October 24, 2012

NIH Transparency Helps Offset Austerity

As the National Institutes of Health (NIH) confirms plans to reduce non-competing research grant awards by at least 10 percent as long as the FY 13 continuing resolution is in effect, the agency is pumping out a wide range of resources to build researchers’ capacity to be strong applicants and responsible stewards of federal funding.

The Center for Scientific Review’s Peer Review Notes, published primarily for NIH staff and reviewers, is a rich source of information on review policies and procedures. The September 2012 issue includes fresh perspective on innovation and peer review from Sally Rockey, director of the NIH Office of Extramural Research; advice for new reviewers by former NIH study section chairs; discussion of how reviewers can use the “Additional Comments for Applicants” box to provide thoughtful recommendations to applicants; and insight into who exactly takes part in review meetings.

GRC recommends that researchers and administrators at all experience levels subscribe to Peer Review Notes and to two institute-specific resources that routinely deliver NIH- and even government-wide insight.

The National Institute of General Medical Sciences maintains an active Feedback Loop that provides funding opportunity alerts, trend analysis, applicant advice, and a clear channel for submitting input on institute policies, priorities, and programs. Recent additions include samples of individual development plans (which, beyond being a required application component, also have a marked impact on the success of the graduate students and postdoctoral researchers involved in the project); an index of NIH-funded biomedical technology resource centers available for use nationwide; guidance on how to acknowledge NIH support in press releases and publications; and a refresher on the rhythm of the fiscal year.

The National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases’ semi-monthly funding newsletter and related blog are another source of digestible, even chatty, articles that dissect advanced topics in research funding. With standing columns on policy changes, high-priority funding opportunities, and applicant questions and answers, the newsletter compiles a diverse assortment of intelligence on the biomedical research landscape. An October 10, 2012 feature article, “Sidestep These Application Missteps: Misfiring on Innovation,” and September 26, 2012 pieces on the NIH Niche Assessment Program for biomedical startups and application resubmission advice (which GRC synopsized in the October 1, 2012 edition of GrantWeek) contain perspective worth redistributing across campus.

While agency leaders didn’t have a vote regarding their temporary FY 13 budgets, they do have freedom to decide how to prioritize their investments. Some agencies have used the absence of regular annual appropriations as justification for inertia, an easy excuse for postponing the complicated work of system improvement. At NIH, though, leaders are determined to forge on with long-term priorities. By asking its network of current awardees to withstand short-term cuts—certainly painful but not likely deadly—NIH has (literally) secured buy-in for the implementation of new strategic initiatives. The agency’s commitments to improving peer review and involving non-traditional reviewers; engaging more new and early career investigators, minority faculty and students, and researchers who teach at predominantly-undergraduate institutions; and launching new institutes and programs have been sustained in spite of budget woes. It may be counterintuitive but it’s a fact: there has never been a better time to attempt admission into the “club” that NIH has long been considered.

Prospective applicants should contact GRC staff for assistance and monitor new resources and services under development by the GRC Health Research and Education Task Force. Current NIH awardees should direct all project-specific questions to their assigned grants officer.

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