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NIA funding policy and pay line update

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

Back when the millennium was still new, NIH held high to the lofty principle that a commitment was a commitment. We paid our non-competing awards at their full level. Then came the dark days of sub-inflationary budgets, and even, in the grim year of 2013, a budget reduced from the prior year’s amount.

Lofty principle gave way to cold realism. We at NIA and at NIH started taxing those previously protected commitments. Our grantees suffered cuts to their awards each year. NIA made these cuts even after imposing an average administrative reduction of 18 percent at the outset of the award. The measures were taken in order to allow funding at an acceptable, although severely constrained, pay line for new awards during those years. Sharing the pain among everyone, including currently active awards was the only strategy that made sense in the circumstances. So, we made active grantees endure these cuts.

FY 2016 funding policy now online

As the funding policy statement makes clear, the fiscal year 2016 budget is a historic first for NIA. Yes, we received a very substantial increase for research related to Alzheimer’s disease—$350 million. But, in addition to that, we received a 4.2-percent increase in our general budget. That amount is above the rate of inflation for the first time since 2003, at the end of the era of doubling the budget.

The competition for new and renewing awards remains fierce. Yet, at the same time, active grantees have made clear that the cuts have been hurting their ability to accomplish the aims of the research they are pursuing. This time, then, we at NIA (and across NIH) have decided that honoring our commitment—paying non-competing awards at their full level—is the most appropriate funding strategy this year. With that strategy, given the 4.2-percent increase, we are confident that we can support a similar number of new and competing awards to those made last year to sustain all fields of aging research.

The table on the funding policy page contains a sharp contrast. Our initial allocation allows us to pay most research grants through the 7th percentile. The equivalent allocation for applications focused on Alzheimer’s disease is the 18th percentile. This disparity reveals what we conveyed in earlier blog posts. Now is the time to make major progress on the critical priority of Alzheimer’s disease, and this differential funding line should provide a strong stimulus to that research .

This is only the beginning

These are INITIAL allocations. We cannot post a final pay line at the moment because the May 2016 round of applications remain to be reviewed. Last year, we had also established a 7th percentile line early in 2015. Then, the May round yielded an unexpectedly large number of applications scoring within the 7th percentile. I can testify to my sense of looking in every pocket and under the last desk to find money to make that pay line. In the end, we went beyond the 7th percentile. We anticipate going beyond the 7th percentile this year, too. Our remaining caution comes from that May 2015 surprise.

Oh, and one more thing: The Alzheimer’s pay line is also likely to go beyond the 18th percentile, perhaps considerably beyond it.

No, we are not happy with what will, in all likelihood, be a single digit funding line in the general allocation for the second year in a row. We have begun experimenting with an expanded R56 (short-term, high-priority) award program to find out if it does advance research successfully. We are likely to continue that experiment this year.

I welcome your thoughts on the extraordinary ups, and remaining challenges, of our budget this year.