Early Notice: Mature Synchrotron-Based Resources Funding Opportunity Plan

At its September 2015 meeting, our Advisory Council endorsed a concept for funding existing NIGMS-supported synchrotron resources in which the technologies have become mature. This plan will align the funding mechanism used to support the beamlines with the goal of ensuring reliable access to these essential resources for structural biology.

In place of the variety of mechanisms we currently use, we intend to issue a funding opportunity announcement (FOA) called Mature Synchrotron Resources (P30) for 5-year, renewable grants in the range of $1-3 million per year in direct costs. The Institute intends to maintain overall support for mature beamline facilities at the same level it has in the past, but to replace the previous constellation of funding mechanisms with a single, more coherent one.

The focus of the FOA will be on user access, training and support in data collection, processing and analysis. Peer review will assess the resources primarily on their ability to meet the research needs of the user community and on the impact the resources have on their users’ scientific productivity. To ensure that the beamlines maintain their state-of-the-art operations, the FOA will also include support for a limited amount of technology development and implementation.

Since the goal of the effort is to improve the stability of current NIGMS-supported synchrotron structural biology resources for community use, the initial funding opportunity will be open only to synchrotron-based resources already supported by NIGMS.

We welcome your input and feedback on these plans. You can email your comments to me or post them here.

Charles Edmonds, Susan Gregurick, Ward Smith and Mary Ann Wu contributed to this blog post.

Early Career Investigators to Join Advisory Council Deliberations

Beginning at this month’s meeting of the National Advisory General Medical Sciences Council, some of the ad hoc Council members will be early career investigators. We expect to benefit from their ideas and insights, and we also hope that they will get a better understanding of the workings of Council and share what they learn with peers.

As most of you know, the Advisory Council provides the second level of review required before any grant can be funded. The Council also advises the Institute on policy and scientific matters. Regular Council members are appointed by the HHS Secretary, but for most meetings, we invite ad hoc consultants to expand the Council’s breadth of expertise. Both regular and ad hoc members are typically at fairly senior career levels—often full professors or deans. We think there is value in inviting one or two early career investigators to each Council meeting as ad hocs to provide a greater diversity of views.

We’ve identified a perfect pool to draw from: the Early Career Reviewers who have participated in a study section for NIH’s Center for Scientific Review. If you are interested in applying to this CSR program, see How to Apply.

Advisory Council Meeting: Attend, Watch, Comment

The open session of the next meeting of the National Advisory General Medical Sciences Council will be on Friday, January 23. It will begin at 8:30 a.m. with remarks by NIGMS Director Jon Lorsch and continue with reports on a variety of Institute activities and, as usual, a period for public comments.

You can attend the meeting in person or watch it remotely live or later via NIH Videocast.

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.

Update on Proposed Pilot to Support NIGMS Investigators’ Overall Research Programs

NIGMS Advisory Council meetingAt last week’s Advisory Council meeting, I presented a report on the comments we received in response to our request for information (RFI) on a potential new program for research funding.

As described in the blog post announcing the RFI, the Maximizing Investigators’ Research Award (MIRA) program would provide a single award in support of all of the projects in an investigator’s lab that are relevant to the NIGMS mission. A MIRA would be longer and larger than the current average NIGMS R01 award.

We received more than 290 responses through the official RFI comment site. We heard from individual investigators as well as several scientific organizations. Most of the responses were positive, and both established and early stage investigators indicated that they were very likely to apply.

The respondents identified the most valuable aspects of the proposed program as:

  • Increased flexibility to follow new research directions as opportunities and ideas arise,
  • Savings of time and effort currently spent on writing and reviewing applications, and
  • Enhanced stability of research support.

However, some responses expressed concerns, which we are taking into consideration. Despite the intention of the program to optimize the distribution of NIGMS resources, some respondents thought that it could lead to funds becoming concentrated in fewer labs at the most elite institutions. This was in part a reflection of the phased implementation plan, which would focus initially on investigators with more than one NIGMS grant. Respondents urged NIGMS to broaden the eligibility criteria as quickly as possible following the initial pilot phase. Other concerns that were raised related to peer review and program evaluation.

