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Short-term awards – a strategy for these times?

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NIA Blog Team

Some years ago, an admissions officer at a highly competitive East Coast university declared to visiting parents and children trawling through a college tour that this institution could bypass its whole incoming class and replace them with the wait-listed applicants and no one (with the possible exception of their parents!) would know the difference. The thought of the possible outcome did not deter applicants. The following year competition was as fierce as ever.

Looking at our funding lines in recent years has reminded me of that admissions officer. Admissions Committees at top universities and peer reviewers on our study sections apply strict criteria to evaluate all applicants/applications fairly. Many discriminations are relatively easy. But the set of deserving candidates/ applications thus generated is larger by far than the number of places open at the prestigious university or the funds available from our awards pool. Of course, eliminating half the deserving applications is not a satisfactory solution.

Trying a new approach

We’re trying something different this year in the face of the intense competition for funding—we are aggressively using the NIH R56 activity code for the first time. NIH created this mechanism about 10 years ago, when funding lines were beginning their initial nose dive. This award program provides one or two years of support to allow investigators to collect more data, develop more publications, or conduct any other activity that allows them to respond to comments made in the review. We are using a model that provides one year of support at the full requested first-year cost of the application. Instead of setting an R56 funding line and paying applications in order of how they performed in review, we asked program staff to choose applications that we could not otherwise fund, based on the degree to which the proposal’s merit (and so the score given to a subsequent submission) might be improved by a single year of funding.

Possible way to boost productivity, leverage resources

Our thought is that these awards will not only generate improved applications, they will also lead to productive research advances. We expect that most investigators will return with improved applications, but that a few will not. Those who do return will distribute their subsequent applications across two or more budget years. In contrast, if we had not paid them, everyone would have likely resubmitted their applications at about the same time in the future, with little or no opportunity to gather more data or generate more publications, and in an even more intense competition for funds than today.

Now, it is true that we were not able to issue any more awards in FY 2015 via this R56 program than if we had given everyone the multiple future years of committed support that an R01 usually allows. However, the program does release substantial additional competing funds in FY 2016, because we did not encumber our out-year budgets with commitments, and we may use a portion of these funds to pay future R01s.

Stay tuned

Will it work? Will we support more research advances? Will we take some pressure off our funding line? Will only one year of funding prove sufficient to accomplish anything much? I have been tasked with evaluating what benefits this strategy does bring us. (Still working on how best to do that!) So, watch this space. Sooner or later, I will find a way to crunch these numbers and share what we have learned. Do you think these short-term awards are a good idea? How would you evaluate them?