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New pay line for Alzheimer's awards

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

We will be posting a new pay line for Alzheimer’s research, and I want to alert you to two important facts around it. First, the new pay lines are nine percentage points higher than our general RPG pay line and show advantages in other lines too, such as career awards and small business research. Second, we are now coding applications as Alzheimer’s when the NIH Research, Condition, and Disease Categorization (RCDC) coding system includes the proposed work in the Alzheimer’s category.

So how did we get here?

On the first point: Why is the line for Alzheimer’s research so much better than the general pay line? An Alzheimer’s pay line at the 17th percentile for regular (not large) research grants is one that ensures that only very strongly peer-reviewed research is supported. We all wish that our general pay line was there or even higher.

It turns out that two independent factors contribute to the discrepancy between the two pay lines. We have received significant additional appropriations targeted largely for Alzheimer’s disease research for two years in a row now. But also—as mentioned in an earlier blog—NIA received an extraordinary volume of extremely well-reviewed research applications in FY 2015 in all the areas of science that we support.

NIA appears to have had a larger jump in the numbers of applications obtaining outstanding scores this year than most other ICs. We will be paying approximately the same number of competing awards in the general line that we paid last year. But the line slips down from the 11th percentile to the 8th percentile because of the volume of outstanding applications we received. So, putting the additional crop of outstanding applications together with the additional crop of dollars directed towards Alzheimer’s research results in that nine-point discrepancy.

On the second point: We now use the RCDC code indicating that there is a research focus on Alzheimer’s to tag an application as relevant to Alzheimer’s disease. Our decision to go that way is motivated by the fact that the RCDC coding is public information and is derived from an algorithm. When we make an award, anyone can see whether the research relates to Alzheimer’s by looking at the public RePORTER site. Investigators can know that their research has initially been coded as Alzheimer’s-relevant through looking at the Commons site. (Some minor changes in coding are made around the time of award and data are not available to the public until the end of the calendar year in which the award is made.)

It still gives us a few knotty issues with some kinds of research. One problem is the large (and expensive) study that has a piece focused on Alzheimer’s disease (and so picks up the RCDC Alzheimer’s tag) but the majority of the work is not on Alzheimer’s. In the coding system there’s no such thing as “a little bit Alzheimer’s!”

Another is that some topics (e.g., successful cognitive aging) are accepted by the broad community as of immediate interest to Alzheimer’s disease research but do not pick up the Alzheimer’s tag in the RCDC system because the topic is described as cognitive aging rather than as Alzheimer’s disease. Of course, the point of the research is to explain why some people preserve cognition in late life and avoid Alzheimer’s! We are continuing to work on solutions to these and similar coding problems.

The ups and downs of research funding at NIA have never been quite so stark. We remain firmly committed to all the research fields of aging and will continue to use our resources to provide opportunity in all these fields. With that said, the grass really is greener on one side this time.