Five MIRA Myths

Our Maximizing Investigators’ Research Award (MIRA) program is still relatively new, so it’s not surprising that NIGMS staff frequently hear misconceptions about it. This post dispels five common MIRA myths.

Myth 1: Once an investigator is awarded a MIRA, the budget will never increase.

MIRA budgets may increase. At the time of the competing renewal application, a principal investigator (PI) may request an increase in funding. MIRAs with modest budgets that have been very productive and score very well could receive budget increases. Study sections will be asked to look at budget requests, and NIGMS staff will make determinations based on the reviewers’ recommendations and available funds.

Myth 2: Early stage investigators will receive more funding for their labs if they get an R01 than if they get a MIRA.

A MIRA PI who is an early stage investigator (ESI) has a higher probability of receiving more NIGMS funding than a non-MIRA ESI. Most ESI MIRA investigators receive $250,000 in direct costs per year. A recent analysis found that the vast majority of ESIs who have received an NIGMS R01 are initially awarded $200,000 or less, and most do not go on to receive a second NIGMS R01 during the first five years of their initial award. Thus, the total NIGMS funding for most relatively new investigators is higher with a MIRA.

Myth 3: MIRA discourages collaborative research.

NIGMS strongly endorses collaborative research, and this extends to the MIRA program. However, the MIRA concept is based on the idea that NIGMS will provide support to individual investigators’ research programs. Collaborators are expected to work together because of their mutual interest in a problem. The collaborator, in most cases, will support his or her efforts with independent funding, not through a subcontract from the MIRA. In cases where a collaborator’s efforts are well-justified, essential to the research program of the MIRA and cannot be supported by the collaborator, a consortium agreement can be included in the competing application.

NIGMS also encourages scientifically productive international collaborative research efforts. However, NIGMS will only provide funding for a foreign consortium arrangement when the collaboration is essential to the PI’s research program, represents a unique scientific opportunity and cannot be supported by the collaborator.

Myth 4: MIRA PIs cannot apply for administrative supplements.

MIRA PIs are eligible for Research Supplements to Promote Diversity in Health-Related Research and may be eligible for other types of administrative supplements, such as equipment supplements offered by NIGMS through notices in the NIH Guide for Grants and Contracts. In rare situations, NIGMS may provide a supplement for a piece of equipment that could not have been anticipated at the time the application was submitted.

Myth 5: MIRA PIs cannot apply for NIGMS training grants or conference grants.

MIRA PIs are eligible to apply for grants that support research resources, training, workforce development or diversity building, clinical trials, selected cooperative agreements, SBIR/STTRs, conference grants and the portion of a center grant or a P01 that is strictly a core. In addition, a MIRA PI may receive grants from other NIH institutes or centers, although when making funding decisions NIGMS always considers an investigator’s other support, as described on our Funding Policies page.

More information, including answers to frequently asked questions, is on the MIRA page.

Stable Success Rates and Other Funding Trends in Fiscal Year 2016

NIGMS is committed to ensuring that taxpayers get the best possible returns on their investments in fundamental biomedical research. As part of an NIH-wide commitment to enhancing stewardship, we regularly monitor trends in the Institute’s funding portfolio.

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 reviewed. As shown in Figure 1, the success rate for NIGMS research project grants (RPGs) was 29.6% in Fiscal Year (FY) 2016, the same as it was in FY 2015. Although we funded a record number of competing RPGs in FY 2016, we also received more applications than in FY 2015, leading to a level success rate. The first applications and grants for the Maximizing Investigators’ Research Award (MIRA) (R35) program are included in the FY 2016 RPG counts. The increase in RPG applications in FY 2016 has reversed the downward trend noted in last year’s analysis.

Figure 1. Number of NIGMS Competing RPG Applications, Number of Funded Competing RPGs and Success Rates for RPGs, Fiscal Years 2005-2016. NIGMS RPG applications (blue circles, dashed line; left axis) increased from FY 2015-2016. NIGMS-funded RPGs (green squares, solid line; left axis) also increased from FY 2015-2016. Consequently, the NIGMS RPG success rate (gray triangles, dotted line; right axis) remained unchanged from FY 2015. The dip in success rate in FY 2013 was due in part to the budget sequester.

