In the October issue of ASBMB Today, Rick Page, a member of the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology’s Public Affairs Advisory Committee, provided an overview of the PAACs meetings with leaders at the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation in the spring. View the article here.
Below are additional highlights from the agency meetings.
National Institute of General Medical Sciences
Update on the R35 Maximizing Investigators’ Research Award program
- NIGMS officials expect to reach a market-driven balance between R35 MIRAs and traditional R01 awards. On average, NIGMS-funded investigators have seen a 12 percent reduction in funding upon transitioning from R01 awards to MIRA awards; however, this reduction is accompanied by greater stability of funding. Furthermore, success rates for both early-career investigators and established investigators for MIRA awards match the predicted success rates of early stage investigator R01 and established investigator R01 renewal applications. Officials at the NIGMS view the MIRA program as the institute’s flagship model for fostering funding sustainability.
Piloting National Centers for Cryo-Electron Microscopy
- The rapid growth of cryo-electron microscopy stands to revolutionize biochemistry and molecular biology. To facilitate greater access to high-end instrumentation, NIGMS has initiated a pilot program, initially for six years and funded from the director’s fund, to establish three regional centers, each with two state-of-the-art microscopes and additional supporting microscopes. As highlighted in an article in the May 2017 issue of ASBMB Today, NIGMS officials want to support facilities that will both collect data for users and train users, similar to the beamline support model. NIGMS officials say the pilot will help establish additional shared instrumentation centers for other technologies in the future.
Changes to the T32 FOA
- Recent approaches at the NIH, including the BEST program, seek to transform what training looks like at universities across the nation. NIGMS officials said the agency will continue this push by soliciting grant applications in the fall of 2017. The goal of the new T32 will be to modernize training by tasking institutions to rethink how they train students and focus on developing skills needed by a variety of career paths. NIGMS officials are looking for a fundamental changes to how training programs could shift outcomes toward trainee success rather than mentored research activity.
National Cancer Institute
Basic Research with a Strong Cancer Focus
- NCI officials emphasized their commitment to basic research as a critical component of the agency’s portfolio. NCI-funded science includes biochemistry and cell biology with a strong cancer focus. In addition to a strong commitment to basic research, NCI officials reiterated their support for a pilot program to fund staff scientists directly. NCI officials view these positions as important ones that enable high-quality research.
Initial effects of the Cancer Moonshot
- Building on the recent excitement around the Cancer Moonshot, the NCI is developing programs to award funds that were earmarked by the 21st Century Cures Act. In the first year, the Cancer Moonshot will support 12 teams conducting research through a range of approaches. Most funds became available through requests for proposals that were released in the summer of 2017.
Building the Tumor Atlas
- The NCI hopes that the assembly of a tumor atlas will enable caregivers to predict the evolution of a tumor and enable them to intercede accordingly. The atlas will use basic immunology to serve as a basis for immunotherapy. Additionally, the tumor atlas will enable research that connects signaling and enzymology to drug resistance, metastasis, and retrospective analyses on standard of care.
National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute
Placing Value on Basic Research
- The NHLBI spends 92 percent of its funds on extramural awards. One-third of the R01 awards from the blood division are dedicated to basic research, and two-thirds are dedicated to more translational studies. NHLBI leaders emphasized that basic and translational research should move forward in a coordinated fashion. A prime example of this coordination is the “bench to bassinet” effort linking cardiovascular development studies, pediatric cardiovascular genomics, and the pediatric heart network. “Without fundamental discoveries, there would be nothing to translate,” George Mensah of NHLBI’s Center for Translation Research and Implementation Science said.
Giving Your Grant Application a Name
- Leaders at the NHLBI advise applicants to not get too “cutesy” with naming their grant applications. Rather, applicants should remember that some award details are public and that legislators may not understand or may misinterpret “clever” names. A grant name should instead be written to encompass the whole story for readers with minimal scientific literacy.
National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke
Paylines and Programs
- NINDS officials said the agency aims to hold a 15 percent payline; however, continuing resolutions and late appropriations have in recent years decreased the payline to 12 percent. In a tough funding environment, investigators can take advantage of programs with what are known as “set–asides.” The announcements for those have a “PAS” prefix. One example is PAS-15-029, a program with a $5 million set-aside for basic research.
