A Conversation With... Robin Barr

March 1, 2009
Dr. Robin Barr

In September 2007, Dr. Robin Barr was named director of NIA’s Division of Extramural Activities (DEA). A native of Scotland, Dr. Barr received his undergraduate and doctoral degrees in psychology from Oxford University and completed postdoctoral work at the University of Pennsylvania before joining the faculty of Ball State University in Indiana. He joined NIA in 1987 as a program administrator for cognitive functioning and aging in NIA’s Behavioral and Social Research Program and served as deputy director of DEA and as NIA training officer since 1994. Dr. Barr was instrumental in changing NIH policy on career awards and was a member of the NIH committee responsible for developing the Pathway to Independence award for new investigators. He spoke recently with Spotlight on Aging Research editor Barbara Cire.

Q. What does the Division of Extramural Activities do?

The Division of Extramural Activities is the place that you come to at NIA when you’ve got a research idea that’s relevant to aging and you’re not quite sure which program division to contact. But, you know it’s about aging. So, you call our office and describe it a bit to us and we’ll connect you with a particular program administrator to work with.

We also run training programs that range from undergraduate, even high school in some cases, and all the way up to junior faculty and career development awards. We similarly are responsible for scientific meetings.

Another function of our office is to manage the operations of the National Advisory Council on Aging. The Council has a number of roles: It advises us on our initiatives and on the performance and research directions sponsored by our extramural program divisions.

Most directly, the Council is responsible for what’s called second-level review of applications. Peer review is what everybody’s familiar with. Second-level review is the point where public health priorities come to bear in research. In other words, it’s not just the science that matters, it’s the relevance to public health priorities. The Council comments on relevance of applications to public health priorities. Applications are approved when both the science and the public health implications have been considered.

Q. What’s the most important message you have for prospective grantees?

The first message is: If you don’t apply, you don’t get funded. This is as true today as it was in the past, when our appropriations were growing from year to year.

The second message is that there are many different kinds of funding opportunities available at NIA, and our office will help you navigate through the different mechanisms and really try to help you find the right one. We try to match the right applicant with the right mechanism.

Q. What’s the best way to submit an R01 grant application?

One scenario is that the applicant simply submits the R01, not having contacted anyone at NIH, and the application gets assigned to NIA. Things might go well there—we might agree that it pertains to NIA and it might go merrily on its way. Alternatively, we could get the application and say that it doesn’t belong in our institute. In this case, the investigator could, unhappily, have submitted an application, which is then turned back because no institute is interested in funding it.

A second scenario is for an applicant to contact our program divisions directly. For example, if they know their work is related to the biology of aging, then they need to contact the Division of Aging Biology. But so much research these days is interdisciplinary. It may involve a bit of biology, a bit of behavior, and a bit of neuroscience. So it’s not clear exactly where the researcher should submit the application.

When that happens—and it’s happening increasingly—that’s when you come to the Division of Extramural Activities. You share the idea with us and we’ll suggest you contact one or two program staff to see if your application fits within any existing funding areas.

Q. What are the main types of funding announcements that prospective applicants should be aware of?

The bulk of the applications come in under what used to be termed investigator-initiated applications. For most of the major grant mechanisms—the R01, the R03, and the R21—there is a parent Program Announcement, or PA, that individuals submit their applications in response to. The parent PA is a generic announcement.

There are two classes of announcements beyond that. There are individual, content-specific PAs called Funding Opportunity Announcements, or FOAs. These are for specific research areas and they have multiple submission dates; they’re usually 3 years long and translate into nine submission dates for applications. Sometimes these FOAs have particular money set aside with them; most of the time they don’t. Most of the time, we’re just encouraging applications in a specific area. So investigators submit their applications in this area and compete for the regular funds that we have. Applications in response to a PA are likely to be reviewed by different study sections, depending on the particular science that they’re proposing.

The other class of FOAs is called Requests for Applications, or RFAs. These have a single submission date, and they have money associated with them. Applications in response to an RFA are very likely to be reviewed by a single study section, constituted particularly for that RFA. Is it better to apply to an RFA than for an investigator-initiated grant? The answer is “not necessarily.” Even though there is money associated with the RFA, sometimes so many people apply to that RFA because of that money that the competition is actually tougher under the RFA than under an investigator-initiated announcement.

Q. So the same research could be funded under both mechanisms?

Yes, almost anything we support in an RFA, especially an R01 RFA, could also be funded as an investigator-initiated application. And sometimes the chances of getting funded are actually better under the investigator-initiated application than under the RFA because the competition for the RFA is so fierce.

For example, suppose you’ve just started work in an area and the RFA submission date is in 3 months and you know that your preliminary data won’t be quite right. If you apply for that RFA and the preliminary data aren’t quite right, there are sure to be five or six other people whose preliminary data are quite right, and they’re going to do better than you. On the other hand, if you wait for 6 months or a year to get your preliminary data in shape and get a publication out of it, you can then submit through an investigator-initiated application. We’re still interested in the topic area, even if the RFA is over.