For more about the RFI results, including a breakdown of responses by question, watch my presentation, which begins at 2:18 on the archived videocast.

The Advisory Council discussed the MIRA proposal and then approved plans to proceed with developing the program. We plan to issue a funding opportunity announcement in early 2015, with the first awards being made in Fiscal Year 2016. We intend to evaluate the MIRA program and if it is successful, will broaden it.

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.

Measuring the Scientific Output and Impact of NIGMS Grants

A frequent topic of discussion at our Advisory Council meetings—and across NIH—is how to measure scientific output in ways that effectively capture scientific impact. We have been working on such issues with staff of the Division of Information Services in the NIH Office of Extramural Research. As a result of their efforts, as well as those of several individual institutes, we now have tools that link publications to the grants that funded them.

Using these tools, we have compiled three types of data on the pool of investigators who held at least one NIGMS grant in Fiscal Year 2006. We determined each investigator’s total NIH R01 or P01 funding for that year. We also calculated the total number of publications linked to these grants from 2007 to mid-2010 and the average impact factor for the journals in which these papers appeared. We used impact factors in place of citations because the time dependence of citations makes them significantly more complicated to use.

I presented some of the results of our analysis of this data at last week’s Advisory Council meeting. Here are the distributions for the three parameters for the 2,938 investigators in the sample set:

Histograms showing the distributions of total annual direct costs, number of publications linked to those grants from 2007 to mid-2010 and average impact factor for the publication journals for 2,938 investigators who held at least one NIGMS R01 or P01 grant in Fiscal Year 2006.

Histograms showing the distributions of total annual direct costs, number of publications linked to those grants from 2007 to mid-2010 and average impact factor for the publication journals for 2,938 investigators who held at least one NIGMS R01 or P01 grant in Fiscal Year 2006.

For this population, the median annual total direct cost was $220,000, the median number of grant-linked publications was six and the median journal average impact factor was 5.5.

A plot of the median number of grant-linked publications and median journal average impact factors versus grant total annual direct costs is shown below.

A plot of the median number of grant-linked publications from 2007 to mid-2010 (red circles) and median average impact factor for journals in which these papers were published (blue squares) for 2,938 investigators who held at least one NIGMS R01 or P01 grant in Fiscal Year 2006. The shared bars show the interquartile ranges for the number of grant-linked publications (longer red bars) and journal average impact factors (shorter blue bars). The medians are for bins, with the number of investigators in each bin shown below the bars.

A plot of the median number of grant-linked publications from 2007 to mid-2010 (red circles) and median average impact factor for journals in which these papers were published (blue squares) for 2,938 investigators who held at least one NIGMS R01 or P01 grant in Fiscal Year 2006. The shared bars show the interquartile ranges for the number of grant-linked publications (longer red bars) and journal average impact factors (shorter blue bars). The medians are for bins, with the number of investigators in each bin shown below the bars.

This plot reveals several important points. The ranges in the number of publications and average impact factors within each total annual direct cost bin are quite large. This partly reflects variations in investigator productivity as measured by these parameters, but it also reflects variations in publication patterns among fields and other factors.

Nonetheless, clear trends are evident in the averages for the binned groups, with both parameters increasing with total annual direct costs until they peak at around $700,000. These observations provide support for our previously developed policy on the support of research in well-funded laboratories. This policy helps us use Institute resources as optimally as possible in supporting the overall biomedical research enterprise.

This is a preliminary analysis, and the results should be viewed with some skepticism given the metrics used, the challenges of capturing publications associated with particular grants, the lack of inclusion of funding from non-NIH sources and other considerations. Even with these caveats, the analysis does provide some insight into the NIGMS grant portfolio and indicates some of the questions that can be addressed with the new tools that NIH is developing.