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Interim paylines

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

We announced interim paylines on our funding policy site the other day. When you read that we are funding to the 5th percentile for research grants, and to a score of 14 on career awards and only paying NIA-reviewed applications that achieved scores of 10 or 11 you must wonder at our apparent miserliness. Why not release more awards now? You surely will be able to pay more of them by the end of the year. Right?

I wish we could, but it is not that simple. First our models show that we will have a tighter than normal payline for research grants and for career awards this year even with a steady budget. Partly that tightening is the result of an NIH policy change. Remember that we changed resubmission policy in April of this year? Investigators may now submit “new” applications on a similar topic to a previously unfunded application. (Read my blog on this topic.) We already are beginning to see outcomes from that policy change. Compared to last year the number of applications has increased, and the number receiving single-digit percentile scores has also increased. (The way the percentiling system is designed if the overall number of applications increases then it is likely that the number of applications receiving single digit percentile scores will also increase.) So that results in more pressure on our payline.

So perhaps you can see why we are being miserly now. We are also not separating paylines for larger applications ($500k or over in requested costs in any one year) from smaller applications yet. We will do that once we have our full budget. We are not yet establishing paylines for new and early stage investigators. We will do that once NIH announces or reaffirms its policy for new investigators in fiscal year 2015 and once we have a budget. In a nutshell we are laying the groundwork for a full year funding policy that reflects the most important priorities and allows a little more breathing room later in the year to make awards.

Managing in tight times

And if our payline remains tight for the year—as we expect it will—should we take more action? Various ideas are floating around NIH at the moment. You will see some of them discussed on Sally Rockey’s blog.

  • Should we act more aggressively to reduce the average size of awards? How will that affect productivity in the field?
  • Should we limit the number of awards investigators hold simultaneously? We have seen a few analyses that suggest that productivity from a second or third award held simultaneously is reduced. Is that true for NIA-funded investigators?
  • As a number of ICs have done should we create a “wavy” payline, and announce funding criteria that we will use to make the final selections? The familiar argument here is that when success rates fall we must choose to pay a few of many applications that all shine with glowing comments from reviewers. Then, as the argument goes, the marginal difference in review rank that separates a to-be-funded from an unfunded application is a poor way to select an application for award. So by using our priorities we could better discriminate among the applications most likely to have an impact on the field.
  • Or perhaps we should assume that the tight payline is temporary and we should do as we did in the sequestration year (2013)—tax non-competing (Type 5) commitments a few points to spread a little of the wealth into our competing line. I wrote about fiscal year 2013 on this blog as well.

Anyway I am sure you have your own opinions on these questions. But we will all agree that the need to consider them seriously at this time is not something that anyone really wants to do. Still hard times call for tough choices and if we can make them well then we can continue to see progress in the multiple fields of aging research.


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