Continue reading

Give Input on Strategies for Optimizing the Impact and Sustainability of Biomedical Research

An important, recurring discussion topic on our blogs is ways to maximize the impact and sustainability of NIH-funded biomedical research. In 2011, a Rock Talk post on managing NIH’s budget in fiscally challenging times solicited many comments and led, in part, to an NIH-wide policy on special council review for applications from PIs who have more than $1 million in NIH funding. We have also implemented new programs that provide more stable support for investigators over longer time periods. A more recent example of the “maximizing impact and sustainability” theme is an NIGMS Feedback Loop post that discussed ideas for how to optimize the biomedical research ecosystem.

We’re each leading an NIH-wide working group focused on topics key to this important theme. One group (chaired by Sally) is exploring ways to decrease the time it takes investigators to reach research independence, and the other (chaired by Jon) is looking to develop more efficient and sustainable funding policies and other strategies.

Recently, NIH solicited your comments on an “emeritus award” concept as part of activities of the group chaired by Sally. The group is now in the midst of analyzing all of the comments it received to see what the next steps will be in regard to this type of award.

To inform the efforts of Jon’s group, NIH has just issued a new request for information (RFI) seeking your:

  • Input on key issues that currently limit the impact of NIH’s funding for biomedical research and challenge the sustainability of the scientific enterprise.
  • Ideas about adjusting current funding policies to ensure both continued impact and sustainability of the NIH research enterprise.
  • Ideas for new policies, strategies and other approaches that would increase the impact and sustainability of NIH-funded biomedical research.
  • Comments on any other issues that you feel are relevant.

While we read and consider comments responding to our blog posts, in order to make your input part of our formal analysis of RFI responses, it needs to be submitted via the RFI by May 17.

Improved Success Rate and Other Funding Trends in Fiscal Year 2014

The Consolidated and Further Continuing Appropriations Act, 2015 Exit icon, provides funding for the Federal Government through September 30. NIGMS has a Fiscal Year 2015 appropriation of $2.372 billion, which is $13 million, or 0.5%, higher than it was in Fiscal Year 2014.

As I explained in an earlier post, we made a number of adjustments to our portfolio and funding policies last fiscal year in order to bolster our support for investigator-initiated research. Partly because of these changes, the success rate for research project grants (RPGs)—which are primarily R01s—was 25 percent in Fiscal Year 2014. This is 5 percentage points higher than it was in Fiscal Year 2013. Had we not made the funding policy changes, we predicted that the success rate would have remained flat at 20 percent.

Figure 1 shows the number of RPG applications we received and funded, as well as the corresponding success rates, for Fiscal Years 2002-2014.

Figure 1. Number of competing RPG applications assigned to NIGMS (blue line with diamonds, left axis) and number funded (red line with squares, left axis) for Fiscal Years 2002-2014. The success rate (number of applications funded divided by the total number of applications) is shown in the green line with triangles, right axis. Data: Tony Moore.
Figure 1. Number of competing RPG applications assigned to NIGMS (blue line with diamonds, left axis) and number funded (red line with squares, left axis) for Fiscal Years 2002-2014. The success rate (number of applications funded divided by the total number of applications) is shown in the green line with triangles, right axis. Data: Tony Moore.

Moving forward, it will be important to employ strategies that will enable us to at least maintain this success rate. In keeping with this goal, we recently released a financial management plan (no longer available) that continues many of the funding policies we instituted last year. As funds from the retirement of the Protein Structure Initiative come back into the investigator-initiated RPG pool, we’ll be working to ensure that they support a sustained improvement in success rate rather than create a 1-year spike followed by a return to lower rates.

Figures 2 and 3 show data for funding versus the percentile scores of the R01 applications we received. People frequently ask me what NIGMS’ percentile cutoff or “payline” is, but it should be clear from these figures that we do not use a strict percentile score criterion for making funding decisions. Rather, we take a variety of factors into account in addition to the score, including the amount of other support already available to the researcher; the priority of the research area for the Institute’s mission; and the importance of maintaining a broad and diverse portfolio of research topics, approaches and investigators.

