Kathie Reed, retiring from the NIA Office of Planning, Analysis, and Evaluation (the OPAE) after 14 years of public service, talks to SOAR about her office and the direction of federally supported and conducted research on aging.
The NIA funds and conducts a broad spectrum of research on aging. How does the Institute plan for and evaluate the effectiveness of its efforts year after year? How does NIA, as an organization, set and meet goals? A key contributor to such efforts is the NIA Office of Planning, Analysis, and Evaluation—the OPAE—led by Kathie Reed. She and her team work closely with Institute leadership and scientific staff to analyze the NIA research portfolio and use that information to inform future planning and priority setting across various research areas. Kathie will be retiring in July after more than 14 years of public service, and the NIA wishes her the best. We asked her, before her departure, to tell us about her office and its important contributions to the management and direction of federally supported and conducted research on aging.
A: We do a lot of behind-the-scenes work to gather the information needed to guide and coordinate the planning and priority-setting activities of the Institute. We keep track of our research investment by systematically compiling, summarizing, and assessing the projects in our portfolio—the areas of research they cover, the numbers of projects, and amount of funding invested in each. Institute leaders use these analyses to identify potential growth areas and opportunities for collaboration and to leverage resources. Another of our functions is to regularly assess the overall performance and impact of our scientific programs to evaluate progress and plan for the future. We in turn use the results of all of this analysis and evaluation to work with our NIA leadership and scientific staff—as well as with members of the research and advocacy communities—to periodically update our strategic directions for research on aging.
Another big part of our work is to coordinate NIA’s responses to numerous reporting requests that come our way throughout the year. As a federal agency, NIH is required by law to make certain reports to the White House, Congress, the Department of Health and Human Services, and other agencies about our activities. OPAE prepares the majority of these reports for NIA. We also write the justification statement for our budget, respond to questions from Congress and advocacy groups, and develop reports related to special legislation such as the National Alzheimer’s Project Act . While the NIA Office of Communications and Public Liaison mostly provides information to the general public, healthcare providers, and the media, we prepare legislatively mandated (and other) reports for a fairly narrow—but very important—audience.
A: Every NIH Institute has an office similar to ours, although they may differ somewhat in scope. Members of the OPAE staff work with our counterparts at other NIH Institutes and Centers on a number of trans-NIH initiatives and reports. For example, we participate in coordinating committees related to health disparities research, including research with special population groups such as the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex community and the Native American community to facilitate planning, analysis, and evaluation activities specific to their needs. We also represent NIA as primary points of contact with the NIH Offices of Science Policy, Evaluation, and Research on Women’s Health.
Various members of our staff have been heavily involved in the development and implementation of the NIH-wide Research, Condition, and Disease Categorization (RCDC) portfolio analysis tool. We have served on numerous category development expert teams and coordinate the NIA portion of the annual update to the online NIH Categorical Spending Report  and NIH RePORTER  database.
A: Because science is largely serendipitous, we can’t “plan” it. But we can plan for it by looking at trends over time to build upon what we have learned or de-emphasize areas that have not been as scientifically productive as we and the field had hoped. And we can share this information with the research community and the public. That way, we can work together to better understand the status of the nation’s investment in aging and how we can best address complicated diseases and conditions of aging, like Alzheimer’s. One tool we have developed and are updating is the NIA’s Strategic Directions  statement, which generally describes the Institute’s research program.
Evaluations of our scientific programs help us identify strengths and weaknesses, provide insight into successful mechanisms and processes, identify overlap or redundancy among programs, assess the need for additional infrastructure in a specific area, or examine the potential to share data resources through multidisciplinary teams or networks.
We use the findings from portfolio analyses to establish baselines for evaluating the impact of past research, assess the need for new scientific directions, or identify opportunities for leveraging resources and collaborating with external partners. We have built a number of tools to assist with these tasks; a prime example is the International Alzheimer’s Disease Research Portfolio . The database is also serving as a critical resource for tracking progress in meeting the research milestones and the goals of the National Alzheimer’s Project Act.
A: Our team currently consists of six full-time staff members in addition to myself, and together we have extensive experience in each of the core areas of our work: science program planning, program evaluation, portfolio analysis, and science writing. We place a high priority on training and continuing education, so that all are able to keep up with state-of-the-art tools, refine their skills, and gain new ones.
We almost always have interns in our office at any given time. Students at every level, from high school to medical school, have joined us at one time or another to take on special projects and learn more about research on aging. They bring fresh ideas and energy to the office, and we really enjoy having them!
A: We often have to balance competing priorities—all with quick turn-around deadlines. With a small staff, it can be a challenge to decide what to work on first, second, and so forth. There is so much to be done, and it is all important for NIH management, policymakers, and the public to know.
A: I like having the opportunity to interact with people all across the Institute and across NIH to learn about and participate in the work and to have that broad understanding of what we do.
A: I believe we have some opportunities to use new analytical tools that will both speed up our work and allow us to provide information in new and interesting ways. I also think it will be important to reach out and partner more with other agencies and organizations, both on the research itself and on the dissemination and implementation of research results.
There’s really never been a more exciting time to be involved with research on aging. Two recent developments—the establishment of the NIH GeroScience Interest Group and the passage of the National Alzheimer’s Project Act—are prime examples of the attention that the spectrum of research on aging is receiving across our nation and around the world. There is so much potential for new discovery in this increasingly important area. It has been very rewarding to be a part of it, and I look forward to staying in touch with my colleagues at NIH to see what’s next!