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Supporting aging research in challenging times

Dr. Richard Hodes
Richard J. HODES,
Office of the Director (OD)

This is an extremely difficult time in aging research, among the most challenging since I came to the NIA in 1993. Last week, we announced a funding line policy with the lowest payline in our history. NIA is spending just as much money on research grants as last year, and funding just as many grants, but a great increase in the number of applications has resulted in a lower payline. The energy of our robust and growing field is meeting the reality of budgets that have failed to keep pace, in real terms, over time. Yet, our mission on Alzheimer’s disease is receiving increased public attention and garnered additional financial support, and, even with the struggle in our general payline, we are grateful for more flexibility there. When I joined the Institute two decades ago, we were a smaller organization and smaller research community. But times have changed. We know more now, and there are many new avenues of exploration to be pursued.

The good news first

Our mission on Alzheimer’s disease is receiving increased public attention, and in our fiscal 2015 appropriation garnered an extra $25 million in Alzheimer’s disease funding. We are grateful for the opportunity to expand our work in this area. It accelerates efforts on behalf of people and their families affected by this disease through support of the Alzheimer’s research community. With this year’s funding, I expect to be able to expand the payline for research in that area, as well as contribute funds to specific priorities identified by the field.

Importantly, these new Alzheimer’s funds have been in addition to the more modest budget increases that NIA and other ICs received this year, and thus have not limited our ability to support other critical areas of aging research. NIA-funded researchers will continue to explore a huge variety of important questions related to aging, from the most basic research to the translational and the clinical.

Our challenge at the National Institute on Aging

On the grants management front, Robin Barr talked with you in this space last week about the dynamics behind the new fiscal year 2015 funding policy. We know that the policy leaves much meritorious research on the table and deeply affects BOTH established and new investigators. We needed to make some difficult choices in arriving at these paylines. And, there are more difficult choices ahead, even as we hope to release more funds later in this fiscal year for well-reviewed research in all areas and particularly for Alzheimer’s research. Many of you have contacted us asking if the NIA will consider restricting the total amount of funding that one researcher can receive, so more scientists can benefit. Others have asked us to limit large grants even more than we already do. Others suggest restricting funding for certain kinds of activity codes. (Read more about activity codes here.) Many options continue to be discussed. The dedicated staff at NIA, in consultation with our valued advisors and the broader research community, are considering many approaches to extend support for promising research.

The fiscal year at NIH and NIA

Like the rest of the federal government, our fiscal year runs from October through September. For example, fiscal year 2015 is October 2014 through September 2015.

It is critical that we do so. Our funded research has already benefited older Americans in many ways, and we must continue to support the basic, translational, and clinical research that has led to these successes. The prospects for important breakthroughs are evident. I have talked with many of you at meetings like the Geroscience Summit last fall and, just this month, our second major scientific Summit on Alzheimer’s disease, and I continue to be impressed with and energized by our conversations about the research community’s ongoing commitment to improve the lives and extend the healthspan of millions of older adults. Hundreds of people were here for Alzheimer’s Disease Research Summit 2015: Path to Treatment and Prevention, discussing a research agenda to address critical knowledge gaps and accelerate the discovery and delivery of effective treatments for Alzheimer's patients. We had an intense and productive meeting. A palpable feeling of progress was in the air, even as we know that much more needs to be done.

Other institutes at NIH operate with funding reserved—or even a separate payline—for a specific disease or condition, so we have opportunities to learn from their strategies for good management. For example, the annual budget law reserves some NIAID funding for HIV/AIDS research. And at NIDDK, annual budget laws have long set-aside money for the Special Statutory Funding Program for Type 1 Diabetes Research. With recent increases in funding reserved for Alzheimer’s disease, we are also becoming an institute where there are differences in the funding available for different research areas.

What will fiscal year 2016 bring?

The President recently proposed the budget that he would like to see enacted for fiscal year 2016. NIH director Francis S. Collins gave a presentation about what this 2016 proposed budget means for NIH (PDF, 1.73MB).

The President’s budget request for NIA is approximately $1.267 billion, $69 million more than the level of spending in fiscal year 2015. Fifty million dollars of this additional funding is included for Alzheimer’s disease research. This proposed budget is, of course, a request. There are no guarantees that the 2016 level of funding will equal or approach this level. However, I am proud that the request reflects an increase that underscores the overall value of aging research.

NIA, like much of the rest of the NIH, is also involved in the President’s precision medicine initiative (now known as the All of Us Research Program).  This initiative launches a national research cohort of one million or more Americans to propel our understanding of health and disease and set the foundation for a new way of doing research through engaged participants and open, responsible data sharing.

I am gratified by the momentum in NIA-supported and conducted research. While the scientific and fiscal challenges are very real, it is still an exciting time to be in aging and Alzheimer’s research. I look forward to working with all of you, moving forward.

Comment below

I’ve heard from some of you regarding your thoughts about NIA funding policy, and I thank you for reaching out. We appreciate the opportunity for an ongoing dialogue. You are also welcome to ask questions or submit comments below.


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NIA fiscal year 2015 funding policy