Figure 2. Percentage of competing R01 applications funded by NIGMS as a function of percentile scores for Fiscal Years 2010-2014. For Fiscal Year 2014, the success rate for R01 applications was 25.7 percent, and the midpoint of the funding curve was at approximately the 22nd percentile. Data: Jim Deatherage.
Figure 2. Percentage of competing R01 applications funded by NIGMS as a function of percentile scores for Fiscal Years 2010-2014. For Fiscal Year 2014, the success rate for R01 applications was 25.7 percent, and the midpoint of the funding curve was at approximately the 22nd percentile. See more details about the data analysis for Figure 2. Data: Jim Deatherage.
Figure 3. Number of competing R01 applications (solid black bars) assigned to NIGMS and number funded (striped red bars) in Fiscal Year 2014 as a function of percentile scores. Data: Jim Deatherage.
Figure 3. Number of competing R01 applications (solid black bars) assigned to NIGMS and number funded (striped red bars) in Fiscal Year 2014 as a function of percentile scores. See more details about the data analysis for Figure 3. Data: Jim Deatherage.

It’s too early to say what the success rate will be for Fiscal Year 2015 because it can be influenced by a number of factors, as I described last year. However, we’re hopeful that by continuing to adjust our priorities and policies to focus on supporting a broad and diverse portfolio of investigators, we can reverse the trend of falling success rates seen in recent years.

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.

The Advisory Council’s Critical Roles

Later this month, the National Advisory General Medical Sciences Council will hold the first of its three meetings in 2011. While many applicants, grantees and reviewers are familiar with the roles and processes of study sections, fewer know how an advisory council works. In this post, I’ll provide an overview of its many critical roles.

Council members are leaders in the biological and medical sciences, education, health care and public affairs. Their areas of expertise cover the broad range of scientific fields supported by NIGMS. The Council performs the second level of peer review for research and research training grant applications assigned to NIGMS. Council members also offer advice and recommendations on policy and program development, program implementation, evaluation and other matters of significance to the mission and goals of the Institute.

A portion of each Council meeting is open to the public.

For the peer review function, which occurs during the part of the meeting that is closed to the public, Council members read summary statements, providing a general check on the quality of the first level of peer review. They advise us if they find cases where the comments and scores do not appear to be in good alignment. Their evaluation complements the initial peer review done by study sections, as it focuses primarily on summary statements rather than on applications (although Council members may have access to the applications).

Members also provide advice regarding formal appeals, typically discussing 10-20 cases per meeting in which a procedural aspect may have significantly influenced the initial peer review process.

The Council also provides input on cases where staff are considering exceptions to the well-funded laboratory policy, and it approves the potential funding of grants to investigators at foreign institutions. Another area of Council input relates to Method to Extend Research in Time (MERIT) awards. Finally, Council members point out applications that they feel are particularly interesting based on their scientific expertise and knowledge of trends in particular fields. They explain their perspective to NIGMS staff, who incorporate this input in subsequent steps of the funding decision process. I’ll describe these steps in an upcoming post.

The policy and program advisory function includes discussing “concept clearances,” or ideas for new initiatives being considered within the Institute. These can take the form of proposed requests for applications (RFAs) or program announcements (PAs). Council members provide critical analysis and feedback about the appropriateness of proposed initiatives and factors to consider should they be implemented. Approved concept clearances are posted soon after each Council meeting on the NIGMS Web site and often on the Feedback Loop. NIGMS staff can then receive input from the scientific community as they refine the funding opportunity announcements.

This month’s meeting will include one concept clearance presentation, on macromolecular complexes.

Council members also give input and feedback on assessments and formal evaluations of specific NIGMS programs, such as the Protein Structure Initiative. When the need arises, Council members form working groups focused on specific issues. To ensure an appropriate range of expertise and perspectives, these groups can include non-Council members, as well. Finally, the Council receives periodic reports about ongoing initiatives in order to monitor how they are proceeding and offer advice about possible changes.