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FY 2015 at NIA

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

Two recent blog posts illustrate the complex challenge to NIA in its current budget planning. On the one hand, we have launched a substantial “short-term, high-priority” R56 award program. It is a response to the intense competition for our limited pool of competing general research funds. On the other hand, we have announced the publication of 10 funding opportunity announcements with a primary focus on Alzheimer’s disease because it is possible that we will see a substantial increase in funds for Alzheimer’s in our appropriation in the near future.

Across NIH, as at NIA, increases in support for research funding have been limited to nonexistent in recent years. In Alzheimer’s, however, where NIA is designated as the lead institute for such research, we have already seen increases in funding that are well above the amounts provided in appropriations for other kinds of research at NIA or even at the other NIH institutes. It is a time of relative growth for some and of a familiarly intense competition for others.

Intense competition for funds

Overall, we made as many competing research grant awards in FY 2015 as we did in FY 2014 and that is even before counting the now substantial R56 program that we established. And yet, in 2015 we were not quite able to pay all the applications to the 9th percentile in our general pay line, while in 2014 we paid through the 11th percentile.

The drop in pay line was a direct result of the performance of NIA-assigned applications in peer review. We saw substantial growth in the proportion of applications assigned to us that obtained outstanding percentile scores and priority rankings in FY 2015. As an earlier blog indicated, we suspect that the change resulted from a number of “new” submissions doing well in peer review following the April, 2014 announced change in resubmission policy.

Opportunity in Alzheimer’s research

Though our general pay line did not reach double digits, our Alzheimer’s pay line reached the 18th percentile. Like all of you, I wish that our general pay line had also reached the 18th percentile, as we continue to see the numbers of strong applications that we have seen in recent years. We will continue to do the very best we can to maximize the resources we do have.

I am grateful, however, for the extraordinary opportunity to advance Alzheimer’s research. Concern for the disease has become elevated in the public eye. It is a devastating disease of aging affecting both patients and their families. Of course, there are other devastating and debilitating diseases of aging, the all-too-common aging challenge of managing multiple chronic conditions; and, understanding healthy aging remains a priority, too. But we have an opportunity now to make significant progress against the particular scourge of Alzheimer’s. I invite the full research community, from all our sciences, to ask “How are my tools, my background, my ideas, likely to make a difference in the effort to reduce the impact of this disease at this time?”

New and early-stage investigators

Amid uncertainty, NIA remains fully committed to reinvigorating the field of aging research through a strong new investigator program. As we did last year, we extended the advantage for Early-Stage Investigator applications in our pay line to 10 points at the end of the year and the new investigator advantage to 8 points. (For Alzheimer’s research, the advantage stayed at 6 and 4 points.) With that change, we expect to be able to meet the target of achieving equal success rates for new investigators compared to established investigator Type 1 applications, with a majority of the new investigator awards being from early-stage investigators.

FY 2016 and beyond

As of this writing, NIA and most of the government do not yet have a budget for FY 2016. We are operating on a continuing resolution—a temporary authorization. Proposals for increased funding of NIH have been discussed in Congress, though the outcome of these discussions is uncertain; and it may be that we will see a continuing emphasis on Alzheimer’s disease in this year’s budget and perhaps future year budgets as well. I welcome your comments on the state of the budget for NIA and your opinion on its impact on research in our fields.