Author: Dr. Judith Greenberg

Headshot of Judith Greenberg.

Before her retirement in October 2020, Judith was the deputy director of NIGMS and the acting director of the Division of Biophysics, Biomedical Technology, and Computational Biosciences. In the past, she also served as the acting director of the Institute and as the director of the former Division of Genetics and Developmental Biology. She led the development of the NIGMS strategic plan issued in 2008 and the development and implementation of the NIGMS strategic plan for training issued in 2011.

Posts by Dr. Judith Greenberg

A Look at Our AREA Grants


Academic Research Enhancement Award (AREA, R15) grants support small-scale research projects in the biomedical and behavioral sciences conducted by faculty and students at educational institutions that have not been major recipients of NIH research grant funds. Recently, a faculty member at an AREA grant-eligible institution wrote to NIGMS Director Jon Lorsch urging the Institute to support more AREA grants, arguing that these grants not only train students but are also cost-effective. This prompted us to take a close look at our portfolio of R15 grants. I’d like to share what we found. Thanks to Tony Moore and Ching-Yi Shieh for providing data in the figures.

NIGMS receives the largest number of R15 applications of any NIH institute. This is not surprising, since faculty and students at eligible institutions typically focus on basic research using model organisms and systems. Table 1 shows that the number of AREA grants awarded by NIGMS in each of the last 10 fiscal years has varied from a high of 63 in Fiscal Year 2007 to a low of 36 in Fiscal Year 2010 and that total funding for these grants has ranged from $8.9 million to $18.4 million. As shown in the first figure, NIGMS funds more R15s than any other institute, in recent years between 21% and 29% of the NIH total.

 Fiscal Year Number of Applications Number of
Total Funding
($ in millions)
 2004 128 48 $9,867
 2005 142 49 $10,382
 2006 171 50 $10,602
 2007 200 63 $13,387
 2008 167 53 $11,158
 2009 172 42 $8,903
 2010 199 36 $9,766
 2011 313 62 $18,441
 2012 306 56 $17,925
 2013 304 45 $16,035

Table 1. Number of R15 applications received and awarded by NIGMS and the total funding for R15s in Fiscal Years 2004-2013.

Figure 1. Percentage of NIH R15 dollars awarded by NIGMS. NIGMS (in yellow) has typically supported between 21% and 29% of NIH-funded R15s. The exception was in Fiscal Year 2010, the last year of Recovery Act funding, when the NIH Office of the Director (OD) co-funded a large number of R15s.

The NIGMS success rate for R15s tends to be higher than the overall NIH success rate, although both have been declining steadily over the past 10 years (Figure 2). This decline is due to several factors: an increase in the number of applications, a bump-up in the size of AREA grants in Fiscal Year 2010 from $150,000 to $300,000 in direct costs, and a flat NIH budget. Figure 2 also shows that success rates for R01 grants have been falling as well. While success rates for both NIGMS and NIH R15 grants had usually been higher than those for R01s, in the last several years they have been lower.

Figure 2. Success rates of NIGMS and NIH R15s and R01s in Fiscal Years 2004-2013. Although the NIGMS success rates for both R15s and R01s tend to be higher than the NIH R15 and R01 success rates, all have been declining for the past 10 years. The declines have been greater for R15s than for R01s. In Fiscal Year 2004, 38% of NIGMS R15 applicants were awarded R15s versus 15% in Fiscal Year 2013. The decline in success rate for R15s is due largely to the increase in the number of applications and, since Fiscal Year 2010, to the increased amount of money an applicant can request.

As you can see in Figure 3, over the 10-year period, the funds spent on R15 grants have fluctuated and have made up between about 0.7% and 1.3% of NIGMS’ budget for research project grants (which are largely R01s). Across NIH, AREA grants account for an even smaller amount, about 0.5% last year compared with 1.2% for NIGMS.

Figure 3. Dollars (in thousands) spent by NIGMS for R15s in Fiscal Years 2004-2013 (blue bars, right axis) and the percent of the NIGMS research project grant (RPG) budget that went to R15 grants (green line, left axis).

