigators, 80% were male and 20% were female. This ratio was unchanged among those who applied, as were the percentages across racial and ethnic groups (Figure 1). Thus, although the demographics of the group of investigators that was eligible for this first FOA were skewed in several ways, the skewing was not exacerbated in those who chose to apply. Continue reading