Category: Director’s Messages

Remembering Ruth Kirschstein


Ruth Kirschstein, M.D.We were all very sad to learn of the death of Ruth Kirschstein, M.D., last evening. She will be deeply missed here at NIGMS, NIH, and beyond.

Dr. Kirschstein was an iconic figure at NIH and in the scientific community. She was the long-time director of NIGMS, serving from 1974 to 1993, and was the first female director of an NIH institute. She also served as acting director of NIH, deputy director of NIH, and in other key positions.

Dr. Kirschstein truly represented the best of NIH—public service, wisdom, and deep knowledge and analysis of important problems. She was so profoundly modest that Congress had to surprise her when they acknowledged her contributions and commitment to research training with the naming of the Ruth L. Kirschstein National Research Service Awards.

I am sure much more will be said and written about her in the future, and we will share this with you in the comments section. I encourage you to post your own thoughts about her as well.

Nobel Prize to Long-Time NIGMS Grantees

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We were delighted to learn this morning that long-time NIGMS grantees Elizabeth Blackburn, Carol Greider and Jack Szostak will share the 2009 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine  Link to external web site for their “discovery of how chromosomes are protected by telomeres and the enzyme telomerase.”

I remember very well the presentation by then-graduate student Carol Greider at the 1987 Cold Spring Harbor Symposium on Quantitative Biology about her purification and initial characterization of telomerase and component RNA. Her passion and enthusiasm for science stood out, even in that high-powered crowd. I also enjoyed working with her when we were colleagues at Johns Hopkins before I came to NIGMS.

The work of Blackburn, Greider and Szostak represents an archetype of curiosity-driven basic research. The fact that DNA synthesis requires a template creates a clear challenge to copying the ends of DNA. The reality of this challenge was clear from Szostak’s studies with linear DNA molecules in yeast. Using a model organism (Tetrahymena) selected for its unusually high abundance of DNA ends, Blackburn’s lab identified telomere sequences and showed, with Szostak, that these sequences did, in fact, stabilize linear DNA molecules in yeast. Blackburn and Greider then set out to detect and purify the enzyme that adds telomeres to DNA.

After their success, they and many other researchers have explored the implications of these observations as they relate to cancer, cellular aging and stem cells. In the years to come, we can expect to see additional implications and broad exploitation of these observations.

President Obama Visits NIH


Yesterday, President Obama came to NIH to deliver a speech highlighting the role of scientific research in the Recovery Act and the potential impacts of biomedical research on health. This event marked the end of the fiscal year and the extraordinary effort of the scientific community and the NIH staff in moving forward with Recovery Act investments. You can watch the video on the NIH Videocast Web site.

We will be posting more information about the status of NIGMS investments of Recovery Act funds soon.

The New Scoring System


At the recent meeting of the National Advisory General Medical Sciences Council, our Council members had their first opportunity to examine summary statements using the new peer review scoring system.

Many aspects of the new scoring system are unfamiliar, including the use of overall impact scores as integers from 10 (best) to 90 (worst). A summary of the new scoring system is well described in a scoring system and procedure document, and an earlier version of this was shared widely with reviewers.

As background, I compiled some data for approximately 300 NIGMS R01 applications reviewed under the new system.

This plot shows the distribution of overall impact scores along with the corresponding percentiles.

This plot shows the distribution of overall impact scores along with the corresponding percentiles. Note the relative spread of percentile scores at a given impact score. This spread is due to the fact that percentiles are determined independently for each study section that considered 25 or more R01 applications. Otherwise, percentiles are determined across the overall pool of R01 applications reviewed by the Center for Scientific Review.

For comparison, here is a plot of a similar number of NIGMS R01 applications reviewed using the old scoring system.

A plot of a similar number of NIGMS R01 applications reviewed using the old scoring system.

Note the similar spread of percentiles at a given score due to study section-specific percentiling.

I would like to mention another major change as a result of the NIH Enhancing Peer Review effort. You must use restructured application forms and instructions, including a 12-page length limit for R01s, for applications due on or after January 25, 2010. For details, see the recent NIH Guide notice. We plan to post updates about these changes as key dates approach.