Does our investment in AREA grants pay off? There are a number of ways to estimate their impact, including quantitative measures such as the number of publications that result from the project, as well as outcomes that are more difficult to measure such as encouraging students to pursue careers in biomedical research and enhancing the educational environment.

While the number of publications per grant is far from a perfect indicator of research productivity, we found that the number of publications attributed to any AREA grant over its entire duration varies tremendously, as shown in Figure 4. Nearly three-fourths of all AREA grantees publish at least one paper, and some produce many publications over the lifetime of their awards. Considering that AREA grantees often have heavy teaching loads and employ undergraduates rather than graduate students and postdocs to assist with the research, these numbers are encouraging.

Figure 4. Number of publications over the duration of NIGMS R15 grants in Fiscal Years 2004-2013.

We hope you will share your AREA grant success stories with us.

Encouraging Model Organism Research


Image of a planerian from the lab of Dr.  Alejandro Sánchez  Alvarado. Nervous system in green and photoreceptors in red. Image credit: Sarah Elliot and Lisandro Maya-RamosA recent article in NIH’s Peer Review Notes illustrated how Alejandro Sánchez Alvarado developed the planarian as a model organism for studying regeneration.

When he applied for his first NIH grant in 1997, Sánchez Alvarado was a new investigator at the Carnegie Institution of Washington who had little preliminary data supporting his proposal. The peer reviewers astutely recognized the promise of his grant application, and they scored it favorably.

NIGMS funded the grant and continues to support Sánchez Alvarado’s studies, now at the Stowers Institute for Medical Research. Since receiving that first grant, Sánchez Alvarado has helped turn planaria into tiny workhorses that have opened new avenues for understanding tissue regeneration and other developmental processes. He has also trained and mentored graduate students and postdocs and served the scientific community as a study section and NIGMS advisory council member.

Sánchez Alvarado’s work is just one example of how NIGMS-funded research on model organisms, including those that are currently considered unconventional, has significantly advanced scientific progress. Think of the protozoan Tetrahymena thermophila and the discovery of telomeres, or the nematode Caenorhabditis elegans and the discovery of RNA interference. The fungus Neurospora crassa has been an important player in understanding the genetics of circadian rhythms, and the bacterium Caulobacter crescentus has led to important insights on the regulation of cell division.

We have long supported research using these and many more model organisms, including mammalian species and other vertebrates, invertebrates, plants, yeast, and additional bacteria. We know that findings made in such systems can translate rapidly—and often unexpectedly—into leaps in conceptual understanding of fundamental life processes, the development of better research tools and approaches, and new strategies for diagnosing and treating diseases. We also know that we can never predict where the next breakthrough will come from—or in which organism. So we continue to encourage applications for projects that use model organisms, including uncommon ones, when these systems offer distinct scientific advantages.

Susan Gregurick Joins NIGMS as Director of Biocomputing and Technology Division


Photo of Susan Gregurick, Ph.D.I’m pleased to introduce you to Susan Gregurick, the new director of our Division of Biomedical Technology, Bioinformatics, and Computational Biology (BBCB).

This is a particularly exciting time for the division, which funds research and training that join biology with the computer sciences, engineering, mathematics and physics. Its activities include supporting research centers in biomedical technology and systems biology as well as computational models of the spread of infectious diseases and the potential effects of interventions. The division also leads the NIH Biomedical Information Science and Technology Initiative and collaborates with the National Science Foundation to support programs in mathematical biology.

A leader in computational biology and bioinformatics with experience in government and academia, Dr. Gregurick brings the expertise and vision needed to help shape this relatively new division and advance its mission. Please join me in welcoming her to NIGMS.

Jeremy Brown to Direct NIGMS-Housed Emergency Care Research Office


Photo of Jeremy Brown, M.D.Last July, I announced the creation of a trans-NIH Office of Emergency Care Research (OECR) housed in NIGMS. OECR now has a permanent director: Jeremy Brown, M.D. His NIH appointment will begin in July.

