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Oh, what a year it was!

Dr. Robin Barr
Robin BARR,
Director, DEA,
Division of Extramural Activities (DEA)
.

Fiscal year 2014 began with NIA staff—like many federal government workers—banned from our offices because the government was shut down. During the seemingly endless continuing funding resolutions that followed, we guessed and feared about the size of our budget for the year, establishing a very conservative payline during the long wait, and thereby causing great consternation among some in the research community.

Then, the financial outlook—but not the weather—changed suddenly in March when our budget received a $130 million increase (compared to fiscal year 2013). A large part of the increase was primarily for Alzheimer’s research.

From shutdown to an expanded research agenda

With these funds we were able to move forward on recommendations from the 2012 Alzheimer’s Summit and, with input from NINDS and NIA staff, have published requests for applications on Vascular Contributions to Alzheimer’s Disease, Immune and Inflammatory Mechanisms in Alzheimer’s, and on Biomarkers of Alzheimer’s in Down Syndrome. All these initiatives have submission deadlines in December or early January. The next Alzheimer’s Summit is planned for February 2015, and, if fair winds continue to blow, we may have funds to implement some of the recommendations from that meeting. We hesitantly warm to these changed circumstances with our eyes still cast back to the immediate past of sequestration and shutdown.

Can applications be too good?

The fiscal year at NIH and NIA

Like the rest of the federal government, our fiscal year runs from October through September. Fiscal year 2014 is October 2013 through September 2014.

Our applications for the May Council round—the final Council round of the year—dazzled our reviewers. We had never seen such an outpouring of praise for so many applications! That does create a checkbook problem, though. How do we pay them all?

We had published (heck, I personally had posted) paylines—or funding lines—for the year that were confidently conservative based on estimates of the costs of the final round from prior years. Wrong! Oh well, one item on my to-do list is to redo our estimating method next year!

Thankfully, we got out of the jam and delivered on the promised payline. How did we find the money? We were able to work with current grantees whose research had fallen behind because of external circumstance (someone falls ill, an IRB proves stubborn, enrollment proves harder than expected, etc.). Their awards had built up large unobligated balances, and because of that we were able to postpone paying some of our obligations to these existing awards until the fiscal year that starts next week. The resulting savings rescued our payline.

Favorable payline for Early Stage and other New Investigators

In fact, these maneuvers more than allowed us to meet our payline. The year’s final months have allowed us to make a few more awards. By delaying payments to some existing grants as described above, we have been able to stretch our early-stage investigator pay line to the 22nd percentile and our new investigator (not ESI) pay line to the 20th percentile for R01 applications. And, before you ask, it is a one-time payline. We make no promises or commitments about any paylines next year, for new investigators or not-so-new investigators.

And the future?

So, that was the year in the rear-view mirror. Looking ahead, we expect to have to adjust to other changes. For example, NIH now allows infinite resubmissions (sort of). Now THAT couldn’t possibly make any difference to our payline this coming year, could it?

I know that many of you were affected by these changes and surprises. Are there more blog topics we could cover to answer your questions about them, now, or as we move into the new fiscal year?

 

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