Nearly Half of NIGMS Recovery Act Funds Now Awarded


Three weeks ago, I posted a graph of the cumulative investment of NIGMS Recovery Act funds as a function of the award start date. Below is an updated version.

This graph shows that the rate at which we have made Recovery Act awards from July to September has accelerated.

This graph differs from my previous one in two ways. First, it is up to date as of yesterday. Second, it includes commitments for the second year of awarded 2-year R01 grants. As it shows, we are close to allocating half of our $505 million of Recovery Act funds. We are making more awards every day, with the Challenge grants, GO grants, and faculty start-up (P30) grants to be awarded soon.

The awards made to date can be broken down into seven major categories.

This graph shows the amount and total number of awards in each category. R01: 112. R01 equivalent supplements: 511. AREA grants (R15): 11.  AREA grants supplements: 22. MBRS SCORE (S06, SC1,2,3, R25) supplements: 77. MARC (T34) supplements. Research training grant (T32) supplements: 90.

This graph shows the amount and total number of awards (blue type above each bar) in each category. The gray-shaded area over the R01 category reflects second-year commitments.

To put these figures in context, NIGMS currently supports approximately 3,600 R01 grants; 50 AREA (R15) grants; 250 Minority Biomedical Research Support (MBRS) S06, SC1, SC2, SC3, and R25 grants; 50 Minority Access to Research Careers (MARC) T34 grants; and 300 institutional research training T32 grants.

We will continue to update you on our Recovery Act activities as we move from one fiscal year to the next at the end of this month.

Nation’s Top Science Honor Goes to Francis Collins, JoAnne Stubbe, Others

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Yesterday, President Obama announced the 2009 recipients of the National Medal of Science and the National Medal of Technology and Innovation. The nine winners of the National Medal of Science include NIH Director Francis Collins and long-time NIGMS grantee JoAnne Stubbe, a biochemist at MIT. I am delighted that the President recognized these outstanding scientists and innovators for their contributions.

Workshop for Transitioning Postdocs


We’re holding a two-day workshop for postdoctoral fellows that will help them transition to their first independent positions. It will take place on the NIH campus in Bethesda, MD, March 11-12, 2010.

NIGMS Workshop for Transitioning to Independent Positions - March 11-12, 2010.  Registration deadline: Novermber 2, 2009The workshop is called “Advancing Biomedical Research Workforce Diversity: NIGMS Workshop for Postdocs Transitioning to Independent Positions.”

The agenda covers all stages of this transition process, from identifying the institutions that best fit their needs, to preparing for the job search, negotiating a start-up package, setting up a laboratory, applying for research funding, and receiving tenure. Although the focus of the workshop is on academic positions, participants will also have an opportunity to learn about other scientific careers. The workshop will emphasize special aspects of the transition process as they apply to postdocs with diverse backgrounds, especially those from groups underrepresented in the biomedical and behavioral sciences.

We want to provide a personal and meaningful experience for all participants, so attendance at this meeting is limited. Priority will be given to those who plan to complete their postdoctoral training within the next year and whose career plans would benefit from this workshop. Participants must be U.S. citizens or permanent residents.

Applications are due by November 2, 2009. Individuals selected to attend the workshop will be reimbursed by NIGMS for travel and per diem expenses.

If you are a postdoc and believe this meeting would be of benefit, I encourage you to apply. If you are an investigator with eligible postdocs, I urge you to share this information with them.

Update on Awarding Recovery Act Funds


As I noted in my previous post, we are actively working to make Recovery Act awards. Below is a plot of the cumulative investment of NIGMS Recovery Act funds as a function of the award start date. This includes awards made through the middle of August.

This graph shows that the rate at which we have made Recovery Act awards from July to mid-August has accelerated.

As you can see, the rate at which we are making awards is accelerating. Many more awards are in process. Our advisory council will review Challenge Grant, GO Grant, and Faculty Recruitment (P30) applications in mid-September, and we plan to make awards by the end of that month.