Q. What is the NIA doing to attract new investigators to the field of aging?

We’re doing a lot. We’re reaching out to communities of new investigators to encourage them into the field, pointing out that it’s a growing field, there’s a huge need for aging research, there are many, many issues associated with the changing age distribution of the population, and there’s a substantial need to address these problems through research.

We also have special programs for new investigators. Some are training programs for graduate students and postdocs; some are individual fellowships for graduate students, medical students, and postdocs. For example, since 1987, NIA has sponsored the Summer Institute on Aging Research. This is a unique opportunity for early- and mid-career researchers to learn about designing successful research projects, applying for funding, and overcoming the challenges of ethnic and minority aging research from NIA scientists and grantees.

We also have awards at the level of junior faculty that can bring physician-scientists into aging research. The Paul Beeson Career Development Award program provides 3 to 5 years of mentored career development support to clinically trained faculty members in strong research environments to enable them to gain skills and experience in aging research, under the guidance of a mentor or mentors, and to establish an independent program of research in this field.

Additionally, we have starter research grant mechanisms—R03s and R21s—that are tailored toward new investigators. There’s a priority across NIH for new investigators; they actually get an advantage in the funding line if they’re coming in with R01 applications.

Q. Is it hard to interest people in aging research?

No, it isn’t. In fact, people are very aware of the aging of the baby boom and the changes that will happen as a result of that and see that the need for research is very real. There’s also just a lot of intrinsic interest in human aging. Look at Dara Torres, the 41-year-old swimmer on the U.S. Olympic team. She was a gold medal winner 16 years ago and last summer she beat her own gold medal record. Just think about what that means for aging issues. You’ve got this model of decline with increasing age for star athletes—when you’re out of your 20s, you’re past it. Then suddenly something like Dara Torres’ achievement confronts you and you think: Something else is going on here that I don’t know about. What is it? I think that’s what really drives the research in the field.

Q. What are the common errors that new researchers make in submitting proposals?

The tag of “overambition” is the most common criticism of new investigator applications. The biggest mistake made by new researchers is to write a grant to get their entire research program funded. They shouldn’t try to write a grant to get their research program funded, they should write a grant to get a particular piece of research funded. As an investigator, you’ve got to define that piece of research very well for this particular grant and perform the work in that area.

Another problem with new investigator applications is the “fishing expedition” problem. Reviewers complain often that, instead of going in with a well-developed conceptual model that makes precise predictions that can be tested, new investigators say, “This is an interesting area and I want to find out about it.” And that doesn’t fly at NIH. You’ve got to come to us with a well-developed conceptual model, a well-developed strategy for how you are going to attack this area, and spell that out in clear steps.

Q. How about experienced researchers? What could they do differently or better?

My advice to experienced investigators is to keep doing what you’re doing. If you’ve had a prior R01 grant, you’re more likely to get additional R01 funding. There is, however, a caution in that. Reviewers will only go so long with yet another study on the topic you were funded on before. There is a review criterion for innovation—in bringing in something new—so you really have to make it clear that what you are doing is new and different from what you’ve done before in order to keep the reviewers’ interest and to keep that research funded again.

Q. Is it difficult to find peer reviewers for NIA?

Yes. It has become increasingly difficult to find peer reviewers and review staff. Some of the problem lies in the fact that NIH saw a doubling of applications in the past 5 years, and doubling the applications means you’d need double the number of reviews. The second problem is that, as funding has gotten tighter, reviewers themselves have to write more grant applications to get their own research funded. So, they have less time for ancillary activities, including review. So that means that they want to review fewer applications and they’re less willing to travel to Bethesda for reviews. So, all of these things have affected our ability to recruit sufficient, qualified reviewers to do the work.

Q. Is the electronic submission of grants working out as expected?

The bulk of our research grants are now submitted electronically, and that is going smoothly. We will soon be moving to Adobe Forms software, and we hope that change will make things easier. Adobe Forms is platform-independent software, so it can be used on both PCs and Macintoshes. We also expect that the career development award mechanisms will become electronic submissions in February of 2009.

Q. What are some of the priorities for NIA in the next year or two?

We publish our priorities on the Web. [See the link to NIA divisions below.] Alzheimer’s disease remains one of the priorities, and within that we’re looking much more at AD prevention and early markers and early stages of AD than we have previously. But, in truth, it’s the community’s priorities that matter more than NIA’s priorities. It’s the researchers’ capture of what they think is important about aging and their ability to move into that that we’re interested in.

I’d encourage applicants to use the resources that are available. I think it’s a mistake to talk about “independent investigators” because no investigator is truly independent. Researchers need to remember that they’re always working as part of a team and to recognize that there’s always a team working on their behalf. As long as you see that as the way research is, you’re in far better shape than if you see yourself as an independent investigator.

The Division of Extramural Activities is part of that team. There’s lots of information available to prospective and current investigators. The best way to get in touch with us is via e-mail; our contact information is on the Web site. For training issues, contact Dr. Chyren Hunter. For small business issues, contact Dr. M.D. Kerns. If they don’t know exactly what it is, contact me.


For information on NIA divisions and their research priorities:

For information on the NIA grant application process:

For information on NIA grant support mechanisms:

For information on NIA’s Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) and Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) programs:

For general information on NIH grants:

Page last updated: February 26, 2015