Although the office won’t directly fund emergency care research and training, it will coordinate and communicate about basic, clinical and translational emergency care research activities at the NIH institutes and centers that do support them, including NIGMS. These efforts will create a higher profile for this critical area of biomedical research. OECR also will partner with other government agencies and organizations engaged in broader efforts to improve emergency care nationwide.

Dr. Brown brings an impressive mix of clinical expertise, research experience, management abilities and communication skills to this important new position. We welcome him to NIH and look forward to working with him.

Research on Women in Biomedical Careers


A group of NIH grantees convened last November to present and discuss their studies on causal factors and possible interventions affecting the representation of women in biomedical and behavioral research and engineering. Their work is funded through a trans-NIH initiative spearheaded by NIGMS and the Office of Research on Women’s Health. Through this effort, NIH is gathering evidence that will help guide future plans and actions in this arena.

Here are several key areas of focus that are emerging from the research:

  • Bias is powerful and often unconscious, but it can be measured, and it can be altered.
  • Mentor networks are often more effective than mentor pairs.
  • Workplace culture affects career satisfaction and performance, and aspects of culture can be measured and changed.
  • Institutional flexibility policies are typically under-recognized and under-used, in part due to ingrained academic culture and lack of leadership buy-in.

For more on the workshop, read the just-posted summary.

Budget Outlook for Fiscal Year 2013 and Beyond


As a result of the sequestration, the NIGMS full-year appropriation for Fiscal Year 2013 was reduced by about 5% compared to Fiscal Year 2012. This reduction brings our operating budget to $2,291,294,437. Our financial management plan outlines the Institute’s fiscal policies, which are consistent with NIH’s policies:

Research Project Grants (RPGs)

  • Inflationary increases will be discontinued for all competing and noncompeting awards (both modular and nonmodular).
  • All noncompeting grants will be reduced by 3.5% from the Fiscal Year 2013 committed level. Commitments in Fiscal Year 2014 and beyond will remain unchanged.
  • Overall average costs for competing RPGs will be at approximately the Fiscal Year 2012 level. Inflationary increases for future-year commitments will be discontinued.
  • Fiscal Year 2013 noncompeting awards that have already been issued at a reduced level will be revised upward to reflect the 3.5% reduction.
  • New investigators on R01-equivalent awards will be supported at a success rate equivalent to that of established investigators submitting new (Type 1) R01-equivalent applications.

Ruth L. Kirschstein National Research Service Awards

  • The stipend levels established in Fiscal Year 2012 will be continued this fiscal year.

Centers and Other Mechanisms

  • Noncompeting awards will be reduced by 3.5% from the initial Fiscal Year 2013 committed level.

Fiscal Year 2012 R01 Funding Outcomes


Fiscal Year 2012 ended on September 30, 2012. As in previous years, we have analyzed the funding results (including percentiles and success rates) for R01 grants, shown in Figures 1-5. Thanks to Jim Deatherage for preparing these data again this year.

Figure 1. Competing R01 applications reviewed (open rectangles) and funded (solid bars) in Fiscal Year 2012.
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Figure 1. Competing R01 applications reviewed (open rectangles) and funded (solid bars) in Fiscal Year 2012.

Figure 2. NIGMS competing R01 funding curves for Fiscal Years 2008-2012. For Fiscal Year 2012, the success rate for R01 applications was 25%, and the midpoint of the funding curve was at approximately the 20th percentile.
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Figure 2. NIGMS competing R01 funding curves for Fiscal Years 2008-2012. For Fiscal Year 2012, the success rate for R01 applications was 25%, and the midpoint of the funding curve was at approximately the 20th percentile.

In Fiscal Year 2012, there was a slight improvement in success rate. This is due in part to the relatively flat number of competing applications that we received (Figure 4).

Figure 3. Number of R01 and R37 grants (competing and noncompeting) funded in Fiscal Years 1998-2012.
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Figure 3. Number of R01 and R37 grants (competing and noncompeting) funded in Fiscal Years 1998-2012.

Figure 4. Number of competing R01 applications (including resubmissions) received during Fiscal Years 1998-2012.
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Figure 4. Number of competing R01 applications (including resubmissions) received during Fiscal Years 1998-2012.