Welcoming the New NIH Director


On Monday, Francis S. Collins, M.D., Ph.D., became the 16th director of the National Institutes of Health. He was nominated by President Obama on July 8 and unanimously confirmed by the U.S. Senate on August 7.

Dr. Collins is well known in the scientific community and is very knowledgeable about NIH at all levels, serving as the director of the National Human Genome Research Institute from 1993-2008 and being a productive intramural investigator. NIH issued a news release with more biographical information.

Screenshot of NIH All-Hands Town Meeting with Dr. Collins

Shortly after being sworn in, Dr. Collins held a town hall meeting with NIH staff. In his remarks, he eloquently outlined his vision and priorities, which include securing stable funding for biomedical research, training the next generation of scientists and nurturing early stage investigators.

I had my first opportunity to work closely with Dr. Collins soon after I came to NIH in 2003. It was in the context of the Molecular Libraries Initiative of the NIH Roadmap for Medical Research, which includes the PubChem database. As a chemist, I was very interested in the initiative’s potential for building new linkages between chemistry and biomedical research.

In these and other interactions, Dr. Collins impressed me with his passion for principles, strategic thinking and careful preparation. I share the sense of excitement and optimism he expressed at the town hall meeting regarding the opportunities that lie ahead.

I encourage you to watch the hour-long video of the town hall event.

Recovery Act Status

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Recovery Act Logo - Recovery.govYesterday, we posted a request for stories on the impact of Recovery Act funding. Comments to this post revealed some areas of frustration and misunderstanding that I would like to address.

First, I’d like to say that one of the big Recovery Act stories is the scientific community’s huge response with exciting ideas. Indeed, we’ve received many more proposals—including requests for administrative supplements—than we can fund, even at the high level of the Recovery Act allocation. We know how much effort is involved in preparing applications, and we’re deeply grateful to the large number of scientists who have agreed to help review these proposals.

Screenshot of NIH Research Portfolio Online Reporting Tool Expenditures and Results (NIH RePORTER)At any time, you can use the NIH RePORTER site to view Recovery Act projects funded by NIGMS and other components of NIH.

To date, we have awarded approximately $50 million of the $500 million allocated to NIGMS over the two-year period of the Recovery Act. Of these, approximately 130 are supplements to ongoing R01s, 40 are two-year R01s, and 60 are supplements to other award types. Many more awards are in progress!

Just as it has been new for you, much of the process related to the Recovery Act has been new to NIH. Since the Recovery Act was passed, NIH staff has been working hard to develop and implement systems that allow decisions and awards to be made quickly while maintaining the standards of fairness, accountability, and rigor that the scientific community and taxpayers rightfully expect.

Since this is an NIH-wide and, indeed, a government-wide effort, these processes are extensive. After a recommendation is made and approved to fund a particular award at the NIGMS level, our grants management staff must prepare the award, working with your sponsored research offices to determine the precise amount of the award and to make sure that any outstanding issues are resolved. Some awards can be processed more quickly than others. Then, award recommendations are consolidated at the NIH level and processed further. While we have made considerable efforts in streamlining these steps (and, as noted above, many awards are now working their way through this process), it still takes time, and we are not able to provide much information to applicants until the process is complete.

The bottom line is that we are working as hard as we can to get these awards out, in addition to the awards we make with our regular appropriation. If you have not heard anything, it does not mean that your Recovery Act application will not be funded! We will let you know any definitive information—positive or negative—as soon as we can.

Also, no awards have been made for any of the trans-NIH initiatives such as the Challenge Grants, GO grants and P30 Faculty Start-Up grants. The Challenge Grants have recently been reviewed and scored. NIH, through the Office of the Director, had committed to funding 200 Challenge Grants. Many institutes and centers have set aside funds to support additional Challenge Grants. My best guesstimate is that something like 600 Challenge Grants will be funded NIH-wide. The review processes are still under way for the GO grants and P30 Start-Up grants. None of these awards will be made until close to the end of the fiscal year (September 30), as these applications must all go through review by the advisory councils.

I hope that this helps clarify some of the major points of concern. Please let me know if you have additional questions.