R35 Awards supported by the NINDS
- As explained in the February issue of ASBMB Today, the NINDS R35 award (officially the Research Program Award, or RPA) funds the investigator as much, if not more, than the science. Of 196 applications submitted in 2015, 30 were funded, and the award distributions look similar to those for R01 awards. In addition to providing the stability of up to eight years of funding, the RPAs have no impact on the institute’s budget which is an important aspect to maintain the program moving forward.
Write the Grant You Want
- NINDS officials emphasized that they’re working with officials from the Center for Scientific Review to eliminate bias against more basic research in study sections versus proposals with more direct applicability. NINDS officials suggested that investigators also can help in several key ways. If there is no direct disease link and the research is strictly basic neuroscience, investigators should not try to shoe-horn in a disease link. NINDS officials also encourage investigators to write grants that they wants to execute, not the grant the investigator thinks that NIH and NINDS officials want to see.
National Institute of Child Health and Human Development
DASH Repository, Placenta Access Tool, and the Gabriella Miller Kids First Data Resource
- NICHD leaders highlighted the importance of a number of resources that are key examples of NICHD research outcomes that feed back into advancing basic and translational research. The Data and Specimen Hub (DASH) provides access to NICHD-funded research for use in other studies. Similarly, the placenta access tool once completed will provide vital resources for the basic biology of what happens in the placenta. Additionally, the Gabriella Miller Kids First Data Resource will aggregate genetic and clinical data from childhood cancer and structural birth defects patient cohorts so that researchers can mine the data “accelerate discovery of genetic etiology and shared biologic pathways.”
Center for Scientific Review
Basic Research Study Sections to Ensure a Broad, Diverse, Balanced Portfolio
- The Center for Scientific Review has taken multiple steps to eliminate biases in study sections against basic research proposals. CSR always has trained study section chairs but has also began training permanent and ad hoc study section members on how to review basic research proposals. CSR officials said they’re committed to evaluating the quality and impact of proposed science through fair and unbiased review.
National Science Foundation
NSF Submission Windows
- Programs across the NSF have begun to assess the impact of removing submission deadlines. Officials described the recent implementation of a single annual proposal submission deadline as a necessity stemming from increases in the number of proposals submitted (without a concomitant increase in staffing to review them). NSF officials also communicated that additional reductions to the agency’s workforce are possible, which would further stress the grant-review system. In comparison, several NSF programs are piloting use of rolling submission windows. These programs view the rolling submission window as a valuable mechanism for distributing proposal review workloads throughout the year, providing investigators with greater flexibility in submission to accommodate life events, and ensuring that investigators submit proposals when the science is ready and not simply in response to an external deadline.
Transparency in Reviews
- NSF communicates review decisions through comments from program officers. The goal for these notes, in addition to the panel summary, is to convey context and give the applicant a specific sense of which parts of the grant were positively or less enthusiastically received. The NSF encourages all principal investigators to review both PO comments and panel summaries and then to follow-up with email or phone conversations with program officers to receive clarification. Multiple program officers said something to the effect of “Don’t be shy. Reach out by phone or email, and contact your program officer.”
De Novo Review
- Ever struggle with how to address previous review comments within the context of the de novo review environment at NSF that treats each submission as a new proposal? Program officers resoundingly suggested that principal investigators address previous reviews in a direct yet positive manner in the project description. This approach, combined with discussions with your program officer, can help you avoid the “ping-pong” effect in which sequential reviews direct principal investigators in different directions.
- A significant challenge faced by program officers across both the Mathematical and Physical Sciences and Biological Sciences directorates is finding qualified reviewers to evaluate proposals. Typical response rates to requests for reviews are 50 percent or less, officials said, leading to longer proposal review times. Every program officer we met expressed the need for more reviewers. Program officers also proposed that increased ad hoc reviewer acceptance rates would decrease the time needed for review and provide tangible benefits to the reviewer such as an inside look at the cutting edge research being proposed within the field and experience in understanding what makes for high quality grantsmanship. In addition to serving the community as reviewers, PIs can contribute by serving as rotating program officers. Additional information can be found at nsf.gov/careers/rotator/index.jsp