I wrote in December that 2015 is going to be a tough year for us, and so it is turning out to be. To recap that post, we are seeing increasing numbers of applications following the change in resubmission policy announced last April. Unfortunately, with the exception of additional Alzheimer’s funds, we are not seeing increasing funds. That is why we anticipated a tighter payline this year.
So now we have announced a payline at the 7th percentile for under-500k applications and a line at the 4th percentile for over-500k applications. (New and early-stage investigator R01 applications will have three- and five-point advantages in this payline.)
To give you the inside scoop on what is shocking news, we only reach these paylines by cutting noncompeting commitments 3% below the committed fiscal year 2015 level (as the NIH fiscal policy for 2015 announced on December 30 allows). With that cut, we will have the same funds available for CSR-reviewed applications this year as were available last year. So, the disappearing funding line is very much a function of that expanding pool of applications. When the dust settles, we will pay out as much this year as we did last year, but we will have disappointed more applicants. We are deeply engaged in efforts both at NIA and across NIH—we are not alone in our struggles—to find ways to improve paylines and success rates. These changes are coming but not fast enough to avoid major disappointment this year.
We are no longer even setting a payline for NIA-reviewed applications (mainly program projects and cooperative agreements). Choosing among applications with scores of “10”, “11” or “12” will be informed more by applying our funding priorities to the funding decision as there is no meaningful shade of difference in the scores.
Can we expect the funding line to improve by the end of the year? “Expect” is too strong a word. Try “hope.” Hope is good. We will recover some funds from extending noncompeting awards that have fallen behind in their research aims—it happens every year to a small percentage of awards. The extension allows the awardee to catch up but it also means that the funds we had committed to that award this year can be released to help our funding line. Our models use the assumption that the “new” submissions will compete as well in review as amended applications do. They may not—and the first, very preliminary, evidence from the January round of reviews is that they do not do as well as amended applications. The funding line may see some relief from that. There are some other unknowns too. It is a funny idea to hope that some of the applications responding to the RFAs this year are not of sufficient quality to merit funding. Still, it does happen quite often that we do not use the full allocation that we establish for RFAs and so these funds become available to rescue the general line. Maybe then it is not too crazy to hope that we were a little over-ambitious in what we expected from our RFAs!
Perhaps you noticed that minor reference to additional funds for Alzheimer’s research that I slipped into the opening paragraph? That’s a particular reason to hope! We will offer more details on Alzheimer’s funding in the next few weeks.
So, there are reasons to hope—cautious optimism that we will see some relief in the funding line later in the year and even more relief for Alzheimer’s research. And, yes, it is reasonable to think of that 7th percentile line as “interim.” There’s a good chance it will move. But you need to be an optimist and perhaps a believer in miracles, to hope that we will reach the 11th percentile funding line that we managed to achieve for the preceding four years. It looks like we will remain in single digits this year.
You’ll be hearing more from NIA Director Richard Hodes on this topic and our overall budget next week, so please keep an eye out for that upcoming blog post.