Below are the total NIGMS expenditures (including both direct and indirect costs) for R01 and R37 grants for Fiscal Year 1996 through Fiscal Year 2012.

Figure 5. The upper curve shows the overall NIGMS expenditures on R01 and R37 grants (competing and noncompeting, including supplements) in Fiscal Years 1996-2012. The lower curve (right vertical axis) shows the median direct costs of NIGMS R01 grants. Results are in actual dollars with no correction for inflation.
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Figure 5. The upper curve shows the overall NIGMS expenditures on R01 and R37 grants (competing and noncompeting, including supplements) in Fiscal Years 1996-2012. The lower curve (right vertical axis) shows the median direct costs of NIGMS R01 grants. Results are in actual dollars with no correction for inflation.

Jon R. Lorsch Named NIGMS Director

Photo of Jon R. Lorsch, Ph.D. Credit: Mike Ciesielski.
                                   Credit: Mike Ciesielski

I am delighted to tell you that NIH Director Francis Collins today announced his selection of Jon R. Lorsch as the new director of NIGMS. Dr. Lorsch expects to begin his appointment here in the summer of 2013.

Dr. Lorsch comes to NIH from Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, where he is a professor in the Department of Biophysics and Biophysical Chemistry. He earned a Ph.D. in biochemistry from Harvard University with Jack Szostak and was a postdoctoral fellow in biochemistry at Stanford University with Daniel Herschlag. His research, which NIGMS has funded since 2000, focuses on translation initiation in eukaryotes. During his tenure at Hopkins, Dr. Lorsch was also involved in graduate and medical education, including curriculum reform, mentoring and spearheading new biomedical education initiatives.

In meeting with Dr. Lorsch, I have been most impressed by his understanding of NIH and the issues that are central to the NIGMS mission of supporting basic research, research training and workforce diversity. He brings a passion for science, a commitment to education and demonstrated leadership. We very much look forward to welcoming and working with him.

Operating Under a Continuing Resolution and Sequestration


At this time, we are continuing to fund noncompeting grants at 90%, which is consistent with our practice during the continuing resolutions of fiscal years 2006-2012. We are taking a conservative approach to funding competing awards until we have a budget for the rest of the year. This may occur through another continuing resolution or an appropriations bill.

When we have more information about the budgetary outlook for the remainder of Fiscal Year 2013, I will share our funding plans. I want to assure you that we are working very hard to minimize the impact on our ability to fund grants.

For more information about NIH operations under the sequester, see the blog post from NIH’s Sally Rockey and a letter to grantee institutions about the potential impact of this budget reduction.

Progress Report on the NIGMS Strategic Plan


In 2008, NIGMS issued a strategic plan, Investing in Discovery, that was intended to provide guidance for the Institute over the next 5 years. How well have we done in addressing the plan’s strategic goals? After a critical self-examination, we have produced a progress report that describes some of our accomplishments, strategic decisions and outcomes.

To cite a few highlights, we have:

  • Maintained a funding success rate of approximately 24 percent and funded about 200 new/early-stage investigators each year.
  • Maintained peer review excellence through the implementation and evaluation of innovative review practices.
  • Examined our large-scale science initiatives to determine which to continue, change or phase out, while also ensuring that the resulting knowledge and resources are made widely available to the broader scientific community.
  • Published Investing in the Future, our strategic plan for biomedical and behavioral research training, which articulates a clear, multiyear approach and strategy to ensure that future NIGMS-supported training reflects scientific and workforce needs and contributes to the development of a strong and diverse biomedical research workforce.
  • Established a new Division of Training, Workforce Development, and Diversity, which merges NIGMS research training programs with activities that were previously in the Institute’s Division of Minority Opportunities in Research.
  • Launched this blog to share information about funding opportunities and trends, meetings and scientific resources with our grantees, applicants and others in the scientific community.

I encourage you to read the report for further details and to let us know your thoughts. Although the plan was originally envisioned as a 5-year guide, it is still relevant, and because we hope to have a permanent director later this year, we decided to wait until 2014 to pursue a new strategic planning process.