The NIA has invested heavily in resources to support the study of aging biology. In part, this is because the resources needed to conduct such research simply don’t exist elsewhere.
Recently, investigators using NIA biological resources have been affected by many new rules. The quick summary of these changes? Biological resources are now provided at no cost to researchers, but the eligibility criteria for use of the resources have necessarily been tightened.
A new interpretation of the regulations that govern contracting requires that NIA offer the resources free of charge, including the costs of shipping them to researchers. In the context of our overall budget constraints, NIA must now set more stringent eligibility criteria and limits on use of these resources. These changes will ensure that the resources remain available to projects that need them, to the greatest extent possible.
Why the major change?
A recent decision by the Office of General Counsel at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services reversed a long-standing practice at the NIH. (Keep in mind that the NIA and the NIH both are part of the Department of Health and Human Services.)
Previously, we had asked users of NIH-supported resources to pay a cost-share fee for use of the resources. This practice stretched the dollars available for resources because some of the cost was borne by the actual users, not the entire research community (think toll road versus toll-free road supported by all taxpayers). But the General Counsel determined that this practice amounted to augmentation of appropriation, that is, adding to the funding level approved by Congress. The new decision is based solely on interpretation of applicable law, not on a response to any specific NIH activity.
What challenges are we facing?
The timing of this legal opinion comes at a difficult time, as we struggle to manage with reduced funds, at NIA and across NIH. The fact is that the NIA budget cannot absorb the loss of the user-cost-share fees, so compromises are needed.
Limit negative impacts.
A key challenge now is to continue to offer these unique resources at a reduced scope. We must try to impact as few research projects as possible and allow as much research as possible to continue unimpeded.
Another challenge is to manage demand, so that we can make the most efficient use of these more limited resources now that they are free to users. The revised eligibility criteria are designed to try to accomplish this. We understand they are far from the ideal.
What is the NIA doing to mitigate the impact of these changes?
For our part, the NIA will provide careful oversight and thoroughly evaluate all requests to use the resources, to try to ensure that funded projects will get the resources needed.
We know that these decisions will have an effect on important research. In that respect, we are caught between a rock and a hard place.
How can you help?
We ask all users of the NIA biological resources to continue to be responsible and limited in their requests. We’ve limited some resources in a way that’s consistent with use trends for those resources. But, if everyone increased their use of the resources by just 10-20%, the resources would be decimated in a short time. So, please try to be restrained.
What if I need to request an exception to the new rules?
A process to request exceptions to the limits has been set up to allow the NIA to meet needs that exceed the limits. Exceptions are contingent on the resources being available and require a strong scientific justification for exceeding the limit. Please understand that exceptions are not a given, must be justified, and will be rare.
Do you have thoughts about these changes? Please comment below. Questions specific to your project (your eligibility, ordering process) are best directed to the NIA Office of Biological Resources order desk.